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Issue 171

Questionnaire: Joan Jonas

Q. What do you like the look of? A. The everyday world: grand and microscopic.

BY Joan Jonas in Interviews , Questionnaires | 10 MAY 15

Microscopic view of a snowflake. Courtesy: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture

What images keep you company in the space where you work?

A few masks from my mask collection – one favourite: a large orange papier mâché dog or fox head from a market in Mexico City – and many rocks and stones.
I’ve always collected objects and images, so there are too many to mention but, as you step out of the elevator into my home, you see:
a Native American basket filled with black stones;
a small wooden bird, maybe a sandpiper, with a black spot on its head, mounted on a piece of wood by an unknown artist from Cape Breton, Canada;
a painting on glass of a green parrot with yellow fruit in an old wooden frame that I found on a trip to Damascus in the 1960s; a small figure made of tin standing with a piece of wood held between its bent knees, which is
 a portrait of me by June Leaf, made in the 1980s; a heavy fossil-like stone high up on the left; a small yellow lion cut-out by Howard Finster; a figure by Henk Visch; and a horse’s head from an early-20th-century carousel. I also yearn for a completely bare space. I would photograph everything and store all the objects in boxes, but some things I would miss and I feel they should be seen.

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

The first films I remember seeing are Disney’s Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). I was very affected by them at the age of six. But those experiences remain with my childhood. What continue to haunt me are memories of the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – in particular the models of markets and other depictions of daily life in ancient Egypt that were preserved in tombs.

If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?

A stone from Cape Breton.

What is your favourite title of an artwork?

In general, I like the titles of Agnes Martin’s paintings because they are poetic and suggestive and they add another level of understanding to her abstract works. For example: With My Back to the World (1997).
Such titles draw you in.

What do you wish you knew?

I wish I could speak another language: I’ve always wanted to experience the world of a different language. Or, if I had studied physics, I might have a small insight into the nature of things.

What should change?

In my lifetime, there have been significant changes in civil rights and in women’s rights. But it is rather shocking to see how much has not changed and how much work must still be done.

What should stay the same?

I can’t imagine anything staying the same. Matter is not stable.

What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?

I would like to work with animals and to learn how they communicate: for instance, fish, birds and elephants. I have a dog, so that gives me some idea.

What music are you listening to?

I am in the process of editing my new work, so I am listening to the music of people I work with. The jazz musician Jason Moran, whom I’ve worked with for about ten years, and the Norwegian Sami singer Ánde Somby.

What are you reading?

The essay ‘Why Look at Animals’ by John Berger, published in About Looking (1980).
 Almost all the translated writings of Elena Ferrante.

Joan Jonas’s work encompasses video, performance, installation, sound, text and drawing. Based in New York, USA, she has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA, since 1998 and is currently Professor Emerita in Art, Culture and Technology. Her recent solo shows include a retrospective at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, Italy (2014); Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu Project Gallery, Japan (2014); Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholm, Norway (2013); Proyecto Paralelo, Mexico (2013) and the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, USA (2013).
This year, she is representing the USA at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy.