Visionary Joan Jonas ’58 stages “Mirror” performance

Photo courtesy of Charles Flachs  Cara Board ’19 and Angelina Schenck ’19 at an early rehearsal of “Mirror Piece.”

Photo courtesy of Charles Flachs

Cara Board ’19 and Angelina Schenck ’19 at an early rehearsal of “Mirror Piece.”

BY EMILY ROLES FOTSO ’21

Video and performance artist and Mount Holyoke College alumna Joan Jonas ’58 returned to campus last Thursday, Jan. 31 to direct and present a one-time-only reconfiguration of her groundbreaking works of performance art, Mirror Piece I and Mirror Piece II. First performed in 1969 and 1970, the performances established Jonas as a force to be reckoned with in the art world. After receiving her B.A. from Mount Holyoke, Jonas studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and earned an M.F.A in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. Jonas has participated in Germany’s dOCUMENTA contemporary art exhibition six times, represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and is the 2018 recipient of the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. She currently lives and works in Nova Scotia and New York City and is a Professor Emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The reconfiguration of Mirror Piece I and Mirror Piece II, choreographed by Jonas and Nefeli Skarmea, starred Mount Holyoke students with an interest in visual and performing arts. The students learned the choreography over the span of a week under the tutelage of Skarmea and performed it on Thursday night in the Dance Studio Theater in Kendall Sports and Dance Complex.

“It was an honor for Joan Jonas to share her art with us,” said student performer Marion Wolloch ’21. “Working with the mirrors was at first challenging, but became so rewarding. The piece turned out beautifully and all the dancers bonded and learned so many new skills.”

The performance itself was a haunting, spellbinding masterpiece; performers moved around stage slowly and deliberately, each carrying mirrors facing each other or, at times, the audience. Each performer moved their own unique way, walking through different paths and patterns, but somehow incredibly in sync. There was no speaking or noise of any sort, save for the recitation of some mirror-related quotes in the beginning, some flurried and overlapping gibberish towards the middle, and a haunting choral-like song towards the end. The result was a sustained and heavy tension that left the audience silent and enraptured.

In the Q&A portion after the performance, Jonas explained that her interest in mirrors was a response to the way the objects were talked about. At the time that she was first creating Mirror Piece I, mirrors were seen as tools of vanity, and there seemed to be a sense of shame associated with admiring or even simply looking too long at your reflection. Integrating them into her art, she was interested in how mirrors altered and manipulated images, and how they changed the nature of a space. This means that each performance of Mirror Piece I & II is different, even without any alterations to the choreography itself. Everything from the lighting in the room, to its size, to the location of the audience relative to the stage affected the visual aspects of the performance, making it entirely unique and personal. Jonas added that by pointing mirrors at the audience, she was drawing them into the piece, involving them in a way that made the work more dynamic and engrossing.

As for the meaning behind the work, Jonas insisted that it was up to audience interpretation. She emphasized that her work is for everyone, and that everyone may take from it what they will.

Jonas is the Mount Holyoke Weissman Center for Leadership’s 2018-2019 Leading Woman of the Arts and is also the subject of an exhibition at the College Art Museum, “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror,” on view through June 16, 2019.

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