The artist Joan Jonas, who represented the U.S. at the 2015 Biennale, returns to Venice this spring to inaugurate a new global oceanic center, Ocean Space. Jonas fills the TBA21– Academy-supported platform, housed in the restored Church of San Lorenzo, with Moving Off the Land II.
The installation, which opened to the public on March 24, investigates the current state of the sea’s vast ecosystem through video, drawing, sound, and spoken word. On May 7, the artist further activated the exhibition with a performance to coincide with the launch of the 58th Venice Biennale.
WHITEWALL: The project in Venice follows your ongoing performance Moving off the Land. What was the starting point for the performance?
JOAN JONAS: I was asked by Stefanie Hessler, the curator for TBA21–Academy, three years ago to do a performance piece on the oceans. It was first performed in Kochi, India, and then in Vienna and Iceland before it came to the Tate and then New York.
WW: How did you translate that to the installation at Ocean Space?
JJ: It’s a process I work with continuously, going from performance to installation. They are different forms of similar material. Since the fall, I’ve been working on adding footage and reshooting footage from the performance. I started working with [coral reef and photosynthesis expert] David Gruber halfway through the project. I met him through the TBA21. He gave me footage that he shot underwater, a lot of it by fluorescent animals.
WW: How do you translate a performance into an installation?
JJ: I reconstruct it, I take it apart, and I reorder the material. I make video backdrops for my performances—that’s what I’ve been doing for the last number of years—and they are almost parallel narratives in themselves. In this case, they were comprised of footage I shot in various locations in aquariums and in Jamaica. There’s a whole sequence of me swimming underwater. I’ve reconstructed that and added some of the footage David Gruber has given me. We reshot all the scenes in the performance and I combined live performance with projected video. The performance is not a narrative in a conventional way, but it’s a linear experience for the audience. In the installation, the audience can choose what they want to look at and for how long.
It’s really made for the space. I had to consider the space of this church. So I made structures and different drawings to show with the videos. There are five different videos in five different box-like structures. It’s very different from the performance, but continuing with the same ideas and repeating the same ideas of what’s happening to fish and the situation we’re in. It’s not didactic; it deals poetically with those issues.
WW: How did the church atmosphere impact your plans for the installation?
JJ: Well, it’s an abandoned church and there is very little left of the original, except for a huge altar, which divides the space in half. The major part of my work is in the second half. The audience walks into one half of the space and then they walk through the altar to another part of this enormous space.
There’s no way to control the light, so I had to build boxes for the video projections. I also asked them to leave the scaffolding up. I liked the look of it. They were in the middle of restoring the church, and they were using scaffolding, so when I went to see the church I liked the roughness of the scaffolding as a context to my work.
In the first space we’re doing a very simple soundtrack, a sound piece my studio is putting together of sperm whale sounds that David Gruber has recorded. I have a drawing for that as well.
WW: You’ve also incorporated the words of authors like Herman Melville, Rachel Carson, Emily Dickinson, and T. S. Eliot. Can you tell us about why you chose those writers?
JJ: They are spoken in the work. Melville has written one of the greatest American novels about the whale industry—that’s why I chose him. Simply, I chose work that had to do with the ocean. Rachel Carson is one of the major writers on the environment. She’s also a very poetic writer. I wanted to include her work, of course, describing the sea—it’s very beautiful. Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot all wrote about the sea and about mermaids. When I began the work, I thought about how could I approach the subject. My usual way is to deal with the myth, so I started with mermaids, and so part of the piece is about that.
WW: Did the city of Venice have any influence on the work?
JJ: No. In order to do that I’d have to do special research about Venice, and it wasn’t part of my process at this time. But just because you’re in Venice, I think people will think about it.
WW: Was there anything of note you came across in your research?
JJ: The whole thing has been completely fascinating, to learn more about fish and their habitat. I’ve visited fish I never would have looked at. We went to the Mystic Aquarium and there was a beluga whale there. David has sent me some very beautiful shots of turtles . . . It’s part of a learning process, and I often choose a subject that has to be researched extensively.
I’m thinking of continuing to visit aquariums, which are very interesting. There’s a lot of research going on in aquariums. I’m not sure what I will do, but there were several things I was working on before that I’ll go back to, all having to do with the environment, and nature, and creatures. That’s where my interest is now.