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Art Review

MIT offers succinct, fascinating overview of Jonas video art

Joan Jonas’s “Volcano Saga” stars a young Tilda Swinton.
Joan Jonas’s “Volcano Saga” stars a young Tilda Swinton.Electronic Arts Intermix

Joan Jonas, the 78-year-old performance and video artist who has been selected to represent the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a kind of outsider artist, in the sense that she is essentially self-taught.

Footage from “Lines in the Sand.”
Footage from “Lines in the Sand.”Electronic Arts Intermix

It’s true, she studied art history at Mount Holyoke College, and yes, she later attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But at the time, you can be assured, neither institution was offering primers on the whys and wherefores of performance art, or pithy introductions to the convoluted, cannibalistic history of video art.

That’s because Jonas, along with a tiny handful of her contemporaries, had yet to invent these genres. “There was nothing to be trained in, because there was no tradition of video or performance,” explained Jonas in a recent interview with the poet Susan Howe and the critic Jeanne Heuving. “It was totally new territory.”

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With the opening of the Venice Biennale just weeks away, MIT’s List Visual Arts Center — which proposed Jonas for the US Pavilion in Venice and is coordinating her show there — has mounted a small selection of Jonas videos in its Bakalar Gallery.

Organized by the List’s Henriette Huldisch, it features three small screens, each showing a single work, and a large screen showing a program of four films arranged sequentially — the first made in 1973, the last in 1989, with a total running time of 120 minutes.

One of the small screens also shows footage of a 48-minute performance combining video, dance, and music, called “Lines in the Sand,” from 2002-05.

All in all, although it feels less ambitious than it might have been (the List’s full attention, presumably, is on the daunting logistics of the Venice presentation), there is more than enough to take in. And thanks to the range of work on offer, the selection adds up to a fascinating overview of Jonas’s achievement, which is as rich and complex as it is disarming and improvised.

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It has also been hugely influential. Jonas’s wide-ranging interests — in masks and mirrors, in repetition and ritual, in dance and drawing, and in a vast range of literary sources — have left a watermark on the culture discernible in the work of contemporary artists as diverse as Ryan Trecartin,
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Matthew Barney, and Gillian Wearing.

Like Wearing, who has said that as a young woman she was so shy she couldn’t speak, Jonas has admitted to extreme timorousness in her youth. Performance, paradoxically, offered an unexpected way around social inhibition. Getting up in front of an audience to execute intentional acts was preferable, she has said, to the social risks and uncertainties of attending her own exhibition openings.

Masks, inevitably, were a great aid in these circumstances: They gave Jonas a feeling of potential that may otherwise have eluded her. But they also dovetailed with other fascinations, including mirrors, and various props and objects.

We see these fascinations taking shape in early works here, above all “Good Night Good Morning” and “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy.” In the latter, the first in a series of early performances that Jonas videotaped, she assumed the character of an alter ego, “Organic Honey.”

Footage from “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy.”
Footage from “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy.”Electronic Arts Intermix

Donning a pretty, mannequin-like mask and a feather headdress, she stares into the camera and into a jagged-edged, hand-held mirror; she drops coins into a glass jar filled with water; and she roughly traces around the outlines of a succession of objects.

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She smashes the mirror with a hammer, and then beguiles us further with a sequence of images involving triangular shards of glass, drawings of the sun or moon, a laughing mask, and a shifting kaleidoscope of images involving faces, mirrors, light, and masks.

The close-up focus on the face (or mask) seen from different angles and with contrasting light crudely evokes Sven Nykvist’s cinematography in Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” But the rawness — the “primitiveness,” if you like — is crucial to Jonas’s effect, which was always allusive, transparent, improvised, and has remained so.

What’s remarkable is how persistent the elements in this lo-tech early piece have proved in Jonas’s subsequent work. In “Good Night Good Morning” (1976), Jonas created a kind of cumulative self-portrait by videotaping herself saying into the camera “good night” (before going to bed) and “good morning” (upon rising).

The piece’s ritualistic rigor, and its connection with varieties of minimalism and conceptualism, are undercut by the chancy, character-filled nature of these self-taped greetings, which can be deadpan or melancholy one minute and hesitant, guileless, or even flirty the next. (Did Cindy Sherman see them before embarking on her own remarkable self-portraits, a sustained act of self-invention as a form of self-mourning?)

In the early ’70s, Jonas was moving in a circle of downtown dancers and artists, including Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Lucinda Childs, all influenced by John Cage’s ideas on chance and the everyday. (Cage was in turn influenced, of course, by Marcel Duchamp, whose alter ego Rrose Selavy was a precursor, of sorts, to Jonas’s Organic Honey.)

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In 1973, Jonas collaborated with a cast that included Matta-Clark on a brilliant 18-minute film called “Songdelay.” This is the first of the four more ambitious films showing on the big screen.

Footage from “Songdelay.”
Footage from “Songdelay.”Electronic Arts Intermix

Filmed in a vast empty lot in New York, it shows various actors moving about with hoops or sticks, singing, talking, and clapping wooden blocks. It’s helpful to think of the work as a kind of sculpture or three-dimensional drawing unfolding in time, with movement and sound added in.

Lines are “drawn” by the sticks, which are held at either end by people moving in contrary directions, or pushed down pant legs so that they move with the figure. Similarly, hoops roll across the visual field, and as they do so are jumped through by deft performers.

The derelict industrial landscape, the tension between quiet foregrounds and distant noise, the sudden appearance of the triangular bow of a freighter in a harbor channel, the interest in other large, geometrical shapes, and the use (again) of mirrors all combine to powerful effect. Various of these elements also link Jonas’s work with the experimental art of her contemporaries, such as Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Brown, and Matta-Clark.

Footage from “Mirage.”
Footage from “Mirage.”Electronic Arts Intermix

The next work, “Mirage” (1976), sees Jonas executing a series of simple, geometrical drawings in chalk on a blackboard. Sometimes she adds words. Sometimes she rubs them out.

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There’s something mesmerizing about the repetitions alone — about the specific act of each drawing, subtly different each time — and about the cumulative effect of the repetitions, which return the mind to first principles: What is writing? What is drawing? What is an image? Why repeat acts? And so on.

If the show has a weak link, it’s the next film, “Double Lunar Dogs,” a 24-minute indulgence commissioned by WGBH and the Institute of Contemporary Art. The film sees Jonas expanding into vibrant color, makeup, visual collage, voice-overs, science fiction, and bad ’70s guitar solos.

A total jumble, impossible to parse, it’s unintentionally reminiscent of the whiplash, antic energy of recent films by Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, but without their scathing satire.

Still, it’s an instructive fiasco, in that it shows Jonas embracing the new technical possibilities of a medium she had pioneered in its more primitive form. Jonas has admitted she took the work “too far.”

But the experience may have clarified much about what can and can’t be hitched on to basic structures without overwhelming them. This was useful, because Jonas has always been admirable — and quite un-minimalist — in her willingness to throw more ingredients into the pot just to see what happens.

If the approach doesn’t come off in “Double Lunar Dogs,” she makes it work in “Volcano Saga” (1989) and in her mature performances, including “Lines in the Sand.”

“Volcano Saga,” a half-hour film starring a young (and absolutely riveting) Tilda Swinton, uses the Icelandic Laxdaela saga as its source. After a curious preamble set in Iceland in the present, it takes us back in time to a dialogue between the saga’s protagonist Gudrun (Swinton) and a dream interpreter, played by Ron Vawter.

There is much beautiful and dreamlike imagery, some smart but unfussy editing, and a gorgeous use of color throughout.

The final work here, “Lines in the Sand,” is video footage of a live performance made in response to two poems by the 20th-century poet known as H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). It sees Jonas combining all of her favorite elements: video footage, dance, song, drawing, voice-overs, storytelling, and ritualistic repetition. It has its longueurs, but taken as a whole, it’s a quietly remarkable piece.

Jonas has described her interests as cumulative, and her art as akin to cooking. The comparison feels right. It’s a wonderfully hearty and strange-tasting stew that’s been simmering away all these years.

Bring on Venice!


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.