Joan Jonas is a multimedia, performance, installation, and video artist who believes that humanity’s fate is intertwined with that of the natural environment. Although educated as a sculptor, she studied dance for two years and was a pioneer of video and performance art, one of the first performance artists in America.
She received her B.A. in Art History from Mount Holyoke College and attended the Boston Museum School from 1958-61. From Columbia University she received her M.F.A. in 1965. She has been a guest lecturer and visiting artist at prestigious art schools and major universities in the country. She was a Professor of Visual Arts at M.I.T. and has exhibited and performed around the world.
Jonas engages and questions portrayals of female identity, using ritual-like gestures, masks, costumes, and mirrors. In the late 1960s and 1970s, her videos, performances, and installations broke new ground, exploring how movement could express identity particularly for women as a refutation of the male gaze. After a trip to Japan with artist Richard Serra and influenced by traditional Japanese theater of Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki, Jonas performed her various “Mirror Pieces,” 1968-1971. She used mirrors, carried by performers, as a symbol of self-portraiture and representation, that were used to reflect the bodies of the viewers.
“Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy,” from 1972 is her most famous piece. Jonas transforms herself through the use of a mask, feathered headdresses, and other costumes into her alter-ego, Organic Honey. Through mirrors, she created a body double, making a double reality for the audience. This allowed her to remove herself from the piece, while still showing a common face of a woman.
After visiting India, her performances since 1976 have expanded into stories of fairy tales and science fiction, incorporating music, dance, mirrors, and light to create a comprehensive universe of action in her signature non-linear method of presentation.
Her recent performance calls attention to the ocean. “Moving Off the Land, Ocean – Sketches and Notes” had its U.S. premiere in June at Danspace Project in New York after debuting at Tate Modern in London. The performance brings together video, poetry, movement, sound, and music as Jonas and others explore the sea. Drawings of sea life, ocean footage, and scenes from previous performances appear on a large screen as Jonas reads her own poetry and writings of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. There is a video of Jonas herself in the water where she positioned herself her collaborator in such a way that they became the screen for these projections.
While she is widely known in Europe, her performances are less well-known in the United States. In 2015, Jonas became the fifth woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale since 1990. Jonas has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, to name a few. In 2018, Jonas won the Inamori Foundation’s Kyoto Prize of $900,000 which also included a twenty-karat gold medal.