Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word

United States of America - Biennale Arte 2015

For the 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, the MIT List Visual Arts Center commissioned Joan Jonas, a pioneering figure in video and performance art, to create a new multimedia installation that occupied the entirety of the U.S. Pavilion’s five galleries.

Themes of the Exhibition
They Come to Us without a Word, which  includes video, drawings, sculptural, and performative elements, evokes the fragility of nature in a rapidly changing situation. Each room of the pavilion represents a particular creature (bees, fish), object (mirror), force (wind), or place (the homeroom). Fragments of ghost stories sourced from the oral tradition of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, are part of a continuous narrative linking one room to the next. These spoken fragments function partly as a reference to what remains. Jonas states, “We are haunted, the rooms are haunted.” An outdoor piece, in the pavilion courtyard, consisting of dead tree trunks held together by wire, echoes the themes of the installation.

Four of the rooms feature two videos each, one representing the main motif of the room, and the other, the ghost narrative.

Jonas developed the videos in New York in 2015 with children, ranging in age from five to sixteen. The children performed in front of video backdrops that contained excerpts from Jonas’s earlier works as well as landscapes the artist shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Brooklyn, New York.

A selection of objects that were used as props in the videos are placed in each room alongside Jonas’s highly distinctive drawings.

The installation is animated by a soundtrack designed by Jonas, using excerpts of music by jazz pianist, composer Jason Moran and songs by the Norwegian Sami singer Ánde Somby. The customized lighting is conceived by designer Jan Kroeze.

Mirrors cover the paneled walls of the pavilion’s rotunda, where Jonas has suspended a crystal-beaded chandelier-like structure from the ceiling.

The rippled mirrors were conceived by Jonas and handcrafted� in Murano.

Joan Jonas received a Special Mention award from an international jury for the 56th Venice Biennale for her evocative video and sound installation.

Jonas's installations, video works, and performances bring these components together with drawings, props, objects, and language, reflecting her research into how the image is altered through the mediums of mirror, distance, video, and narrative.

They Come to Us without a Word II
Joan Jonas’s multimedia installation They Come to Us without a Word was recreated and presented as a series of performances in July 2015 at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice. This process of translation between media is an ongoing practice in Jonas's work. For the performances the artist re-edited video footage created specifically for the U.S. Pavilion. With They Come to Us without a Word II, Joan Jonas continues to investigate movement, space and time in relation to sound, and the projected image. In this work Jonas refers to aspects of disappearance in the natural world through shadows or ghosts, as humans continue to disregard the environment.

Conceived and directed by Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word II featured newly composed music by Jonas’s longtime collaborator, the American jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran.

“These natural phenomena that Joan Jonas conjures, as she performs with sound and drawing and movement and other stimuli, are present for themselves in their own right, and convey to the viewer what they are and what they do, the artist acting as a conductor or messenger of their being." (Marina Warner)

“Although the idea of my work involves the question of how the world is so rapidly and radically changing, I do not address the subject directly or didactically,” said Jonas. “Rather, the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting and the juxtaposition of images of children, animals, and landscape.”

Joan Jonas continues to investigate movement, space and time, in relation to sound and the projected image with her world premiere performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale.

For the performance Jonas re-edited video footage created specifically for the U.S. Pavilion. Some of the children featured in those initial videos also performed live in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale.

Pictured: Jason Moran and Joan Jonas. Photo: Moira Ricci

Joan Jonas and her dog Ozu. Photo by Moira Ricci.

Picture left to right: Co-curator Ute Meta Bauer, Joan Jonas, her dog Ozu, and Co-curator and Commissioner Paul C. Ha. Photo: Moira Ricci.

Credits: Story

Presented by the MIT List Visual Arts Center in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State
Commissioner and Co-Curator: Paul C. Ha, Director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center
Co-Curator: Ute Meta Bauer, Director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, Nanyang Technological University

Joan Jonas’s They Come to Us without a Word, the official U.S. presentation at the 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, is organized by the MIT List Visual Arts Center and is presented by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. The exhibition is produced with the collaboration of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York).The exhibition has been generously supported by U.S. Department of State, Cynthia and John Reed, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Additional major support was provided by the Council for the Arts at MIT, Toby Devan Lewis, VIA Art Fund, Agnes Gund, Lambent Foundation, and many other generous individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Performances of They Come to Us without a Word II were organized in conjunction with the United States Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, in collaboration with Teatro Fondamenta Nuove and the Università Iuav di Venezia (IUAV), with additional support by Fundación Botín, Santander, Galleria Alessandra Bonomo, Max Mara, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, The JL Foundation, The Arts Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, NYSCA New York State Council on the Arts, and an anonymous donor.

Credits: All media
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