‘I Think of Myself as Part of a Ritual’: Watch Joan Jonas Dress Up as the Mythical Figures That Inhabit Her Performances and Videos

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Portrait of Joan Jonas. Photo: Don Stahl.

Watching the artist Joan Jonas, a veteran performance and video artist, you would never imagine that she is a self-proclaimed very shy person. At 85, the New York native is in the midst of one major retrospective, at Dia: Beacon, and planning for another at the Museum of Modern Art in 2024. Over her six-decade career, Jonas has created new categories for what “performance art” can mean. She tends to film herself and her friends and fellow artists, often drawing circles on the ground with large sticks, or pinwheeling around freezing streets in 1970s New York.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, Jonas reflected on the early performance pieces she staged in New York, creating smaller more intimate sets within the larger context of the city.

I wanted to develop my own language,” Jonas says, “and the minute I started performing, I began to invent in a different way—through my body movements.” Growing up in New York, Jonas was introduced to art at a young age, visiting MoMA and the Metropolitan Opera. “Things like that make a big impression on you when you’re young,” Jonas says in the video, recalling a Wagner opera in which Valkyries—armor-clad warrior women wearing big horns—caught her attention.

Jonas uses horned figures, masks, and other costumes as an integral part of her practice, referencing fairy tales and myths from various cultures to help interpret texts for contemporary audiences. Speaking to Artnet News ahead of the Dia exhibition opening, Jonas said, “if I put a costume on, I feel like I can move differently.” Her work requires “thinking of myself as part of a ritual… I play roles, and I dress up.” 


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Joan Jonas” is on view now at Dia: Beacon.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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