“The mother of all performance art”

Artist Joan Jonas ’58 has used a variety of literary sources in her work, including fairy tales, mythology, poetry and folk music.

By Sasha Nyary

Groundbreaking artist Joan Jonas ’58 has been called “the mother of all performance art” because of the ways she has blended video, sound, movement, performance, sculpture and drawing into her art for more than five decades.

Her work — “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror” — is on display at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum until June 16, 2019. While the museum has displayed video in the past, this is its first video-based exhibition. It’s also the first time it has displayed Jonas’ work, although the College awarded her an honorary degree in 2016. The artist will give a lecture this fall as the College’s 2018 Leading Woman in the Arts.

“We are absolutely thrilled and honored to present the work of Joan Jonas, who is such a pivotal and admired figure in the field of video and performance,” said Tricia Y. Paik, Florence Finch Abbott Director of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. “The opportunity to showcase an artist of her stature, who is also an alumna, is truly meaningful for our students and our community.”

The focused exhibition features four pieces by Jonas that span her career and include “Mirror Pieces Installation II,” which was acquired by the Art Museum in 2018 in honor of Wendy Watson. As a curator at the Art Museum for 41 years, Watson had long sought to mount a Jonas show. She retired in 2014.

The device of the mirror is a recurring theme in Jonas’ work, noted Hannah Blunt, associate curator at the Art Museum and the key organizer of the exhibition. Mirrors began surfacing in some of her earliest performances and she continues to use them today, she said.

“Throughout her career, Jonas has explored our relationship to images, narratives and performative spaces. She uses physical mirrors, as well as the metaphorical mirror of the camera, to remind us that images are not facts, but reflections of our individual imaginations and assumptions.”

Jonas’ artistry and influence have been long celebrated. Her many honors include, most recently, the 2018 Kyoto Prize, representing the United States at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and a retrospective at Tate Modern in London this spring that was featured in The New York Times. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2009. Jonas is professor emerita at MIT in the School of Architecture and Planning.

The first alumna to be named one of the Leading Women in the Arts, Jonas will return to campus this fall to participate in the short-term residency, organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership in collaboration with the InterArts Council. Jonas will deliver the Pruitt Lecture as part of her visit on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 5:30 p.m. in Gamble Auditorium. A reception will follow and the public is invited.

Known as a hero and mentor to younger artists, Jonas will also meet with students during this visit. She will return to campus in late January for a performance that will include student participation.

This exhibition is made possible by the Susan B. Weatherbie Exhibition Fund and the Leon Levy Foundation.

Images: Joan Jonas (American, b. 1936), Still from Mirror Improvisation, 2005, digital video projection (color, sound), 6:33 min., Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome

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