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Joan Jonas and the Influence of Japan’s Noh Theater on her Work

On Thursday Jan. 5, the Japan Society in New York City hosted an intimate book club/talk with world renowned performance and video artist, Joan Jonas. There she spoke about the influence of the Japanese Noh theater on her work.

Who is Joan Jonas?

Jonas is a pioneer in the medium of video and performance art. Born in 1936 in New York City she recalled that everyone either painted or drew. She took to video and performance  because it wasn’t male dominated.

What is the Noh Theater? 

Noh is a type of traditional musical theater from Japan which originated in the 14th century. It utilizes slow, precise and disciplined movement, musical accompaniment, and little dialogue. Most audiences who attend Noh plays are already familiar with the plot and appreciate this art form for its movements, use of space, time, sound, and classic costumes.

The hour and a half talk touched on topics ranging from the musical theater tradition that influenced much of Jonas’ career, her early travels to Japan with artist Richard Serra, and her alter-ego, Organic Honey.


Joan Jonas as Organic Honey

Jonas started off by introducing the book of the hour, The Classic Noh Theater of Japan (1917) which was translated by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa with help from W.B. Yeats while he was writing At the Hawks Well (1917). She read the book before her first trip to Japan and told the audience she also read Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) before her sojourn. As she reflected on the two texts she revealed the act of interpreting literature shaped how she viewed performance. After reading a few excerpts from Noh Theater she explained how contemporary dance of the ’60s with its minimalism and fluidity along with Claes Oldenberg and John Cage’s happenings (a contemporary art form that marries performance and conceptual art) also influenced her future works. These performances allowed her to think of herself as performer instead of actor which is evident in one of her more well-known projects, Organic Honey.

On her first trip to Japan with Serra the duo attended many kabuki and noh performances. The first play that resonated with her was one in Nara. From there she was hooked and tried to learn as much as she could about the traditional and religious-based art form. She said, “the Noh comes from religious plays, what they call the God dance. When I studied art history and sculpture I was always interested in the beginning of things.”

She went on to discuss various aspects of the theater whose motifs appear in her works. At least one of these elements: sound in space, costumes as shapes, structure of objects, players in masks, and the fan as a major prop  can be seen in most if not all of her performances and installations. Jonas mentioned she always carried a notebook to every Noh performance and after reading excerpts from her personal journals three themes emerged: disciplined movement, sound in space, and the structure of objects.

The well-known performance, Organic Honey utilized masks, fans, deliberate movement, and purposeful play on space, time and sound.


“they come to us without a word” | Joan Jonas | CCA Kitakyushu Project Gallery

Another project, an installation she completed as a resident artist at the CCA Kitakyushu Project Gallery called “they come to us without a word” featured drawings of 100 fish which was initially inspired by a book of Japanese fish stumbled upon in San Diego. Jonas recalled that she “carried it around…and copied the very detailed color renditions of all the different fish. In the performance version of this work I drew fish in blue ink. The ink spilled down the page. I became interested in repeating these drawings. As I often do, I wanted to continue to develop certain actions or ideas. In this case, in Kitakyushu, while still referring to the Japanese fish dictionary, I draw the various fish over and over in blue ink, curious about how the form will change. I am drawing about one hundred of these large performance drawings, thinking how, such a group, hanging on lines strung across the room, would appear. I am also interested in how a title might suggest another reality, or thoughts about fish.”

After touching on various performances and space-based projects from her time in Kitakyushu she concluded the talk explaining the process of her Santander performance projects and final remarks.

During the Q&A session an audience member asked if she set out to intentionally imitate the Noh. “No,” she began with a cheeky smile, “I just make a nod to it and use its influence subtly. I’ve never wanted to imitate the Noh. “


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