On a cold, grey day, I walked into the Berkeley Art Museum to get out of the rain, and to see Joan Jonas's video installation piece, The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things. Jonas began making media-based art in the 1960s, often combining performance, dance, film, and sculpture in the same piece. The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things has two parts -- a video projection and a video installation. The piece is loosely based on the German art historian Aby Warburg's travels in Arizona between 1895 and 1896.
Jonas first visited the Southwest in the 1960s, and like Warburg, she found herself mesmerized by Hopi rituals, especially the Snake Dance. In Jonas's installation, the snake appears in a variety of forms, as does the coyote. Jonas treats the relationship between body and landscape in symbolic, mythical terms. She describes the piece as a "mythopoetic" exploration of the Southwest. Both Warburg and Jonas were seduced by the power and intensity of these ritual dances. The Shape is an attempt to create ritual dances for a postmodern world.
Jonas's installation is initially overwhelming. In a dark, cavernous space, jumbled, fragmented images surround the viewer, lights and colors shift quickly, seemingly without reason. After the initial sensory overload, I began to notice that certain motifs repeat. Jonas fetishizes the Southwest's folkloric, primitive side. Here, we find mysticism without irony. Dancers in rough, shapeless costumes hold gawky, awkward poses, appearing almost amateurish. Jonas scraped the polish from her dancers, to better position them as "primitives."
The first room contains four video projections, three small ones and one enormous wall-sized projection that serves as a backdrop for the rest. On one screen, a woman wearing a coyote head dances, her body superimposed over flashing Vegas neon. On another, a woman dressed in white robes plays with a coyote-like dog. The second room contains a single wall-sized video projection. Short vignettes, based on Jonas's performances at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, play on the wall. The entire installation is suffused with a slow, dreamy quality.
Despite the piece's scale and complexity, there's a sense that we've seen this all before. Jonas was a mainstay of the '70s art scene, and her work is infused with that flavor, retaining her generation's love for heavy, lilting voice-overs and for layering bodies (flat as a cookie-cutter cut-out) on top of landscapes.
In The Shape, Southwestern kitsch meets conceptual art. The piece is occasionally successful, occasionally pedantic. For example, Jonas juxtaposes a "lightning dance" (featuring a black-clad dancer with arms spread out like wings) with a lyric sequence exploring settlement and urbanization in the Southwest. The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things reveals what Easterners see when they imagine the West -- a place suffused with primitive mysticism, a place that's moved from Manifest Destiny to ruin and devastation. In one of Jonas's vignettes, two female dancers hold a large map of the Southwest, while images of abandoned buildings, covered with graffiti, play over it. Above all, the piece is a morality play, with Westernization playing the villain and the Southwest playing the part of the pure, unknowable Other.
Joan Jonas's The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through July 20, 2008.