January 25, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Joan Jonas: Synchronicity of Old and New
Yokohama Tobacco Shop

Tobacco shop in Yokohama, Japan. Photo: Azby Brown

At the moment Joan Jonas is on a residency at Kita-Kyushu in western Japan. She has worked in Japan several times since her first visit in 1970, when she bought a portable video camera and began her exploration of media art. The immediacy and reality of video entranced Joan. It was so unlike the stark artificiality of traditional Japanese theater. There, the actors moved at a glacial, mesmerizing pace across a spare stage, and the productions, often stretching over an entire day, made time dissolve. The formality and ritual of Japanese performance became integral to Joan’s work, as can be seen in Mirage, the installation currently on view in the Media Gallery. She wrote that Noh and Kabuki, the two poles-apart forms of traditional Japanese theater, taken together contain every idea that has ever been realized on a stage.

What is it that attracts so many Americans to Japan? In the mid-1970s I became fascinated by a culture that generated both sleekly designed consumer technology and remote temple gardens, where I could quietly sit Buddha-style on a worn wooden veranda and contemplate not only my navel but also a Lilliputian garden of rich velvety moss and an incorporated view of mountains off at a distance. Next to the ancient temple entrance sat a vending machine offering Coca-Cola and rare spring-vintage tea in a pop-top can.

Jonas is just an e-mail away, until her return as cherry blossoms start to bloom. I wonder whether her sojourn in Japan afforded a respite from the daily tsunami of data bytes that wash over us wirelessly.