Tag Archives: Joan Jonas

We Come from the Sea

This essay, which starts from a quote by Joan Jonas, was commissioned by TBA21-Academy Journal:


Speaking at the first of the Structured Conversations (“Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea”), held at Cochin Club in Fort Kochi, Kerala during the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 13 December 2016, artist Joan Jonas mused:

We come from the sea. We don’t think about it very often but […] our semi-circular canals are similar, our eyes are similar, we have backbones. And the fish grew little legs and came out of the sea and then developed into what we are today. There are different theories about how that happened. My idea is that we have a memory of that. Somewhere in our unconscious we remember that we come from the sea. It’s not a memory; it’s a feeling; it’s in our DNA. I think that’s where all these stories come from and our desire to go back to the sea, our desire to swim under water, which I love to do… I did love to do.

This dense cluster of ideas, from which the present essay stems, would be developed and illustrated by Jonas the following evening, in what the artist insisted on calling a “demonstration talk” (to distinguish it from a fully worked-out performance) staged in the public Vasco da Gama Plaza. Modestly titled “Oceans – sketches and notes”, the talk with its performative elements was an experiment that – by her own admission – marked a new departure for the artist, even though some of the accompanying images and music, notably by Jonas’s habitual collaborator Jason Moran, had appeared in previous works, above all her project for the US Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, They Come to Us Without a Word (2015). Taking over the pavilion, the installation prominently featured bees as well as various aquatic species and yet, as Jonas explained during the Structured Conversation, by “they” she meant specifically the fish.

Jonas’s remarks spoke to me for a number of reasons. An avid swimmer, like Jonas, I always felt that nothing quite compared to the sensation of well-being verging at times on euphoria that full immersion procures – and nowhere more so than in the sea. But in May 2015, what had hitherto been by and large a leisurely pursuit took on a more adventurous turn. Just as Jonas’s installation in the US Pavilion was being unveiled, I was asked to write about swimming in the sulphurous waters of the Santorini caldera at the outcome of a week-long residency hosted by the Santozeum Museum in Thera. Volcanic swimming, as I soon discovered, can be quite addictive. In the last two years, I have swam inside crater lakes and sea-flooded calderas from São Miguel in the Azores to Hachijo-jima in the Izu Islands of Japan; around volcanic plugs and islets in Iceland and California, off of Stromboli and Nisyros; in the acidic pale green waters of Ijen volcano, a working sulphur mine in East Java. I knew I was hooked but could not easily explain to myself why I took to this somewhat eccentric pursuit with all the eagerness of a budding collector.

Some of the swimming, writing and thinking on the subject of swimming as an aesthetic and quasi meditative activity, which for me felt as natural as walking and breathing, have taken place in the context of self-assigned “immersive residencies” in Li Galli, on the Amalfi Coast, once thought to be the dwelling place of the mythical sirens (of the half-bird, half-human variety) and hence known by the alternative name of Le Sirenuse; at Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN / LIBRARY OF WATER in Stykkishólmur, a small harbour town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland; and, most recently, in preparation for the “Growing Gills” project involving a research residency on the Aeolian Island of Stromboli facilitated by the Fiorucci Art Trust. The working title for this collaborative venture that brings together four female artists, all of us keen swimmers, seemed fitting for a project setting out to stage long-distance group swims in an extreme natural environment. Yet it took on a whole new meaning once I started unravelling Jonas’s poetic statement in an attempt to grasp what it implied.

In the summer of 2015, the Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius invited me to São Miguel in the Azores to help her elaborate the concept for an exhibition that was to take the form of a map of the island.[1] One afternoon we drove out together to Lagoa do Fogo (“Lagoon of Fire”), a crater lake within the Agua de Pau Massif stratovolcano, situated right in the centre of the island of São Miguel, whose shape on a map recalls that of a whale. It might have been the centre of the Earth. As we went down into the caldera, along a path cutting across a thick growth of endemic plant species that looked positively antediluvian to me, the lake’s distinctive crescent shape with its twin udder-like strips of land jutting out into the middle of the waters gradually disappeared from view. The water I swallowed while swimming from a sandy beach to the other, more barren side of the lake, peopled by a colony of seagulls and terns, tasted sweeter than anything I had ever swam in before. Nothing could induce me to go out. From then on, Marta took to calling me “Agnieszka the Fish”.

What on one level is but an idle metaphor, a manner of speaking, when looked at from the vantage of phylogenetic classification is simply stating a fact. To quote British paleontologist Jennifer A. Clack, whose expertise lies in the field of evolutionary biology,

although humans do not usually think of themselves as fishes, they nonetheless share several fundamental characters that unite them inextricably with their relatives among the fishes. If one of the aims of classifying animals is to reflect their relationships and phylogeny, then inevitably humans and other tetrapods fall within the same grouping as other members showing these characters and sharing the same common ancestor.[2]

Simply put, phylogenetics investigates how closely different species are related in evolutionary and historical terms to work out their “phylogeny”; in the case of molecular phylogenetics, this is done by comparing DNA sequences in the genomes of organisms, which contain information about the historical evolution of the organisms in question. Humans as well as all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians living today are descended from four-limbed vertebrates known as tetrapods (literally meaning “four-footed”). The tetrapods themselves evolved from archaic Sarcopterygii or lobe-finned fishes about 370 million years ago in the late Devonian period – an interval of the Earth’s history appropriately, for our purposes, dubbed the “Age of Fishes”. As Clack points out, in phylogenetic classification tetrapods are Sarcopterygians (fish with lungs and bony-limbed fins) while humans in particular are Ostreichthyans (more commonly referred to as “bony fish”).

Since we are not only descended from fish but – one could argue – fish full stop, it stands to reason that there should be many similarities between them and us. In the excerpt from the first Structured Conversation quoted at the start of this essay, Jonas briefly evoked the semi-circular canal (in other words the hearing apparatus), the paired eyes and backbone or spinal column we have in common with all vertebrates, not just fish. To these, in the lecture demonstration proper, she added the fact that our embryos have the same shape, just as our skin, hair and teeth are fashioned from the materials fish are made of. According to fish paleontologist Neil Shubin, whose popular BBC documentary series Your Inner Fish: An Evolution Story Jonas invoked in the discussion at the Cochin Club, a “shared anatomy” binds us to fish. If our skeletal architecture and other anatomical features are remarkably alike this is because, as Darwin argued, at some stage in the distant past we shared a common ancestor that displayed these characteristics too.[3]

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin noted the close resemblance of the species at the embryonic stage, which he took to prove his theory of “descent with modification”. After stating his belief that animals have descended from “at most only four or five progenitors”, and in the case of plants possibly even fewer, he posited that “probably all the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed”.[4] The concept of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), from which all organisms currently living on earth are descended, is in keeping with Darwin’s hypothesis. By comparing the DNA letter sequences from a vast pool of genes stored in DNA databanks a team of evolutionary biologists has narrowed down 355 genes that would appear to have originated in the LUCA: a single-cell microbe that lived some 3.9 billion years ago (bearing in mind that the earth began to form 4.6 billion years ago). That’s not to say, however, that life started with the LUCA; it is simply our earliest known common ancestor.

There is evidence to support the claim that the LUCA lived in a hydrothermal deep-sea vent setting, as in submarine volcanoes where erupting magma mixes with sea water, but from there to suggest that life as we know it originated in a marine environment is quite a leap. (Some scientists working in this field think warm pools on land were a more likely scenario, arguing that the energy provided by the sun’s ultra-violet light was key to life’s origin.)[5] Yet the tantalizing suggestion that the LUCA may have dwelt at the bottom of the ocean in a geochemically active environment rich in gases, if anything bears out Jonas’s assertion that “we come from the sea”. For me personally, the deep-sea  vent hypothesis goes some way to account for the elemental appeal of volcanic swimming.

The LUCA pre-dates tetrapods – the first truly terrestrial creatures that emerged from water onto land, which they began to colonize in the late Devonian – by about 3.5 billion years. But the freshwater versus marine origin is also a moot point when it comes to our more recent ancestors. New fossil evidence has challenged the widely-accepted view that the earliest tetrapods as well as the lobe-finned fish from which they descended inhabited rivers and swamps. It is now believed that the earliest known tetrapods dwelt in the diverse ecosystems of intertidal zones, marine lagoons and the like, subject to retreating tides that left behind a network of inland tidal pools, more or less removed from the sea.[6] This scenario can  accommodate Alfred S. Romer’s influential theory, outlined in his pioneering study Vertebrate Paleontology (1933), according to which those fishes that evolved limb-like appendages were at an advantage when it came to reaching the nearest body of water over dry land, in the event of being stranded. On this view, our fishy forebears developed limbs not in an effort to gain ground but rather to regain water.

The many theories explaining why and how the tetrapods left water and evolved limbs fitted with digits that Jonas evokes but does not dwell on are necessarily provisional and speculative. What is certain is that the major evolutionary shift from a body equipped with fins and gills for underwater respiration and swimming to one with limbs and lungs allowing the animal to breathe air and walk was not so much a leap as a gradual process of adjustment. “The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish-Tetrapod Transition”, led by John A. Long and Malcolm S. Gordon, concludes that the complete transition was staggered over some 25 million years and involved various intermediary groups of animals – from sarcopterygian fishes to prototetrapods, aquatic tetrapods, true tetrapods and terrestrial tetrapods – who went from swimming to swimming, paddling and walking, and then to paddling and walking.[7] (The sturdy limbs ending with digits will have been an asset for underwater paddling as much as for venturing out onto land.) These changes in the modes of locomotion went hand in hand with the reduction of the reliance on gill breathing, progressively replaced by lung and subcutaneous respiration, and eventually discarded altogether.

Neither was the transition irreversible. Rather than a move in one direction – from water onto land – driving forward the historical evolution of the group of animals from which the air breathing and walking land mammals that we are arose about 100,000 years ago, a back and forth between land and sea ensued. There have been plenty of instances across the ages of tetrapods reverting to semi- or fully-aquatic lives. Those still around today include cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sirenians (manatees, dugongs) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses). Independently of each other and at different moments, all developed bodies fit for survival in water. Take whales, for example, whose closest common ancestor is the hippopotamus; they evolved from walking land mammals and have remnants of hind limbs to prove it. The same is true of sirenians (though their closest relations are elephants and hyraxes), who are fully aquatic creatures that live on land’s edge in marine estuaries, coastal wetlands and rivers. Otherwise known as sea cows (possibly because they are herbivorous), manatees as well as other equally fleshy species of sirenians were still designated as “mermaids” by sailors well into the nineteenth century, and may lie behind the widespread belief in fish women.

Written in 1964, Italo Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle” – one of several literary references in Jonas’s lecture-demonstration – beautifully illustrates in condensed narrative form many of the ideas explored throughout this essay. The tale belongs to a collection of twelve short stories called Le cosmicomiche (“Cosmicomics”), each focusing on a significant event, a milestone in the history of the universe. Presented as the recollections of “old Qfwfq”, the narrator and protagonist of the story, “The Aquatic Uncle” is a family saga doubling as a love story, set at the end of the “water period” against the backdrop of earth settlement by prehistoric creatures at different stages of transition from aquatic life to inhabiting dry land. But it is above all a tale of paradoxical return to the sea, flying in the face of the seemingly inexorable march of evolution. On the face of it, the narrator’s betrothed Lll, whose very name has sci-fi overtones, is an unlikely candidate for such a conversion. She and her kin having skipped the swimming phase that Qfwfq and his own less evolved relatives still had to go through, Lll is a land creature through and through, darting forward, leaping about, even standing on her hind paws in one climactic moment – a sort of Future Eve that the infatuated narrator is awed by: “in her I saw the perfect, definitive form, born from the conquest of the land that had emerged; she was the sum of the new boundless possibilities that had opened.”

Enter Uncle N’ba N’ga. The narrator’s venerable relative, who inhabits the muddy shallows of a lagoon that were the breeding grounds of Qfwfq’s fish ancestors, is impervious to all entreaties of his concerned family when they try to get him to come ashore and live like the rest of civilized folk. One day the narrator reluctantly introduces his fiancée to him, dreading her reaction. Nothing could be more at odds with the pioneering spirit Lll embodies than his unashamedly fishy uncle, flapping his gills like a true monster, making rude comments, and propounding unfashionable views about the superiority of water respiration over air breathing. And yet, far from scathing, Lll appears won over by his reasoning. On a repeat visit, she queries: “Don’t you think, Uncle, that if we wanted to learn to breathe under water, it would be too late?” The obliging uncle gives her a demonstration followed by swimming lessons, and soon ousts his nephew from Lll’s affections. As she revels in how finely her paws work as fins, her spurned lover wryly comments about this being a “big step forward”, before assuring her: “Nobody can turn back!” But Lll begs to differ. She has made up her mind to marry the uncle and become a fish again. The future, for her, is aquatic.


[1]“UM, DOIS E MUITOS – UMA ILHA EM EXPOSIÇÃO”, Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada (31 August-26 November 2016).

[2]Jennifer Alice Clack, Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp. 17-18.
[3]Episode 1, broadcast on BBC Four on 9 June 2015.
[4]Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1859), pp. 483-44.
[5]See Nicholas Wade’s article “Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things”, published in The New York Times on 25 July 2016.
[6]Clack, Gaining Ground, pp. 129-132 and Steven A. Balbus, “Dynamical, biological and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii”, in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 2014 470, p. 2.
[7]Physiological and Biochemical Zoology (Sept-Oct 2004), 77: 5, pp. 700-19.

Joan Jonas: Light Time Tales

This review of Joan Jonas’ Light Time Tales at HangarBicocca in Milan appeared in Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

Visiting Joan Jonas’s ‘anthological exhibition’ (as opposed to plain ‘retrospective’) ‘Light Time Tales’ at HangarBicocca is like a stroll through a memory palace. The industrial space is indeed palatial: vast enough to hold Anselm Kiefer’s permanent installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004) with its unwieldy modular towers made of reinforced concrete, rising to a height of 18 meters. And the twenty works that make up the exhibition, mostly single-channel videos and installations built around moving image projections, starting with some of the earliest black-and-white 16mm films Jonas made – Wind (1968) and Paul Revere (1971) – and spanning the length of her career, must have felt like a trip down the memory lane to the artist.

Jonas said words to that effect in the Q & A that followed the press preview, at which a couple of visitors could be seen walking their dogs (on a leash), appropriately enough given how prominently animals, and especially those of the canine variety, feature in the show. Beautiful Dog (2014), Jonas’s most recent work to have been included in this filmic anthology or archive, one of the first that greets the visitor upon entering the main open space of the exhibition, shows her dog Ozu – named after and in tribute to the Japanese filmmaker – running around a beach on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada, where Jonas has been going on summer holidays since the 1970s and where many of her films have been shot. The video was made using three different cameras, including a GoPro fastened to Ozu’s collar, in an attempt to show the world from a dog’s perspective.

Andrea Lissoni, who curated the show, encouraged Jonas to privilege the animal theme that threads through ‘Light Time Tales’. ‘In all fairytales, there’s an animal that’s helping,’ Jonas noted in the Q & A. Another one of her dogs, the white husky Zina, keeps the lone female figure company in the video Melancholia (2005), which is part of The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2004/2007) installation. The two seem to hover, their image superimposed using the chroma key technique over that of a snowy field. Zina also appears besides her elfin mistress, sometimes masked and bearing flags, mirrors and other signature props, in a magical wooded landscape filmed on Cape Breton in Waltz (2003), placed at the start of a show that deliberately eschews a chronological and linear presentation.

Instead, the artist and the curator chose to convey through the very layout of the exhibition the recurrent motifs and the cyclical nature of Jonas’s preoccupations. The rotatory parcours that the overall display and the individual installations invite is perhaps most apparent at the outset, as one crosses the curtained threshold and walks into the spectacularly dark L-shaped space to find video works presented on different supports all around the room, as if expanding a circle of elongated cones fashioned out of photographic paper, which were used as musical instruments and to amplify sound in performances such as Mirage (1976), standing in the middle of the room. Double Lunar Rabbits (2010) with its twin concave projection screens made of Japanese paper and wood likewise foregrounds the doubling effects prevalent in Jonas’s work.

‘Someone said that […] these are games of survival, time-fillers, and that development is cyclic, circular, and that you always return to the beginning,’ the artist muses, in voice over, at the end of the 1976 video I Want to Live in the Country (and Other Romances). Circular forms and movements obsessively return in ‘Light Time Tales’, painted with a broom over a street pavement or in the guise of the kimono-clad artist doing a cartwheel, played in slow-motion, in Songdelay (1973); as a metal band or hula hoop propped up against one of the projection screens or as rotating wind turbine blades in The Shape…; taking the form of a double-circle or Celtic knot pattern drawn in white chalk over a black surface in the installation Lines in the Sand (2002).

For Jonas, the circle and the line are the basic elements of drawing, which underpins her work as a multimedia artist in the same way as sculpture does. (Jonas trained in drawing and sculpture, before making her breakthrough as a performance artist.) Though she is always looking for new ways of drawing, from the delicate Zen-like lines in the sand in the work bearing that title to the black ink traces drawn on the snow in Reanimation (2010/2012/2013), one type of drawing to which she frequently reverts is made with white chalk over a blackboard – a potent image of the memory theatre lodged in our head. The elementary support and means are coupled with more complex technology in densely layered performances like Reanimation, which will be restaged at HangarBicocca on 21 October. The blue-tinged Street Scene With Chalk (1976/2008/2010) overlays a scene from Jonas’s Reading Dante performance of 1976 with a close-up of the artist’s ringed hand continually drawing, erasing and redrawing lines or circular patterns; screened simultaneously, the two form a palimpsest of sorts.

As one drifts through the cavernous space, meandering one’s way from one constellation of moving images and objects to another, what impresses is the sheer variety of presentation, the stark contrasts between the simple monitors and screens used to project the early black-and-white videos, which repay every minute one gives them, and the more elaborate, more colourful multimedia installations furnished with sundry props, sculptural objects and remnants of past performances that occasionally crop up in the video works shown alongside them. One unusual, particularly alluring viewing format is illustrated by the two pieces in the My New Theatre series on view. Reminiscent of dioramas, the compact installation consists of a monitor embedded inside a long conical structure resting on wooden trestles, in front of which a small bench has been placed, making for a miniature portable theatre.

Showing the works in a completely open space – leaving aside Reanimation, which has a room to itself at the close of the exhibition – posed an exciting challenge for Jonas, who is used to exhibiting in neatly partitioned white-cube spaces. Simply moving from one work to another, seeing them from afar, brought to the fore certain thematic and formal crossovers that had not been very obvious to her before. But the discrete moving image works dotted around the black box of HangarBicocca’s main exhibition hall overlapped in a physical sense as well, when a projection or the sounds from a neighbouring piece entered their space, for example. The haunting melody of Waltz, on which Jonas collaborated with the late Robert Ashley, could be heard from one end of the room to the other, returning with the insistence of a half-forgotten, half-remembered air, circular and vertigo-inducing like the dance itself.

Performa Through the Senses

A review of Performa13:

It’s not every day you get to see a saxophone being deep-fried on the High Line. The deed was done when I got there, but the smell of it lingered in the air. (A deep-fried saxophone smells much like anything deep-fried, only more so.) A friend gave me a blow-by-blow account of Jamal Cyrus’s Texas Fried Tenor, borne out by photographic evidence showing the crowd’s reaction to this jaw-dropping event brought to us by Performa, jointly with NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem (as part of the controversial Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art exhibition).

After this, Patterson’s simple interactive piece felt a tad underwhelming. With a playful literal-mindedness typical of Fluxus, the movement he was associated with from its inception until the mid-1960s, the artist offered to buy old thoughts written out on a piece of paper – a penny a throw – and trade these for ‘new’ ones, in the shape of a crown fashioned out of shredded newspapers. More engaging, though making greater demands on the participants, was the revival of Patterson’s Pond, a Fluxus-style game that called on volunteers from the audience to set off wound-up mechanical frogs on a grid drawn on the floor of the Grey Art Gallery. Depending on where their frogs alighted, the participants had to carry on repeating short statements of their own choosing – such as ‘Will we kiss?’, ‘Indeed’, or ‘I can’t’ – in the questioning, affirmative or exclamatory mode, until the game reached an end point. The resulting ‘chorus’ sounded remarkably like croaking frogs.

Voice being one of the research themes privileged in this edition of Performa, choruses featured prominently in the work of several biennial artists, Alexandre Singh’s The Humans and Rosa Barba’s Subconscious Society – Live among them. One straightforwardly a play, modelled on Aristophanes and Greek theatre (with some Shakespeare, Molière and Milton thrown in), the other a piece of ‘performed cinema’ attempting to do something new within the confines of a traditional movie theatre, these works shared some thematic overlaps, warranting the presence of the chorus.  

The chorus in Singh’s alternative creation myth consisted in the eponymous ‘humans’ fashioned by an all-mighty and humourless demiurge, named Charles Ray after the Los Angeles-based sculptor, whose lifelike human effigies recall Greek and Roman statuary. The pallid human beings move and sound like automata to begin with, mindlessly uttering statements whose rhythm and intonation, if not the actual wording, conjure up the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass. Then comes the fall, prompted by Pantalingua, the daughter of a Dionysian, rabbit-resembling creature, who embodies unbridled sensuality (and spends her time purposefully defecating in an outhouse), and her helpmate Tophole, Charles Ray’s son, cajoled into thwarting his Apollonian father’s designs.

The original sin according to Singh involved defecating. One by one, the chorus members emerged from the outhouse, the rabbit-creature’s domain, donning grotesque commedia masks specially-designed by Singh – who simultaneously wrote, directed and conceived the sculptural sets for the play – to convey their corrupted and fallible nature. We got to see one of the humans shit on stage, though it came out as a piece of cloth, unlike in Romeo Castellucci’s more realistic scatological tale On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (2008), which mounted an assault on the audience’s sense of smell.

Whereas The Humans took us back to the dawn of time, Subconscious Society – Live spanned the last moments of the industrial age. The 2013 film, commissioned by Cornerhouse in Manchester and Turner Contemporary in Margate, had been shown earlier this year at both institutions, as had some of the sculptures displayed at the Anthology Film Archives alongside multiple screens and projectors. But this was the first time that Subconscious Society was performed ‘live’, that’s to say to a live score by Jan St. Werner (one half of the German electronic music duo Mouse on Mars), based on field recordings by Barba, and accompanied by voiceover actors forming a chorus of sorts. Its members would stand up in turn to read out their texts amid the seated audience in the movie theatre.

Considerably less polished than Singh’s theatrical production, in a good way, Barba’s at times confusing multimedia display, which placed sounds and images into dialogue, had obvious affinities with Joan Jonas’s Reanimation. The latter started life as a 20-minute visual representation of a text – the 1968 novel Under the Glacier by the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness – presented as a performance at MIT in 2010, and then as an installation comprising video elements, sundry objects and props at dOCUMENTA (13). For Performa, Jonas wove performance and installation together into a complex, layered whole. Not unlike Barba’s piece, Jonas’s work in its Performa incarnation was a conversation with jazz musician Jason Moran: Jonas would herself respond to the improvised music and sounds that Moran created on the synthesizer in response to the piece. The two have worked collaboratively for 8 years, since The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2005-2006) performed at Dia: Beacon.

Recorded during a stay in Norway’s Lofoten Islands that lie within the Arctic Circle, images of snowy landscapes and drifting ice projected onto a large screen (flanked by an easel and a workbench fitted with a camera that fed additional, live images onto the main screen) had an otherworldly quality akin to Barba’s colour-steeped bird’s-eye views of Kent estuaries filmed during a residency in Margate. Sporting an elfish white outfit, Jonas moved back and forth between the easel, the main screen and the workbench, shaking bells and maracas, drawing animal effigies on sheets of paper held up against her body, pushing marbles around a black-board in a sequence of simple actions and mysterious rituals that conferred a tactile dimension on the performance.           

Jonas has likened combining the different elements that make up her performances to cooking a meal. Food preparation/consumption as a species of performance art has some important precedents in, say, Linda Montano’s Identical Lunch (1969-1973), Gordon Matta-Clark’s restaurant Food (1971), or Rikrit Tiravanija’s ubiquitous Thai curry, a staple of relational aesthetics. Ben Kinmont’s An Exhibition in Your Mouth, presented at Performa11, took the form of an exquisite six-course dinner based on artist-signed recipes by, among other, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Matta-Clark and Dali. Sampling the different dishes on the menu, which came with a detailed mode d’emploi, turned out to be a multi-sensory aesthetic experience.

Commissioned for this edition of Performa, Subodh Gupta’s Celebration, a series of six-course communal meals inspired by Indian feasts, was nothing like as (conceptually) elaborate but it had simplicity going for it. Upon arrival, the dinner guests had their wrists sprinkled with rose water and rubbed with sandalwood paste, before being ushered into the dining area bedecked for the occasion with one of Gupta’s sculptural installations made up of steel tiffin boxes, thali pans, milk pails, and a string of light-bulbs, cascading down from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The meal consisted of simple Indian fare, from lentil soup to prawn curry and banana yogurt with saffron, served on wooden tables strewn with rose petals. Prepared by the artist himself with the help of some volunteers, at the Old Bowery Station (currently home to a Lebanese restaurant), catering for up to 70 people on eight consecutive evenings, it certainly was a cooking marathon, or a ‘durational performance’, as RoseLee Goldberg put it (but wouldn’t that make performance artists of all chefs?).

Perhaps the most sensual and testing of all the Performa offerings that I got to see – or experience through the senses rather – this time, came in the shape of Rashid Johnson’s restaging of the 1964 play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)at the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village. An allegory of American race relations from the author of the Black Dada manifesto, the play about a white woman (Lula) who sets out to seduce a black man (Clay) on a subway train was first performed at the height of the civil rights unrests and recently revived at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, where Johnson saw it in 2007.

For their collaborative work Seven,made in the context of the last Performa biennial, Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler had transformed Nicole Klagsburn Project Space into a chakra sauna, where the audience would sit and watch the seven performers as they took turns sweating it out in a glass cubicle. In Johnson’s Dutchman, they got to do some of the sweating and experience a degree of physical discomfort themselves. Wearing revealing black robes and sandals, the spectators followed the two actors from a hot, steamy room to a cooler passageway to the sultry, oppressively hot ‘Russian room’ fit to be the scene of a crime. The palpable variations in temperature between the three acts conveyed the rising sexual tension and violence of the play more keenly than the acting. On its merits alone, without the trappings of the baths, Johnson’s Dutchman may have been just an average theatrical production, an orthodox one at that, illustrating the surprising drift towards mainstream theatre in what is, after all, a performance-art biennial.