Questionnaire: Joan Jonas

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


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

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.

Issue 171

First published in Issue 171

May 2015

Most Read

Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017