Friday, 13 February 2009

Rachel Lois Clapham meets a performance pioneer

Dear Joan,

Seeing you on-screen is like seeing a long lost friend or an online lover in the flesh for the first time. I get a rush of familiarity mixed with fascination. After all this time spent apart, seeing each other at a distance, I am invited into your work, into your home. This is a chance to really get to know you. The chance for the interior of this ‘initiatrice de l’art performatif’- once essentialised as the porous female body, with womb, mouth and other dark holes- to be accessed, entered into on your own terms. It is a chance for us to come closer together, to confirm feelings, correct any previous misunderstandings. Seeing you aged I am reminded of how time is on the march. How time is at stake for all of us. What does the future hold? What is the future history for you and your work? How will you be perceived 30 years from now, and by whom? How will I look back on you then?

American performance artist Joan Jonas stares directly into the camera. She talks carefully and slowly about herself, her influences and her work, both in the 1970’s and now. Jonas has the confidence of a woman at the very top of her game. And rightly so; the subject of major museum retrospectives and comprehensive catalogues, with a studio in New York, one in Canada, and a professorship at the prestigious Rijks academy in Amsterdam, Jonas no longer has to look for work, she can take her pick.

Jonas is just one of the eight seminal female performance artists from the 1960’s and 70’s included in the Performance Saga interview series. Artists include Valie Export, Esther Ferrer, Monika Gunther, Alison Knowles, Ulrike Rosenbach, Martha Rosler, and Carolee Schneeman. These infamous women, now aged between 63 and 74 years old, may seem an obvious choice for an interview series: well documented, established, now in vogue and in the public eye. But these interviews are not simply a tribute. They are a serious examination of the impact these female icons have had on performance; a study of these ‘founding mothers’ of performance in the light of the 21st Century. The series de-bunks some of the myths of the 1960’s and 70’s performance scene by bringing those very rarely witnessed performances to a contemporary audience through the mouths and eyes of the artists. In doing so, it rescues these artists from the rumours, private collections and art historical catalogues that have held them at a distance, and their work captive, for over thirty years.

In the interview, Jonas lays her practice bare: the way she uses performance as a language and a way of thinking. The way she uses the audience. How she engages with younger artists. How aging has forced her to adapt her performance work, and to invite others to perform it. The difficulty she has getting genuine critical feedback at this stage in her career. Significantly, Jonas also articulates a very contemporary view of performance. One that does not exist only in the live or the ‘maniacally charged present’ advocated by Peggy Phelan, but is heavily mediated, shown in commercial galleries, experienced in and as installation and documentation. Her interview shows how performance’s recent past is alive and well in the 21st Century. Overall, the Performance Saga series is an important tool in enabling us to cast doubt on the existing history of performance that has been handed down to us.

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