Joan Jonas Brings Her Experimental Video Performance Art to MoMA

“Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning,” which brings together installations plus videos, photos and drawings, is on view through July 6.

An art installations with dyed silk and other elements
Installation view of ‘Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning,’ The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Nobody influenced performance art quite like Joan Jonas, who rose to prominence in the 1960s when experimental art was an exciting new frontier. With her five-decade career, the New York artist has paved the way for not only video artists and performance artists but also women who danced between both spaces with improvisational spirits.

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She forged the path, but as Jonas explains in the wall text of “Joan Jonas: Good Night, Good Morning,” now at MoMA, you can’t turn someone into an artist. “You can only give the possibility of trying things out, how to improvise, how you find something, how you translate something into a form.”

Jonas, now 87 years old, got her start as a sculptor in the early 1960s but is widely known in the art world for Mirror Piece I, her breakout 1969 piece in which performers holding rectangular mirrors moved before the audience, whose images became part of the performance.

The MoMA show is a celebration of Jonas’ lifetime body of works, with more than 100 videos, photos, drawings and installations dating from 1968 to the present—many of which have been largely overlooked until now. Jonas is an artist’s artist, widely recognized in the art world, but she has never achieved the widespread acclaim enjoyed by some of her male counterparts. John Baldessari, Nam June Paik and Vito Acconci come to mind, which is exactly why this comprehensive retrospective of Jonas’ work is long overdue.

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She staged her Mirror Pieces through 1971, and the video clips from “Nudes With Mirrors” are an exhibition highlight. In 1970, Jonas bought her first video camera in Japan—a Sony Portapak she used in her early video performance Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972) in which she acts as her alter-ego seducing the viewer. From there, she moved to creating performance art for the video camera and was instrumental in establishing video performance art as its own medium. She eventually switched to digital and has since mounted installations everywhere from Documenta to the Venice Biennale while also serving as a professor at the Art Culture and Technology school at MIT.

“Joan Jonas: Good Night, Good Morning” also showcases archival materials like a mirrored dress that Jonas calls her “mirror costume —a black maxi dress covered in square mirrors that she wore for her Oad Lau performance in 1968. There are other nods to film and fashion, too. An installation of red and white paintings called “The Juniper Tree” from 1976 to 1994 has twenty-four acrylic-on-silk artworks that incorporate wooden balls, a ladder, a kimono and slides of performances. Taken together, the objects create a cacophony of the artist’s history as seen through her meditative, repetitive practice.

An art installations with dyed silk and other elements
Installation view of ‘Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning,’ The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

The exhibition’s eponymous installation, Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, was made in 2006 in her Nova Scotia home, where she recorded herself saying good morning and good night every day. It’s a throwback to a 1976 video in which she also recorded herself, showing how her artwork repeats itself in different ways over the decades.

Toward the end of the exhibition, there is a series of drawings of ocean creatures like stingrays and fish that are based on Jonas’ research into aquariums. They’re fun, simple and lighthearted, refreshingly childlike displayed as they are alongside underwater footage taken in Jamaica, but they contain a serious message. This is a collaboration between Jonas and fisherman George Williamsn and a commentary on protecting the environment and holding the fishing industry accountable that ties into her series “Moving Off The Land.” Jonas, in the wall text, points out that, “The sea has been this vast, hidden, unconscious thing. We came from the sea.”

An art installation with Japanese screens, video projectors and crystals
Installation view of ‘Reanimation,’ 2010/2012/2013. © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Installation view of Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 17–July 6, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado Installation view of Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 17–July 6, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado Installation view of Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 17–July 6, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

The last room of MoMA’s Joan Jonas exhibition features an installation called Reanimation, which is quite magical. In the heart of the room, small glass crystal spheres hang on a central structure. They call to mind mini disco balls, but they’re not made of mirrors. Activating them are four video projectors that cast their light across the darkened room. The interactions between the light and the crystals and strategically placed shoji screens are a beautiful analog answer to the 4k immersive “experiences” that increasingly pass as art.

The piece was inspired by the Icelandic writer and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s 1968 novel “Under the Glacier,” which follows a group of women with mystical powers. The book is set in the Icelandic countryside, where nature’s majesty is larger than life. Reanimation includes video projections of large glaciers, which the artist shot on the Lofoten Islands in Norway, alongside shots of dark tunnels and Jonas making drip paintings in her studio. Music composed by Jonas and jazz musician Jason Moran completes the work.

As Laxness writes in the book: “Whoever doesn’t live in poetry cannot survive here on earth.” Jonas’ work as displayed at MoMA is a testament to living in poetry—the poetry of movement, of mirrors, of interaction. And we are lucky she has invited us to share in her experiences.

Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 6.

Joan Jonas Brings Her Experimental Video Performance Art to MoMA