The most enduring works of performance art have centred on the darker aspects of humanity: an audience member putting a loaded gun into the hand of Marina Abramovic and trying to pull the trigger; Yoko Ono having people snip her clothes to ribbons; Sebastian Horsely crucifying himself.
Against this backdrop, Joan Jonas is a veritable ray of sunshine, playful and mischievous, her work filled with people smiling and dancing and walking through meadows (they are, at least, often naked, which is absolutely mandatory in performance art).
This sprawling exhibition of the New York-based artist’s work – it fills the second floor gallery of the Blavatnik Building, the Tanks, and spills onto the banks of the Thames for live performances – is a rag-tag collection of props and videos and made objects.
Animal masks from around the world line one room, while a Wicker Man-meets-Robert Rauschenberg installation based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale fills another. Most recognisable are the video pieces, many of which are built into tiny one-person cinemas dubbed “My New Theatres”. These wooden boxes invite you to peer into tiny worlds where people tap-dance and cheerfully bash chairs on the ground and wander about in the nude. There’s a real sense of intimacy, the proximity and repetitive sounds creating an ASMR effect decades before it became a thing on YouTube. The simple act of hitting rocks together to create rudimentary pictures, or the gentle crackle as Jonas draws a charcoal outline of her body onto a veil draped over her, become disproportionately captivating.
There’s a running fascination with the line between real and constructed, with the audience peering past carved props at video recordings of things captured in mirrors. Then there are her pieces based around Egypt, with images of the pyramids contrasted with the Egypt-themed Luxor casino and some video of Jonas drawing the Sphinx using a bit of chalk attached to a stick.
At first glance, there seems to be little tying it all together, but after a while you start to see overlaps everywhere. A large projection shows children in masks quickly sketching model animals while coloured overlays track across the screen. Down in the Tanks, a rack of hanging crystals casts light over abstract projections, while ambient sound creates an additional sensory stratum. Each piece hints at the layers of reality we take for granted.
Whether filmed in Iceland, the US or North Africa, whether it’s Tilda Swinton dancing in front of a volcano or Jonas saying “Good night” and “Good morning” over and over again, it all feels like chapters from the same book, all set inside the pocket universe of Jonas’ weird and wonderful mind.