If the specters have followed Joan Jonas to Italy, into the white-columned building and onto its walls, it’s because she conjured them there. Last summer, shooting video and making masks for the multimedia installation she will unveil to the public Saturday in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the artist had phantoms on her mind.
“You know,” Jonas, 78, said recently by phone from Venice, “ghosts have many different forms.”
A professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and this country’s representative at the 56th Biennale, Jonas laughed softly when she said she doesn’t really believe in ghosts, though she knows many people who do. But ghost images have figured in much of her work, and now ghost stories are a thread running through “They Come to Us Without a Word,” the piece she has made for the international art exhibition.
Jonas, a pioneer of video and performance art, is a native New Yorker, but in the summers she heads to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It was there that she found the stories — “accounts of ghost sightings and so on” — that form a sort of poetic broken narrative in the short videos that will be on view in each of the pavilion’s rooms.
They are “fragments of the experiences that people have had with ghosts in Cape Breton,” Jonas said. But she is interested, too, in the myriad permutations of the idea of ghosts. “Everything becomes a ghost. Something in the past is a ghost, and so on.”
The Venice Biennale installation builds on “Reanimation,” a piece Jonas first performed at MIT in 2010. That show found inspiration in “Under the Glacier,” a 1968 novel by the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, and the new installation — concerned, like much of Jonas’s work, with nature and the landscape — does, too.
One room in the pavilion is devoted to bees, another to fish, another to wind. Children are a presence in the video. “I love the outdoors, and I’ve always loved it,” she said. “At the moment what attracts me, what I’m focusing on, is that the world is sort of in trouble in relation to the natural environment and the globe and all the problems, and the fact that so many species are disappearing.”
So she was especially drawn to a passage in Laxness’s book about the work of bees, whose existence lately has become imperiled.
“When a dandelion calls to a bee with its scent to give it honey, and the bee goes off with the pollen from the flower and sows it somewhere far away — that I call a Supercommunion,” he wrote. “It would be remarkable if a more super communion could be established, even though intergalactic communications were put in order.”
The title Jonas has given the Biennale exhibition, “They Come to Us Without a Word,” is the same one she used two years ago in Japan for a different show, an installation of 100 drawings of fish.
The phrase is partly about “the fact that animals don’t use words,” she said. “It’s also about how speech does not explain everything. There’s a lot of other levels of communication.”
Video, performance, drawing, objects: Jonas layers them all together in the Biennale installation, which occupies the pavilion’s four small rooms, its rotunda, and its forecourt outside. She designed and created much of it remotely, using a model she’d made of the space, but she has been in Venice since March, continuing to shape the piece even as she and a team of workers there have been installing it.
Paul C. Ha, one of the show’s two co-curators, has been there with her. He is the director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, which is presenting the piece in Venice as well as the current exhibition of Jonas videos at home in Cambridge.
Ha, who described Jonas as “an artist’s artist,” not well known among the general public, commissioned the work. He also nominated Jonas for the Biennale, though his pitch was a little short on detail.
“For this proposal, it was kind of difficult because we didn’t really know what we wanted to do — or Joan wouldn’t tell me what she wanted to do,” he said recently via Skype as he walked through the pavilion, the work in progress visible behind him. When he strolled past a video image of honeycomb, that was the bee room.
Then there is the rotunda. Jonas, who has frequently used mirrors in her work, is using them in Venice, too. But instead of finding old ones at an antique store in Canada, as she often does, she had them made in Murano, the island off Venice famed for its glass. They are intended to distort, and the rotunda is lined with them.
In each room, too, Jonas has placed individual mirrors, which distort images even more.
It’s a way of bringing the audience into the piece — bringing the situation the work confronts back to them. “It’s important that they look at themselves at some point when they’re walking through,” Jonas said.
Her own image will barely be seen in “They Come to Us Without a Word”: only a few snippets of video, each mere seconds long. “I’m very little in the picture, but enough so that I have a kind of presence,” she said. She will, however, give a performance, titled “They Come to Us Without a Word II,” July 20-22 at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale in Venice.
Jonas collected elements of the installation, and planned most of it, over the past year and a half. Last winter, in a studio in New York’s West Village, she shot video of children performing, which will loop in each of the four rooms. But she did not alight in Venice with a finished piece. She needed to be in the space to complete it.
“Not to sound cryptic,” Ha said, “but I think Joan’s way of making art is that she brings all these things with her, and then she’s reacting to the moment in a way. She doesn’t arrive with a finished video file that you plug in and project; she doesn’t arrive with a set of finished drawings that you hang up and there’s that.”
The show’s other co-curator is Jonas’s longtime colleague Ute Meta Bauer, who headed the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning and now directs the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. The German-born Bauer was a student, and already a Jonas fan, when one of her professors introduced her to the artist in New York in 1982.
More than three decades later, with Jonas’s inclusion in the Biennale, she is “kind of at the height of her career,” Bauer said by Skype from Venice, smiling as she spoke of Jonas with evident affection.
“Her significance and her importance for generations after her — not only performance or video artists, but for art — is now properly recognized,” the curator said. “She always has been recognized in Europe, but I think in the US it came a bit late.”
When the Queens Museum of Art gave Jonas a retrospective in 2003, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith raved about her work and noted that the artist “has been profoundly neglected on native ground.”
“It does not flatter New York’s cultural sphere that most of Ms. Jonas’s later development is indebted to the cultural capitals of Europe, where she is more widely appreciated and where most of her major works were commissioned,” she added.
If that level of appreciation has not much changed, Bauer speculated that perhaps it’s about to — and it might even be better this way: hitting the pinnacle late rather than peaking mid-career before a long period of lesser relevance.
“She will turn 79 this year,” Bauer said, “and maybe that’s the moment.”
Whatever this moment is, Jonas said the Biennale has brought the pressure of the public spotlight in an unaccustomed way. Not that she isn’t enjoying the work.
“I had the same desire that I always have, to try to surpass the last piece,” she said. “It’s part of your life if you’re an artist to be interested in doing that: creating new problems for yourself. I’m not interested in repeating.”
hey Come to Us Without a Word
Presented by MIT List Visual Arts Center
At: Venice Biennale, Venice,
May 9-Nov. 22. joanjonasvenice2015.com.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at [email protected].