They Come to Us Without a Word

Dark room with two video installations, two paintings of bees on the wall, and cone like shapes in front of one of the videos.

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 Exhibitions - la Biennale di Venezia; commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo by Moira Ricci.

United States Pavilion, Venice, Italy
Featured Artists
Joan Jonas
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For the five galleries of the U.S. Pavilion, Joan Jonas conceived a new complex of works, creating a multilayered ambiance, incorporating video, drawings, objects, and sound.

Literature has always been an inspiration and source for Jonas, and the project for Venice extends her investigation into the work of Halldór Laxness and his writing on the spiritual aspects of nature, as well as other literary sources.

In each of the four rooms of the Pavilion there are two video projections—one presenting the main motif of the room and the other the ghost narrative, a continuous thread running through the exhibition spaces. Free-standing rippled mirrors, conceived by Jonas and handcrafted in Murano specifically for this project, are placed in each room alongside Jonas’s highly distinctive drawings and kites, as well as a selection of objects that were used as props in her videos. This arrangement creates the sense of a stage set. Similar mirrors cover the panels of the Pavilion’s rotunda, where old Venetian crystal beads hang on a chandelier-like structure suspended from the middle of the ceiling. The ambience reflects the viewer and the exterior of the Giardini intersected by video images. An outdoor piece in the courtyard, consisting of tree trunks from the nearby Certosa Island held tightly together by copper wire, echoes the themes of the exhibition.

Jonas developed the videos in New York in winter 2015, during a series of workshops with children ranging in age from five to 16 performing against video backdrops of landscapes shot by Jonas mostly in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Brooklyn, New York. Sources also include several early videos by Jonas. They Come to Us without a Word is animated by a soundtrack designed by Jonas, using excerpts of music by Jason Moran and songs by the Norwegian Sami singer Ánde Somby. The customized lighting is conceived by designer Jan Kroeze.

Joan Jonas (b. 1936, New York, NY, USA) is a pioneer of video and performance art, and an acclaimed multimedia artist whose work typically encompasses video, performance, installation, sound, text, and drawing. Trained in art history and sculpture, Jonas was a central figure in the performance art movement of the late 1960s, and her experiments and productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s continue to be crucial to the development of many contemporary art genres, from performance and video to conceptual art and theater. Since 1968, her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures.

Joan Jonas is a New York native and she continues to live and work in New York City. She received a B.A. in Art History from Mount Holyoke College in 1958, studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. Jonas has taught at MIT since 1998, and is currently Professor Emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology within the School of Architecture and Planning.

Light Time Tales, a major exhibition of Joan Jonas’s work, was on view at the HangarBicocca in Milan, Italy from October 1, 2014 – February 1, 2015. Safety Curtain by Joan Jonas is at the Vienna State Opera this opera season.

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Jonas’s most recent solo exhibitions include those at Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu Project Gallery, Japan (2014); Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholm (2013); Proyecto Paralelo, Mexico (2013); Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (2013); Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2011); and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010). She has been represented in dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, six times since 1972, and has had major retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart, Germany; and the Queens Museum of Art, New York.