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Joan Jonas: The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things

October 13, 2007 - July 20, 2008

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Joan Jonas: The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2004–05; video installation; dimensions variable; joint purchase: University of Calfornia, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, bequest of Thérèse Bonney, Class of 1916, by exchange; and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego with funds from prior donations by the Estate of George E. and Lois P. Osborn.

One of the most ancient and revered of Hopi traditions is the snake dance, an intense and magical ritual performed at the close of a sixteen-day community celebration. During the rite, priests dance with snakes in their teeth, after which the snakes are released back into nature as messengers of Hopi harmony with the spiritual and natural worlds. In the 1960s, the young New York–based artist Joan Jonas was deeply influenced by the snake dance and other Hopi rituals she saw during a journey to Arizona. In her mesmerizing multimedia installation The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, Jonas revisits these deeply embedded memories of the American Southwest through yet another influence—an essay she had recently read by the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929), whose own nineteenth-century visit to the American Southwest shaped his influential view of Western art.

Warburg was a brilliant young art historian, trained in Renaissance art, when he made an extended journey to Arizona in 1895 and 1896. There he observed and photographed Hopi and Navaho culture. Long after returning to Europe, he was hospitalized for treatment of schizophrenia; one of the demonstrations of his regained health was a lecture he gave to his doctors on the Native American serpent ritual. Thirty years had passed since his experience in the Southwest. “Although he did see certain dances and rituals, Warburg never saw the Hopi snake dance, but I was struck by his descriptions of it and by the depth of his concern with the culture,” Jonas has said.

Having founded the Warburg Library, now at the University of London, Warburg went on to create his famous, but ultimately unfinished, image-based atlas, the Mnemosyne Atlas, named for the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses. “A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” his atlas consisted of a series of tableaux of photographic images, mounted on cloth-covered wood panels. During the last five years of his life, Warburg assembled more than sixty panels of images—reproductions of art and artifacts, found and collected images from newspapers and publications of his time, and his own photographs. Each board established affinities, connections, and relationships generated by the clusters of images and ideas. Warburg’s part–art historian/part-anthropologist approach finds affinity and lively reanimation in Jonas’s The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, the text of which is Warburg’s lecture to his doctors.

Joan Jonas is one of the seminal video and performance artists, having focused since the late 1960s on the performing body and its relationship with media and space. Her recent multimedia installations, like The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, are difficult to categorize: multiple video projections of performance, spoken word, sound, and image, accompanied by objects and props presented as simultaneous actions in a stage-like space. The tales she tells are hardly narratives in a traditional sense. Jonas’s story lines are both mysterious and magical, linked by a rich vocabulary of visual images and performed gestures, layered one upon another, interwoven into a poetic fabric of past and present, myth and history, reference and reflection.

“I think about poetry when I think about images,” Jonas has said about her nonlinear narratives. “It’s like a haiku, you put one thing next to another and it makes something else, a third thing. That’s what I mean when I say ‘poetry.’”

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things was first exhibited as an installation (with multiple video projections and various props) in 2004 at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris. Jonas continued to develop the work, adding live performances with music composed by jazz musician Jason Moran, commissioned by and performed at Dia: Beacon in 2005 and 2006. The work now incorporates video footage of the live performance at Beacon.

Woven through the installation are references to the Southwest, then and now—a Las Vegas–style now—and to Warburg’s journey and atlas, and his long hospitalization. In the performance component, Warburg’s character speaks of his imaginings in his definitive lecture on the serpent ritual. Like Warburg’s photographic panels, Jonas’s projections and props are tableaux, investigating expressive values, shaping her stories and magical tales through visual and aural, sensual and imaginative clusters of affinities.

Jonas has commented that she is interested in “how . . . stories are retold in modern or contemporary terms and how they can mean something to us. It’s something that I’ve dealt with a lot over the years: how stories come down to us in fragmented forms. For The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, I went to Arizona and I was thinking about memories of the American landscape, by which I mean memories from before the Europeans came here. The Southwest is a perfect example of different cultures layered on top of each other, and next to each other. I’m very interested in how stories are retold, of course. That’s what we do—we retell stories.”

Jonas, who returned to the Southwest in 2004, said, “In a sense, I am approaching an old experience, as Warburg did, decades later through new work.” The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things “also builds on Lines in the Sand, which I made in 2002 for Documenta 11. That piece crosscut Helen in Egypt, the Helen of Troy myth as viewed and reviewed by the Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), with the narrative of her analysis with Freud (Tribute to Freud) just before World War II, an experience that included writing sessions. There are many obvious parallels between the H.D. corpus and that of Warburg. The title of this new work, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, is quoted from H.D.’s text.”

If The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things is a return to past topics, images, and reflections for Jonas, it is also a return for BAM/PFA. In 1982 the museum (then the University Art Museum) organized Jonas’s first video and performance retrospective and published the first monograph on the artist. We have several of her early video works in our collection (including one, Upsidedown and Backwards, recorded at BAM in 1980), and some of these are included in the companion video series at PFA and discussed in Steve Seid’s essay on Jonas’s early period. However, until BAM/PFA acquired The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things in 2006 (in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego), the fuller range and scope of Jonas’s work was not well represented in our collection. In this work, her distinctively poetic and evocative images insinuate themselves into our visual vocabulary and experience. It’s not a narrative line itself that lingers, but a sense of having experienced a journey, in and out of places of thought and sensation and locations of memory. Then we are released back into the natural world.

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections