Performing the image: Joan Jonas’ Glass Puzzle

Joan Jonas’ Glass Puzzle is a video of a video. In fact, it is a video of an unrehearsed performance that occurs in the virtual space of the television, and in the real space of an installation. GlassPuzzle is flat, it is physical, it is mute and it is musical, it is in colour and black and white. It exists as original work and as reassembled work. So given these multiple forms, its tight structure, and its playful impenetrability, Glass Puzzle requires not just clarification of its components and composition – details which wryly undermine the very ability to speak about the work in a concrete manner – but also an analysis of the context of its development, its intentions, and its function.

Shot in Joan Jonas’ Soho loft over an uninterrupted period of three weeks, the first version of Glass Puzzleis a single-channel black and white video that depicts Jonas and her friend and artist Lois Lane performing a mute double act. Jonas used a video camera to feed a live performance into a monitor, while another camera recorded not only the action of the monitor’s feed, but also the reflection of the performance visible on the glass screen of the monitor[1].

Using simple techniques[2] to produce dense, visually rich spaces, the work is startling in its freshness and its game-playing complexity. Like Manet’s Bar at Folies-Bergère, the gap between the mirror and the double is muddied and exploited: a threshold between real and imagined space. Video sequences are layered on top of one another until they appear as apparitions; gesture is replicated and inverted; shadows ape silhouettes. The work has an almost sculptural relationship to light and shadow, one which extends early artist’s film experiments, such as Moholy Nagy’s Lightplay: Black, White, Grey (1930), into video.Glass Puzzle uses the monitor as both presentation object and reflective presentation surface, seamlessly assimilating its physical display into the realm of the image.

Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still
Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still

“I was interested in making the illusion of space within the flat screen,” Jonas recalls. “I made paper constructions that divided the space that I saw as the inside of the monitor.” Echoing Virilio’s idea that machines for seeing modify perception[3], Jonas’ multiple surfaces create an alternative perception of space that is neither collapsed nor expanded, but instead entirely virtual and simultaneous. Appearing as an ambiguous mesh of ‘nested’ spatial planes, the sequence of images in Glass Puzzle complicate one another in the layering process, and as is presented as a kaleidoscope of Jonas’ images.

This vertiginous hall of mirrors carries an implicitly feminist strategy, not only generating alternative perceptions of domestic space, but also using that ambiguous zone to obscure the representation of the female bodies within it. And rather than simply fulfilling Rosalind Krauss’ generalisation of video’s ‘weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism’[4], the performers’ self-regarding gestures are scattered, deferred, and reflected outwards.

Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still
Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still

Jonas’ infamous performance persona in the early 1970s was Organic Honey – a figure who gave her name to both Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll – and served as the artist’s opposite: an ‘electronic seductress’[5]Glass Puzzle, which was made only a year after Visual Telepathy, is a continuation of the alternate body in the form of Lois Lane, Jonas’ doppelganger[6]. But here, narcissistic absorption is not deferred to an avatar like Organic Honey; it is replicated in shared space. Together Jonas and Lane register what it is to be seen by gazing upon one another, and the dynamics of control and authority are left opaque, opening up an alternative conception of the performers’ agency as they climb through skewed space. Jonas mobilises desire into a dumb and often menacing series of gestures that are continually reflected back on each player as a restless echo.

Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still
Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still

Aside from the surprise inclusion of an instrumental reggae track[7] at the end of the video, Glass Puzzleis a mute work. This is not to say it is silent, however. If anything, the diegetic sound of Lane and Jonas moving about the space – their feet pattering against the floor, the rustle of their clothes, the rumble of cars outside – makes their speechlessness more acute. The reliance on gesture makes the work a piece of physical theatre within which the concerns of video are tested and exploited. Discussing her influences from that period Jonas recalls her time spent in Japan, and during her first visit to the country in 1970 she encountered traditional Noh Theatre. “It had a huge influence on me in terms of seeing a visual theatre. Even though it has text I couldn’t understand it of course, but it had a strong visual language and it came from ritual.” Noh’s highly codified drama and its expressive gestures are illuminating springboards for Glass Puzzle whose visual language slides between the rehearsal of gesture and its exhibition, while resolutely refusing to adhere to any single linguistic translation with the exception of the work’s title.

“I called the work ‘Glass Puzzle’ because it was a puzzle in space,” notes Jonas. “I was interested in making a sensual space. It’s also a puzzle about two women, about whom there is no explanation,” she says. “Unless, of course, I mention Bellocq.” Jonas’ reference, never stated within the work but often in mentioned in the few existing descriptions of Glass Puzzle, is to Ernest J Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits. This series of photographs, thought to have been taken around 1912, were posthumously titled after thelegalised red-light district of New Orleans. Bellocq was a commercial photographer working at the turn of the 20th century, and shot the portraits of the Storyville prostitutes in various states of dress, wearing masks, hats, leggings or holding incongruous props[8]. The artist Lee Friedlander spotted Bellocq’s 89 negatives in a pawn shop in 1958, and went on to print the series of photographs for the New York MoMAexhibition E. J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits in 1970[9]. Encountering the exhibition catalogue soon after its publication, Jonas was attracted by the subject matter, recalling: “I was interested in the role of the prostitutes in the photographs. They are photographs of women waiting.” In this sense, Glass Puzzle is a glissando movement between image and performance, where gesture metamorphoses into pose. Bellocq’sphotographs are physicalised, embodied, liberated from their context and reinscribed with Jonas’ eroticism. The idea of the waiting woman is delivered as a video image – an image without a history, and suggesting not only a new sense of time, but also an atemporal one.

E. J. Bellocq, Untitled, ca. 1912, photograph
E. J. Bellocq, Untitled, ca. 1912, photograph

As the artist has done with many of her works, Jonas developed the single-channel version of Glass Puzzle as a multi-part installation for an exhibition in Esslingen in 2000[10]. Configured as a partial reconstruction of the set in which Lane and Jonas performed, the second incarnation includes a paper screen (on which the black and white footage is projected), a reconstruction of a child’s desk that appears in the video, a set of magician’s interlocking hoops are hung which refer to another of Jonas’ performancesFunnel[11], and – perhaps the most significant addition – the original colour footage from the first camera played directly onto a monitor[12]. Jonas had reviewed the original unused footage from Glass Puzzle that had been archived at Electronic Arts Intermix, New York, noting, “I wouldn’t call them outtakes,” and adds, “I’d simply call them things I didn’t use. The biggest change in making the second version was that I accepted those things. I shifted my way of looking at them.”[13] The Esslingen installation reintroduces the polyvalence of the initial action that, for its performers at the time of the work’s making, necessarily occurs in real space. The installation is a partial revelation to the construction of the single-channel work. And, in yoking the content of the video to the physical space, Jonas incorporates her audience into the tableau. Describing the inclusion of the colour footage as ‘letting it back in’, Jonas states, “Sometimes you can be uncomfortable with material, but later on you can allow it to be. In the installation I was interested in notediting, not leaving things out.”

Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1974-2000, installation view
Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1974-2000, installation view

Jonas once described video is a device that extends “the boundaries of my interior dialogue to include the audience. The perception is of a double reality: me as image and as performer.” Glass Puzzle collapses these two realities into an uncertain, mythic terrain within which actions are played out as if in an ongoing state of pre-event. The tone of rehearsal denies the conclusiveness of the cinematic, and instead runs back and forth between gesture and its communicability. Jonas proposes a resolution of sorts, however, in the closing scene of Glass Puzzle: a slow panning close-up rises from Lane’s legs and stops at her face. The camera’s lethargy encourages anticipation of Lane’s returned gaze. But what it reveals is an incongruous image of a Mexican pyramid on a postcard, held in front of Lane’s eyes by Jonas’ thumb and forefinger. A shocking fissure within the work’s hermetic space, the postcard presents an encounter outside of historical time. Clasped as one would a clapper board, this is the single external image that Jonas allows to enter into Glass Puzzle. It is a prism presented as a substitution for vision. At once mythic object and material fact, the familiar shape is unknowable: a perpetual photograph.

Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still
Joan Jonas, Glass Puzzle, 1973, video still


This text was originally published by LUX Journal.

With thanks to: Joan Jonas, Mary Simpson, Amanda Wilkinson, and Babette Mangolte

[1] Jonas’ practical set up for Glass Puzzle is the second time she recorded off a monitor, a method she initially used in Vertical Roll (1972).

[2] ‘Live’ editing is also explored in the black and white video, either by Jonas altering the light meter on the camera until the images become solarised, or else switching the display monitor on and off, consequently removing the video image of the performance, only to reveal the ongoing action’s reflection on the blank glass screen. “I was interested in how the video camera was different from the film camera and how you could manipulate it, and get special effects that are not complicated,” says Jonas of these techniques. It is interesting to note the gesture of the edit within the performance, where the bodily movement visibly enacts the cut or transformation within the video.

[3] Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Semiotext(e), Massachusetts 1991: 63.

[4] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, October, Vol 1, Spring 1976: 50-64.

[5] Joan Jonas, Joan Jonas: Five Works, Ed. Warren Niesluchowski, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 2005: 10

[6] Of Lane’s appearance in Glass Puzzle, Jonas notes “Lois was close in age to me, which is different from the way I work now. She was an artist and a friend, and I liked to work with both.” This is the single work of Jonas’ in which Lane appears.

[7] ‘747’ on Super Reggae by The Liquidators, 1970, had also been used previously in performances ofOrganic Honey. Jonas explains, “I really love that music. I liked the way it added another layer to the performance that I could react against. In Organic Honey I used it as I walked in at the beginning of the performance when I’m all dressed up with the feather mask and dress. In Glass Puzzle it seemed a fitting way to come to a conclusion on this upbeat, but also with this mystery.”

[8] Jonas used a series of objects that refer directly to the subject matter of the photographs, including a Victorian magnifying glass and mechanical tin butterfly.

[9] The prominence that the Storyville Portraits gained after the exhibition has provoked a number of cultural examinations of Bellocq’s material in addition to Glass Puzzle, perhaps most controversially LouisMalle’s film Pretty Baby (1978), starring the young Brooke Shields as a twelve-year-old growing up in a New Orleans brothel.

[10] Electronic Images: Videokunst, 1965 -2000, Villa Merkel /Bahnwaterhaus, Esslingen, Germany

[11] The set for Glass Puzzle itself originates from Funnel (1973/4), Jonas’ performance work that immediately preceded the initial recording of Glass Puzzle.

[12] The colour footage constituted Glass Puzzle’s original live feed, presented to the viewer via the black and white camera recording the monitor. It is a rare early instance of artist’s colour video although it was not publicly seen until the Esslingen exhibition.

[13] In Jonas’ installation Mirage (1976), the artist also decided to incorporate previously unused material for a later reconfiguration of the work, most recently developed once more for MoMA, 2009/10.


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