Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word, United States Pavilion, Venice Biennale

For the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Nigerian critic and art historian Okwui Enwezor, the overall curatorial tenet is “All the World’s Future.” Ideas around the uncertainty of the future dominate the Arsenale with foreboding portent. New York born artist Joan Jonas (b. 1936) was selected to fill the four rooms of the United States Pavilion in the Giardini. Jonas chose the title They Come to Us without a Word and her ideas originated from the writing of Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, specifically his work Under the Glacier (1968).

The display is a succession of smaller rooms, each with its own overarching theme or subject manner. The first room features bees, painted on pieces of paper in a style that recalls both children’s paintings and Rorschach tests which hang on the wall. In the rooms that follow, the subjects of the prints on the walls range from fish to starfish. In each room there are two films works, one of which narrates and relates to Nova Scotian ghost stories, whilst the other features a group of children who undertake a number of strange and unexplained tasks. Objects that are featured in the films are placed in small vitrines. This device is repeated throughout, where physical objects are positioned near their corresponding  film piece, serving as material reminders of the ephemeral.

A small mirrored rotunda with an ornate glass chandelier is the one room in the display that strays from the established format. It sits in the centre of the exhibition, acting as a sort of mirrored partition. The effect of the room is kaleidoscopic and disruptive, taking visitors from the reflective to the reflected.  Jonas explains: “I’ve always been using mirrors as a visual device to alter space, or to reflect the audience, yet it has a psychological dimension too. The mirrors provoke and awake different feelings in the person who’s being reflected.”

Children feature heavily in the film pieces. Whether they are stroking the image of a horse in a film projection, or futilely trying to plait each other’s hair, Jonas has directed them to perform a number of unusual actions. The pervading presence of children in the work connotes ideas of transience and temporality. The repeated motifs of endangered or threatened species like bees, fish and seahorses exist to remind the viewer of the unpredictability of existence. The continued thread of ghost stories that features in each of the rooms further heightens the sense of loss, whether the loss of a person, species or childhood, there is a morose sadness that runs throughout the exhibition.

The amalgamation of multi-screen film installations, sculpture, vitrines and Rorschach-esque prints is refreshing and experimental. In comparison to the other pavilions in the Giardini, the United States Pavilion feels more intimate and labrynthine. Jonas truly takes visitors on a journey from the start, beginning with the bees in the sky, to the fish in the ocean, to the endless abyss of the mirrored room and back to the sky with flying kites. Her interpretation of the theme is vivid. She successfully manages to avoid being trite or predictable and combines an approach that is as lucid as it is poetic.

Sam Johnson

Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word, until 22 November 2015. United States Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2015.

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1. Installation view of Joan Jonas’s ‘They Come to Us Without a Word (Bees)’, 2014-2015. The U.S. Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo by Moira Ricci.