Mirror, Mask, Monitor, Myth
Since the advent of 1970s feminism, the work of American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1884-1961) has undergone substantial revaluation. Although she garnered acclaim as a member of Ezra Pound’s Imagiste circle, H.D.’s writings-many published posthumously-are now viewed as a blueprint for a feminist movement cum cultural critique. If feminism as a mode of redress is aimed at conditions in which women are the subjects and not producers of culture, then H.D. was ahead of her time in two crucial respects. First, her writings foreshadow a feminist project of reclamation and revision as she chose to express her feelings and sense of self as a woman through rather than against a host of classical Greek female personages, key among them Helen of Troy. Second, in 1933, she underwent a brief but intense stint of psychoanalysis conducted by none other than Freud himself. As would be the case for later feminist theorists inspired by Freud’s investigation into the matrix of subjectivity, H.D.’s encounter with psychoanalysis was empowering, affirming the exploration of “other,” split, or multiple selves as a task of women’s writing. If H.D. is a proto-Seventies feminist then feminism is not an ideological declaration of self as much as it is an ontologically ever-present form of inquiry into the self, which in H.D.’s case is self-articulated through myth and paradoxically one that recognizes the self as myth.
It took performance and video artist Joan Jonas considerably longer to reach this conclusion, not for lack of speed but because she took a different direction. Jonas arrived at myth in a process quite the reverse of H.D., making the conceptual trajectory they share a circle with both of them eventually arriving at the same point. Developing work in the late 1960s, Jonas was heir to minimalism’s prohibition against subjectivity. Banished from painting and sculpture, it is hardly surprising that figurative concerns should emerge in interdisciplinary practices such as those of Jonas. In many respects, the death of metaphor-something for which minimalism proudly claimed credit-was in fact the birth of performance art as the body became a literal rather than metaphoric agent in the enactment of meaning. Jonas’ work, however, like that of her fellow post-minimalists (Smithson, Nauman, Graham, Acconci), was a strategic negotiation (not negation) of minimalism’s reductivist tenets. Having been trained as a sculptor and later attending workshops at the Judson Church, Jonas was as much a participant in the site/non-site dialogue surrounding sculpture as she was a pioneer the emerging field of performance art. The result was a series of performances in the early 1970s that began in New York City lofts and gymnasiums and over the years extended themselves outdoors to marginal urban areas or relatively rural settings (Jones Beach Piece, 1970; Nova Scotia Beach Dance, 1971; Delay, Delay, 1972; Crepesculo, 1974). Dissolving sculpture and performance in a rigor attributable to minimalism, Jonas forged a hybrid but singular vocabulary from two distinct and disparate disciplines at a moment when vigilance regarding medium specificity should have kept them separate. The integrity of Jonas’ vocabulary became all the more apparent when translated into video.
Minimalism demanded that the medium of expression be acknowledged to the extent that the medium became the message. Jonas developed her vocabulary by extending this logic sequentially. For performance art, the medium was the self. Captured on video, it became the mediated self. Whether the terms were reflection and reflexivity, as in the Mirror Pieces (1968 - 1971); an extension and/or multiplication of self, as in her masked fictive persona Organic Honey (Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, 1972; Vertical Roll, 1972); or the “desynchronization,” to use Douglas Crimp’s term, of subjectivity and consciousness, as in performances that incorporated closed-circuit and pre-taped video (Funnel, 1974; Twilight, 1975; Mirage, 1976), Jonas sought to produce an amplified state of self-consciousness, or self as other. For Jonas, however, “otherness” was not an essentialist attribute but the essential attribute of an irreducible feminine subject, in which case femininity could never be seen as a mere part of being or something after the fact of being. Her rigorous imposition of video’s conditions of alienation (mediation and deferral of presence) onto an irreducible subject produced what Simone De Beauvoir referred to as “true alterity,” an “otherness” or splitting where consciousness is separate from that of the performer yet “substantially identical” with that of the performer.
From the outset of her career, Jonas’ vocabulary has evolved cumulatively. It came to be situated somewhere between ritual and language as she repeatedly returned to the same simple motifs and props (mirrors, cones, hoops, video monitors, masks, chalk boards). Working with three elements-performance, video imagery and sound-Jonas consciously avoided a textual narrative component. (A vestigial reflex of minimalism, no doubt.) It was after being commissioned to develop a performance for children (Juniper Tree, 1976) that she took an active interest in narrative, beginning with fairytales, which complimented her investigation into the basis of subjectivity. Insofar as certain of the fairytale’s structural components are considered universal in nature, this also facilitated Jonas’ desire to work cross-culturally. Since 1976, Jonas has drawn from sources as diverse as The Brothers Grimm, medieval Irish poetry, and Icelandic dream sagas (Upside Down and Backwards, 1979; Double Lunar Dogs, 1981; Volcano Saga, 1985; Sweeney Astray, 1994). Whereas non-western cultural artifacts in the form of costumes, slide-based imagery and music resurfaced in Jonas’ work as signifiers of other places, other times, and other selves from Choreomania (1971) onwards, it was not until her engagement with myth that the terms for the restoration of subjectivity, namely that it be dissolved in universal archetypes, became urgently clear. Alongside ritual and magic, Jonas has always had an interest in myth. Starting from a point at which subjectivity had been rendered empty, the emergence of myth under narrative auspices was determined by her efforts at making explicit an alienated consciousness that could only speak of being as a hand-me-down, inherited through the ritual re-telling of narratives responsible for the parsing of human affairs, no matter how large or small. It is under these conditions that Jonas would conceive her most recently completed piece, Lines in the Sand, (2002) whose script comes from two works by H.D., Tribute to Freud (1944) and Helen in Egypt (1955), H.D.’s classic re-working of the story of Helen of Troy.
Narrated by Jonas, Lines in the Sand is a deeply subjective meditation no less about the fate of self than of civilization. By chronologically and geographically transposing the story of H.D. and her alter ego, Helen, on to present day Las Vegas, whose Luxor Hotel provides the perfect mise en scene, Jonas subtly and not so subtly transcribes a contemporary reality into myth. Jonas did not need to bring Helen of Troy into the Twentieth Century. It had already been done by H.D., whose epic poem sought to prevent Helen’s further vilification by the Greeks who blamed her for inciting a lust that led to war. H.D liberates Helen from her role as nationwrecker-a feminine archetype of the disaster wrought by desire-by allowing her to offer Achilles (or his ghost) her version of the events. She proclaims she was never in Troy, that whoever the veiled vamp appearing upon the ramparts may have been, it wasn’t her. For whatever consolation there may be in death, she regrets informing him “they fought for an illusion.”
Picking up where H.D. left off, Jonas’ suggestion that a now liberated Helen has turned up in Vegas is perfectly in keeping with myth’s ability to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. What is to stop us from believing Helen was not whisked away (or lured by some ad) to the Luxor Hotel only to turn up as a showgirl in full regalia on some chorus line? But despite its humorous aspect, the date of its production and its title make Lines in the Sand somewhat conspicuous with respect to any myth regarding war. Made in 2002, at a time when there was talk of a sequel to the first Gulf War, the title, Lines in the Sand, cannot help but refer to the declaration of war President Bush the elder issued to Saddam Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait. In 2002, a decade later (the same length as the siege of Troy), we would find ourselves in the exact same position courtesy of President Bush the younger. Jonas makes reference to this state of affairs toward the middle of the piece, where, having donned a mask a la Organic Honey, she speaks in a characteristically uninflected tone, describing the Trojan War as a trade war whose victors stood to control access to the Black Sea. Among the resources over which the Greeks and Trojans fought, Jonas’ lists oil, after which there is a pregnant pause before she states that the story goes on ad infinitum-“and so on… I mean on and on”-by which she no doubt means into the present day. It is never a question of when or where myth began, but when, if ever, it ended. Myth’s inscription into human memory is such that it is never forgotten, but repressed.
But above all else, Lines in the Sand is drop-dead poignant. The opening imagery of a woman’s elongated shadow is accompanied by a passage describing the desire to be liberated from the trappings of self. The words belong to anyone (Jonas, H.D, Helen) or everyone, craving emotional growth, a hunger that is inversely proportional to later scenes of Vegas’ endless rows of tract housing. As her shadow is cast upon a sandy beach, the woman occasionally draws lines in the sand. Far from a metaphor for an ultimatum, the performance of this gesture refers to a zen-like state of contemplation about the fleeting nature of self. Whatever factual certainty of events and personhood phenomenology and biology respectively giveth, the sea of mystery known as the unconscious washeth away.
The heightened state of self-consciousness that was the subject of Jonas’ earlier work has given way to a vocabulary now rich with self-references. The recurring footage of casino shots taken from mirrors recalls Jonas’ mirror pieces of thirty-five years ago. At one point, a young woman stands up to gale winds on an outcrop of rock in the Nevada desert. The sound has been removed and the scene lasts just long enough to be familiar to anyone who has seen Jonas’ 1968 film, Wind. Finally, Jonas’ veil dance, as it occurs on a construction site’s cement barricade, is reminiscent of her famous outdoor performances. Lines in the Sand, however, ends on a note of despair: “I saw the world through my double lens. It seemed that everything had broken but that.” This pronouncement, originally made by H.D., is reiterated by Jonas and still echoes at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century as it continues on a fraught note.
The Society’s presentation of Lines in the Sand will be accompanied by The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, a work in progress. Taking its title from a line by H.D., and set in the American Southwest, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things is the follow-up to Lines in the Sand, further exploring Jonas’ interest in working cross-culturally-this time taking an interest in art historian Aby Warburg’s 1895 trip to the Hopi reservation in Arizona as documented in his now famous account Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America.