Douglas Crimp’s Remarks from Danspace’s 2016 Gala
May 5, 2016
When Judy asked me if I would introduce tonight’s honorees, Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer, I didn’t hesitate for a minute. Both of them are long-time friends. I’ve written about the work of both. I teach my students about their work. Each plays a role in my memoir about New York in the 1970s. But figuring out what to say about them to honor them fittingly hasn’t turned out to be as easy as I imagined.
Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer are two of our greatest artists, two of the 20th and 21st century’s great innovators. Whatever I say in simple honesty about them will, I’m afraid, sound hyperbolic or highfalutin. And I don’t want to sound that way, because it doesn’t suit their personalities or their work.
So I’m just going to say a few things about each of them, and then leave it to some of their friends to say a bit more. I wrote to friends of each and asked them to describe them in a word or a phrase.
Let’s start with Joan:
Danspace Project honors Joan Jonas for her pioneering video and multi-media performance work spanning over five decades.
Some facts (and opinions):
Along with a very few fellow artists, Joan Jonas invented performance art.
And again, along with a few others, Joan Jonas invented video art.
Joan Jonas alone invented the hybrid video-performance art.
Joan Jonas used as stages for her work:
The beach at Inverness, Cape Breton
Ten square blocks of Tribeca where the Washington Market had recently been razed
The Tiber River in Rome
Joan used these venues between 1970 and 1972
The first work I saw of Joan’s, Choreomania, was performed in her loft on Grand Street in 1971.
Soon afterward, she began performing in art galleries and alternative spaces, theaters and museums, international exhibitions and festivals, and she’s continued to do so for nearly fifty years.
Joan represented the United States at last summer’s Venice Biennale. I thought: “it’s about time!” Joan has been insufficiently honored by her own country and her own city. I don’t usually go to Venice for the Biennale, but as soon as it was announced that Joan would represent the U.S., I determined to go.
Joan turned the American pavilion into a multipart, multimedia installation called They Come To Us without a Word.
The New York Times called the work “a triumph.”
I don’t always agree with the Times’s assessment of art that matters to me, but I agreed that They Come To Us without a Word could rightly be called a triumph.
But a few weeks ago at The Kitchen, Joan restaged the performance she did in Venice as part of They Come To Us without a Word, which I had not been able to see at the Theater Piccolo Arsenale. And I realized that “triumph” is not, after all, a word that accurately describes the Venice Biennale work. It is, rather: haunting, melancholy, magical. The Guardian called the Biennale work “Intimate, intricate, and deeply moving.” That’s far better than “triumph.” Triumphalism is something Joan’s work quietly but insistently opposes.
The somber tone and environmental themes of They Come to Us without a Word are different from the earlier work that got performance art started, works like Delay Delay and Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, Double Lunar Dogs and Volcano Saga, or even the more recent The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things and Reading Dante. But there are similarities, too, such as the unique fusion of new technologies with old-fashioned ones like the overhead projector, and timeless ones, like the shadow play, the human voice, or making percussive sounds with blocks of wood and bells and gongs.
In response to my email about Joan, one of her friends came back with these words that characterize what goes into her work:
low tech/no tech
and the results, Joan’s friend says, are
Here’s what other of Joan’s friends said about Joan and her work:
I love that: “austere and lush.” The contradiction makes perfect sense to anyone who has seen Joan’s performances.
Let me add a few words of my own:
Nature and culture
Ritual and myth
Epic and saga
Space—the play with it, the constant reconfiguration of it, the distortion of it, the impenetrability of it.
Sun and moon
Fish and bees
And Ozu, Joan’s constant companion, her adorable and very smart poodle named for the great Japanese film director.
Joan called me this afternoon to tell me she was unable to come tonight, and asked me to say that she is truly honored, that she thinks of St Marks as a magical space, that both poetry and dance have always been an important influence on her. Many performances at Danspace have been especially meaningful to her, she said, including, most recently, the closing night performance just over a month ago of Eiko’s Danspace Project Platform.
Joan performed her early fairytale performance, The Juniper Tree, at Danspace in 1977. But she particularly remembers doing a performance for a benefit in which she laughed into a mirror. Her performance was followed by one by Patti Smith, and Joan said afterward she felt completely humiliated, felt that her performances was a total failure. Many years later, she said, some friends told her that they thought her performance was one of the best they’d ever seen.
Danspace Project honors Yvonne Rainer for her defining contributions to postmodern dance from the founding of the Judson Dance Theater to in 1962.
Some facts (and opinions)
Together with a few other young choreographers, Yvonne went to the Judson Memorial Church and asked the Reverend Al Carmines if they could present dance concerts in the sanctuary. He agreed, and on July 6, 1962 the first concert of dance took place. Yvonne showed Dance for 3 People and 6 Arms and Ordinary Dance. Postmodern dance was born that evening.
In 1966, Yvonne made the first part of The Mind Is a Muscle, a dance called Trio A. Trio A removed phrasing and made a dance that was all transition. Trio A changed dance history. It has been performed more times, by more people, than any modern or postmodern dance.
In 1966, Yvonne wrote the essay “A Quasi Survey of some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A.” [the comically prolix title is characteristic of Yvonne’s essays, of which there are many.] With that essay postmodern dance acquired its theory. Has any other essay on dance been reprinted so many times?
A year earlier, Yvonne wrote her “No Manifesto.”
No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
It has haunted Yvonne ever since. But at the time she wrote it, it provided a necessary tonic. Since then she has said yes to many of the things she said no to in 1965. Indeed, in 2008 she revised the manifesto, saying that some of things she’d said no to in the manifesto were in fact “unavoidable.”
Between 1972 and 1996 Yvonne made seven feature films. They are milestones of independent, feminist, and lesbian-feminist cinema.
In 2000 Mikhail Baryshnikov invited Yvonne to make a work for his White Oak Dance Project. We are all the beneficiaries of his foresight. Yvonne has gone on to make six more dances, and she’s still at it. Thank you, Misha.
Yvonne is very good at characterizing herself.
She has called herself a pedagogical vaudevillian. She has called herself an a-woman, awoman. She has called herself a music-hater. (That was in what she called her mucus rant, mucus—spelled M-U-C-I-Z—being one of her substitute words for “music” in the rant. I, in turn, have called her a mucus-lover, since her use of music throughout her career has been informed by a comprehensive knowledge and unpredictable use of it—everything from the Berlioz Requiem to Edie Cantor’s “Yes We Have No Bananas.”
She tells me often these days, “I guess I’ve just become a curmudgeon in my old age.” This is her way of characterizing her impatience with work that displeases her, and she is—she would be the first to admit it—not always easy to please. I usually reply, “Yvonne, you’ve always been a curmudgeon.” But of course Yvonne is anything but a curmudgeon.
By contrast, here’s how some of her friends characterize her:
A jocular iconoclast
An eternal ingénue
A funnily fierce California girl
A charismatic comedienne
A revelation in locomotion
Sapio-sexual [I had to look up the meaning of that one—it means one who finds intelligence to be sexually attractive]
Taught the world how to walk
Put dance over a barrel
In the world
In her own world
Creator of her own world
Creator of our world.