Joan Jonas – telling your story everyday

Last night I went to see an amazing performance piece by an artist in her prime. She’s at the grand age of 81, reflecting back on a life well lived. Joan Jonas is at the Tate Modern, and if you haven’t seen her work I recommend you go quickly. I won’t forget my evening in a hurry.

Joan told a beautiful story in her revisiting of an early work, Mirage. Mirage is about the interaction of film projection, props, the monitor, and the actor, Joan herself. As you can imagine, as a film maker and film diarist I was intrigued by the potential as soon as I heard the subject matter. What was fascinating as she revisited it was the interaction that she had now in her eighties with her self from 1976, when the filmed pieces were made. Portions of the piece involved copying on a blackboard what the filmed self was doing. When I watch performance art I am always fascinated by the tension of what if – what if they get it wrong, is there a wrong to get, the illusory idea of a ‘perfect’ performance, the enjoyment of an imperfect one. In deliberately flawing her copy of the blackboard, the actor Joan played with the notion of our expectation, and there was relish in her interaction with her two dimensional self. That self had passed into history, and we were watching a reimagining of the Mirage piece after the slip stream of time.

Jonas performed a tour de force of physical fitness, an extended sequence of dancing and running in front of a projected landscape that was falling apart, trees that were slipping off the side of hills, lava erupting, buildings combusting. Before it always, against these black and white projections, was her figure with its shadow, dressed entirely in white, running, arms flailing, the rhythmic sound of feet echoing through the basement of the Tanks. Her back was to us, this bright reflective figure with cropped white hair. It could have been generic, a statement of human distress. Its power came from the statement that it also made about the resilience of the individual. While the landscape before her slipped away, there was no way in hell Joan was going to. But of course she will. Revisited now, the mortality of the piece is more poignant than it was performed in her forties.

Jonas lay, or rested, just out of sight, for the screening of Good Night, Good Morning. Filmed over a period of days, or months, she came to the camera first thing in the morning or last thing at night, and simply said ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good night’. She said them in different ways, she said them tinged with irony, she said them lying down, standing up, wrapped in her gown, the film overlaid, ghosting her. Each day she said it. There is a message here about consistency, there is a message about persistence. There is a message about the shifting, ever changing, inconstancy of the individual moments that constitute a consistent stance on life.

What was fascinating about the piece as a whole was the body of work that it represented. To view this piece now as part of a retrospective of Jonas’ life makes it into a new approach in itself. It is hard not to see how the momentary hello’s and goodbye’s of Good Night, Good Morning, taken in conjunction with the body of the piece, don’t add up to a more coherent whole. What interested me when I heard of the work was the relationship of the artist to her screen image. What ended up staying with me was a narrative about mortality and time.

It is important to tell our story to ourselves. We do it subconsciously at every minute of the day. Right now I am writing this on a tube across London. As I write I am telling myself a story about where I am going, what my journey entails. Much as we do this storytelling subconsciously, it is important however to take conscious time to register our story, the moments of our lives, with ourselves, even if the depth and nuance cannot be shared with another. As we do so, consciously, and in particular as we journal, we experience the tick tick tick of time. Every moment, every ‘good morning’, every ‘good night’ of a life is a precious reminder of time slipping away. When Jonas wrote on the blackboard, she left a conscious mark. When she rubbed it out to make room for the next one, she also left a mark, a residue.

The high point of the performance, the running before the screen, was like an accumulation of all those marks. It was the bit she referred to after the performance was over, taking the microphone. She said that when she told a friend she was revisiting Mirage, her friend said she hoped Jonas would be doing her favourite bit, the running part. Jonas had responded by joking that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to anymore. Her friend’s response – “Practice”.

Jonas’ exhibition was the culmination of a lifetime of practice, a lifetime of marks, a lifetime of checking in and rubbing out. When she stood in front of the collapsing landscape and ran, she left no permanent trace but something in the mind.

To do that is to rail, it is to express the individual. It is a drive we can all share. Making marks, telling stories, making art, making diaries, we are standing in front of a landscape that is falling away before us. It’s the memory of the figure, it’s the shadow that we make against the projection, it’s stories that live.

If you’re in London before the summer, go and see the Jonas exhibition. You won’t see what I saw, you’ll see her videos, the installations, you’ll get a sense of the woman. And for yourself, keep making your marks, keep telling your story, keep the faith that it all adds up to something. Because, in the end, that’s just what story does, moment by moment, life making. Thanks Joan.

Also published on Medium.

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