Joan Jonas Spotlighted at Kyoto Prize Symposium

Joan Jonas Spotlighted at Kyoto Prize Symposium

Joan Jonas is an artist. Though true, to say it that simply seems to be a disservice to her vast and unique contributions to an art form she’s explored and has shared with audiences since her first public performance in 1968 at St. Peter's Church in New York. And she's still evolving today.

Jonas, the 2018 Arts and Philosophy Kyoto Prize Laureate, established a new artistic form in the early 1970s by integrating performance art with the then-emerging medium of electronic video. Creating labyrinth-like works that lead audiences to diverse interpretations, she's handed down the legacy of 1960s avant-garde art by developing it into a postmodern framework and impacting artists of later generations.

For 50 years her pioneering work has graced this world, most recently at such events as the 2015 Venice Biennale, an exhibition at London's Tate Modern in 2018 and her work will be seen in 2019 and 2020 at upcoming venues such as Japan's ROHM Theatre and Kyoto City University of Arts Art Gallery @KUCA. Jonas has also served as a professor at State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart (1994-98) and then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1998-2015) where she's now professor emerita.

On March 21, Jonas was on the Shiley Theatre stage at the University of San Diego to give a lecture on her creative life, titled, "Joan Jonas: 1968 to the Present." Her appearance was part of the 18th annual Kyoto Prize Symposium, which took place this past week at multiple San Diego higher education institutions. Jonas is one of three 2018 Kyoto Prize winners, joining Dr. Karl Deisseroth (Advanced Technology) and Dr. Masaki Kashiwara (Basic Sciences), who gave talks on March 20 at San Diego State and UC San Diego, respectively. Later in the day on March 21, Jonas also participated in a workshop panel discussion at USD's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre.

Born in New York City in 1936, Jonas was exposed to museums and galleries quite often as a child and developed an interest in art. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Mount Holyoke College in 1958 and then studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1958-61. Throughout the 1960s, Jonas interacted with innovative artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Trisha Brown, John Cage and many others. She earned an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. While her first public performance was in 1968, it wasn't until 1970 that she bought her first video camera, called a Porta Pak, while on a trip to Japan and then, in 1972, she began using video in her performances.

One of her most famous works, "Organic Honey's Vertical Roll," debuted in 1972 and it consisted of repeating images of herself performing on camera. An interest in mirrors likely influenced the piece.

"The video monitor became an ongoing mirror reflecting the process of inventing an alter ego and character opposite from my own, like Organic Honey," she said in a statement from the Kyoto Prize Symposium program. 

From there, she moved outdoors and has many works that showcased this element. "Performances outdoors were made in relation to how outdoor space and distance alters the image and or one's perception of sound and image."

Many things have inspired her work, from travel, seeing new things and just exploring and being curious about life. She singled out three moments that "follow the trajectory of a life's process" of her work journey.

In 1976, she began to work specifically with narrative, beginning with fairy tales, and also in 1976, the show Stage Sets marked the first installation that was based on the idea of a stage set in performance as sculpture. It wasn't until 1994 that she became interested in translating her performances into installations.

Further into the 1990s, Jonas says, she developed sculptural video objects called My New Theatre(s). "Simultaneously, I developed large scale epic works that exist as performance and as installation. Since the later '90s, I've developed a form of video backdrop for performances that are edited works in themselves against which I perform."

— USD News Center Staff


A sample exhibition of Joan Jonas’ work is available for viewing in the Humanities Center’s art gallery space in Serra Hall 200, now through May 17, 2019.

Joan Jonas, the 2018 Kyoto Prize Laureate for Arts and Philosophy, gives a talk during the Kyoto Prize Symposium in Shiley Theatre on March 21.Joan Jonas, the 2018 Kyoto Prize Laureate for Arts and Philosophy, gives a talk during the Kyoto Prize Symposium in Shiley Theatre on March 21.

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