Joan Jonas’ Reading Dante III at the Fabric Workshop and Museum includes a 45-minute video of people reading excerpts of the Divine Comedy and of the artist drawing circles within circles that suggest the poet’s descriptions of Hell and Purgatory. Despite these moments, though, Jonas’ installation isn’t completely literal—rather, it’s lyrical, and, in places, beautiful. And there’s a rare opportunity this Saturday to see Jonas perform in conjunction with the installation.
The acclaimed New York video and performance pioneer creates the feel of the underworld even without Dante’s words. The second-floor gallery is dark like a cave, with abstract drawings on the walls. Three video projections supply motion and a rumble and tinkle of sound, vitrines hold the artist’s chalk drawings, light sculptures provide dim illumination and benches accommodate the weary.
In the videos, humans recite, sing, play, draw with chalk, climb a wall, walk and drive in circles and parade theatrically behind a scrim as dark silhouettes. Filmed in Mexico, Canada, New York and Italy, the videos translate the eternal journey of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso into yet another language—pixels, cycling and recycling, without beginning or end.
Like Margaret Meade’s videos of New Guinea natives, these videos play like scientific records, or videos meant for a museum. Similarly, just as the Smithsonian displays a moon rock in a vitrine, this installation displays pieces from Jonas’ performances in a vitrine. Few will experience a trip to the moon first-hand, slightly more but still few have experienced Jonas’ performances. But we can imagine both while viewing these artifacts in this darkened, dreamy space.
It’s a struggle, perhaps an intentional one, to hear Dante’s words, read repeatedly in the 45-minute video; the voices echo, refusing to clarify or stick in the present. A four-page handout of the words featured from the Divine Comedy gives a sense of its aesthetic: “A gloomy wood…death might well be its confederate…the wasteland…terrible crescendo…where light was not…children crying in their sleep…unhappy flesh… as they lay dead…absolute rock bottom. ”
But there are no references to grotesques in the visuals, no ghouls, ghosts or shades, and most of the Catholic details are stripped away. Instead, what’s suggested is ordinary humans performing meaningless tasks for all eternity—a series of disparate and seemingly humdrum moments that add up to an existential nothingness. This is slow art, a depiction of a time out of time. Perhaps for us postmoderns, the void on earth is far more terrifying than Dante’s visions of fire and ice.
Influenced by surrealism and the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, Jonas is a great image-maker. Her videos might be long and repetitive (the 45-minute video could be edited down), but they are punctuated by lovely lyrical passages, including some that translate the film into a negative of itself. A scene of children setting up a dollhouse village, for example, is beautiful and poignant.
Jonas, born in 1936, studied sculpture and art history at Columbia University, but discovered a love of performing early on and switched to video and performance in the early ’70s—video was new at the time, she’s said, and gave women a better shot than male-dominated sculpture or painting at a voice in the art world. So mark Dec. 11 on your calendar—missing a chance to see this seminal artist in person would be like turning down a trip to the moon.
Through January. Live performance of “Reading Dante II,” Sat. Dec. 11, 7pm. Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St. fabricworkshop.org
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