Video performance artist Joan Jonas's pioneering work now in Montreal

American Joan Jonas bought one of the first Portapak video recorders on a trip to Japan in 1970 and started filming her performances. Nearly five decades later, a retrospective of her ground-breaking work is making its first appearance in Canada.

1st Canadian retrospective of 5 decades of pioneering multimedia art

Joan Jonas continues to use masks in her performance art, a prop she says which allows her to explore different characters. Jonas started working with masks and costumes in her early work to explore female identity. (Video still, courtesy of the artist )

American Joan Jonas bought one of the first Portapak video recorders on a trip to Japan in 1970 and started filming her performances in a medium she described as largely "unexplored territory."

Nearly five decades later, the pioneering multimedia artist is in Montreal for the opening of her first Canadian retrospective this week at DHC/Art.

The exhibition also includes her latest work, They Come to Us without a Word, which represented the U.S. at the 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition.

Jonas was part of a circle of New York artists in the late '60s and early '70s  that included composer Philip Glass and sculptor Richard Serra. 

Her work explores female identity, environmental politics and the landscape.

She often interweaves literary references, including the writing of the Icelandic author Haldor Laxness and Nova Scotia ghost stories from Ronald Caplan's collection of Cape Breton tales, The Book of the Night.

Her early choreographic works and video performances, like the Organic Honey series, were created with Serra holding the camera and Glass tapping on the microphone to create a soundtrack.

Joan Jonas is an American visual artist and a pioneer of video and performance art who is one of the most important female artists to emerge in the late 1960s and early 70s. I spoke to her at The Phi Centre - where her exhibit 'From Away' is being shown.

Incorporating the Cape Breton essence

At 80, Jonas is a lively, plain-spoken woman who is still very much involved in collaboration. Works in the Montreal show include a video made with actor Tilda Swinton and music created by Jason Moran.

She also has a strong connection to Cape Breton Island, and some of the island landscapes are featured in They Come to Us without a Word. 

"I set my camera up outdoors on the beach. The landscape is magical and beautiful," she says.

"It's a second home for me and I love the weather. I live in the city, but I love the country. The weather is very inspiring and invigorating and beautiful."

Jonas first went to Cape Breton in the early 1970s with Glass and Serra. She bought a house on the island and has returned each summer ever since.

This is part of the work that Joan Jonas created to represent the US at the 2015 Venice Biennale. (Video still, courtesy of the artist)

'Unexplored territory'

Jonas discovered video on a trip to Japan with Serra in 1970 where she bought a Portapak video recorder, one of the first portable cameras.

It was a technology she would continue to explore for decades.

"I think I was very lucky to have confidence in those early years and to not question what I might be," she says.

"At that time, I would say men dominated sculpture and painting but video and performance were really unexplored territory and as a woman I could be totally at ease and open in those territories."

Themes of mirrors, performing both for the audience and live video camera, and her exploration of what it means to be a woman continue to inhabit her work.

They Come to Us Without a Word is a multimedia work created by American artist Joan Jonas. It is being shown for the first time in North America at DHC/Art in Montreal. (Video still, courtesy of the artist )

"In the end … we have to conclude that male and female is, in large part, culturally determined," she says.

Joan Jonas: From Away, curated by Barbara Clausen, is at DHC/Art in Montreal until Sept. 18, 2016. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, the gallery is presenting a series of performances, screenings and conversations in May and June including a performance lecture by Joan Jonas with Jason Moran on May 27. 

Listen to Joan Jonas in conversation with Jeanette Kelly on Cinq à six, Apr. 30, 2016 at 5 p.m.


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.