“No art is beneath your power”: Joan Jonas Dancing on a Wall
by Frances Richard
In this scene from the video portion of the performance/installation Lines in the Sand (2002-04), Joan Jonas is in Las Vegas, in some scrap-metal lot on the city’s outskirts. A low cement-block wall borders the yard. She is standing on the wall: a lithe and small-boned woman in her sixties, wearing an apricot-colored dress of transparent gauze over a silky undershift, with trousers under that, and black sunglasses. Her head is wrapped in a blue scarf—we can’t see it in detail, because the scene is shot from the middle distance. In one hand she holds a sheaf of something grain-like; in the other a length of white veil-like material. She is dancing, waving her frond, manipulating her veil as it flies up in the wind, unfurls, collapses around her. Sometimes, conversely, her hands are empty, gesturing. The footage feels sped-up slightly, so that her movements are herky-jerky, puppet-like. But since nothing else in the frame moves, the artist’s spastic-yet-elastic gestures appear exclusively her own, as if she were possessed, like a bacchante—or as if the cinematic mechanism were operating from inside her body.

Two hands, two objects, two dresses, two sides of the wall. The frond is like grain; the cloth is like a veil. The dance is like a puppet’s or a ritually maddened girl’s. But, in Lines in the Sand as elsewhere in Jonas’s art, similitudes multiply and each arises out of and phases into every other; every detail is contingent, fluid. In this scene—presumably—the performer makes herself an avatar for Helen of Troy as described in H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961). Jonas takes this poem as a source-text for her project. Yet “source” implies too tight a filiation, for H.D.’s epic is itself an essay in repetition-with-a-difference. Paris and Achilles each see Helen on the walls at Troy, as H.D. tells us. “But she was never there.” Helen has been doubled, left as a phantom haunting the palace under siege, while her consciousness is “transposed or translated” to a liminal plane or vision-state called Egypt.

In Lines in the Sand, we watch elongated shadows, male and female, argue on a beach and later, black-and-white photographs from a 1910 tour of the Nile flicker before the lamp of a projector. (The young tourist photographed in broad-brimmed hat and flowing skirts will become Joan Jonas’s grandmother.) Live onstage, a young man (Sung Hwan Kim) lies down to die or dream in a shallow sandbox, and an older man in white pajamas (Henk Visch) reads passages of H.D.’s text. The soundtrack, composed in 2002 by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky and remixed live for the 2004 performance by Stephen Vitiello, segues from droning static to Yoruba drums to Satie to the Carter Family. And the video returns to Vegas; the camera cruises past the Luxor Hotel & Casino on the Strip to gaze at the black-glass pyramid and uneroded, simpering Sphinx. The herky-jerky dance comes around again onstage as Jonas and another woman (Ragani Haas) perform in tandem, the video washing over their live bodies in an edge-to-edge barrage of megawatt neon. Each is wearing a papier-mâché dog mask.

Jonas draws from a kaleidoscopic repository of narratives and actions, engaging not only a given plot or method but also her audience’s prior associations with it; as a master storyteller and mythographer, she sculpts what we already (think we) recognize—Helen of Troy, the white flag of surrender, the idea of the Middle East or “Egypt”—and beams it back to us disrupted and renewed. The palpitatingly physical, real-time manipulation of immaterial materials such as memory and association, not to mention sound and moving image, is Jonas’s métier.

“No art is beneath your power,” H.D.’s Achilles says to Helen in rage or fear or admiration. Lines in the Sand was produced in the grim and anxious period between 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq—another war, in another desert, fought (as H.D. says of the Trojan war) “for an illusion.” Jonas is dancing on the wall. Then from the right side of the frame, a huge red truck comes into view. A hoist-arm juts over the cab, making a horizontal V like a monster’s jaws. As the truck crosses the frame, it seems to swallow the woman signaling on the wall.

But she is unconcerned, twitching and bopping as if she could go on forever. She could go on, because she is a manifestation of film, of myth, of history, and as such is knowingly ridiculous, frail, exposed, menaced by the machines but also, as the artist, conducting them.
Joan Jonas, still from “Lines in the Sand,” 2002
Joan Jonas, still from “Lines in the Sand,” 2002