Joan Jonas at Tate Modern
Performance art is a genre of contemporary art practice that is much loved by institutions, but which is tricky to convey effectively in the context of an exhibition. Tate Modern’s new Joan Jonas retrospective sets out to explore some of these challenges, making a brave attempt to get to the heart of the problem.
The show opens with a display of props and objects from Jonas’s studio: stones she has found on the beach, folk art masks from her collection, carved animals. They are presented almost as relics in a shrine; the implication is that these objects were intrinsic parts of the artist’s various performances, but also that they are now somehow removed from the temporality of those performances, preserved by the institutional context. Despite being static, these items have a certain charm of their own, and hint at some of the key themes that run through Jonas’s oeuvre: folktales, animalism, masks and the natural elements.
There’s a lot going on in this exhibition. Jonas is an artist of multiplicity – of meaning, of media and of her own persona. Masks and mirrors abound, as she asks fundamental questions about the nature of performance and representation.
There are videos everywhere, effectively complemented by documentary photographs and installations that resulted from Jonas’s performances – the exhibition does a good job of making it clear that these are artworks in their own right, not simply the leftovers of a performative piece we will never see. Each video on show has its own soundtrack, and these are often competing with each other. The overlapping sound effects are confusing and, while this is clearly deliberate, it’s sometimes frustrating not to be able to hear what the characters are saying.
The display of works in the galleries takes a fairly traditional format, but the curators have made the admirable decision to extend the show beyond the boundaries of the exhibition space. A series of screened events in the Tate’s cinema is an integral part of the retrospective, as is a series of video works and live performances created in collaboration with the artist, which will take place in the Tanks during the BMW Tate Live Exhibition 2018 (16th-25th March).
But this strength also contributes to the show’s main flaw: within these sprawling ideas, spaces and soundscapes, the tightly turned arguments and narratives that could be drawn out from Jonas’s fascinating practice often get lost in the cacophony.
Featured image: Joan Jonas, Draw Without Looking, 2013
Joan Jonas is at Tate Modern from 14th March until 5th August 2018. For further information or to book visit the gallery’s website here.