Variations on a Scene, Vassiviére-en-Limousin, 1993


Where I come from Joan Jonas is a household word. On the streets children cry out "Here comes Joan Jonas" and I've even heard one say "Mommy I want to be a performance artist like Joan Jonas...what's a performance artist, Mommy?" When Joan recently drove up to the Los Angeles airport to pick me up, she was driving a big new rented car. I hardly recognized her without her hoops, measuring rods and megaphones. But the car had the Icelandic flag draped over its hood, so anyone would instantly know that it was Joan in the car (she once filmed a love-story in Iceland from a turned-over car). That day we drove all over LA until we passed John Cage's house. It wasn't far from where we had taken a wrong turn, like in that movie, and thought we'd never come out of it alive - there, there was a timeless happening going on in a cardboard-box-city - an unscheduled rehearsal for the earthquake. That night at a restaurant in Long Beach we managed to laugh about it and wondered if post-modernism would continue to be a threat to normal eaters. We talked about everything including a new piece we were about to collaborate on in France, we decided that if Joan remembered to bring the tapes all the music would emanate from the inside of a large oil drum, which would signify both the beginning and the end of life on this planet. Without compromising this plan, we also decided that I would play my soprano cornet in a rowboat while the chorus of angels and devils advanced slowly from over a hill playing large wooden blocks and a tall German woman violinist whirled a rock on a rope over her head like a Kosher butcher whirls a chicken. When the tango started, the whole audience moved to another hill to view the oil drum beside a stagnant pond. Joan appeared as a masked mythological figure and did a most compelling but weird dance next to a life-size cardboard cutout dog and a barbecue grill. You couldn't tell if she were summoning the good or the evil spirits or just doing a tarantella, even though I was making the music on some recently found objects. The whole thing was like a sounding earthwork - that's the way Joan wanted it - stuff happening just like that out of nowhere. Even the final music came out of a valley in the distance and rose over the slate freeway (drawn by Joan in modern runes) like some alien spacecraft off course. Not even Shelley or Beethoven had thought of any thing nearly as haunting and psychedelic as that, but that's the way Joan thought it should be; even though she harbored occasional doubts, we were absolutely convinced of the soundness of her choice. The dinner plates dotting the lawn, the freeway slates, the grass, trees and sky all became one and somehow the audience knew it was over. Later in Berlin we put a new ending on the whole thing because they had a piano and no trees, so somehow the finale gravitated toward a real duet between Joan and myself; she was playing on an amplified lump of modeling clay and I on the piano. You can imagine the emotion we generated being left alone to close the performance like this, especially in the former East Germany and following a faithful rendition of a Schumann Lied. These things simply don't happen every day, but they do when Joan wants them to. On the last of Joan's powerful thumps, the audience sat in uncertain silence, we were in tears. And Mommy, that's performance art, that's Joan Jonas.

Alvin Curran

In Joan Jonas:  Works 1968-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1994.



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