Where the Glacier Meets the Sky

Date and time
Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Where the Glacier Meets the Sky

Joan Jonas: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Joan Jonas: From Away. These concepts are female subjectivity, nature, gesture, and ghost.

Content: Nature

"Where the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens; no sorrows live there anymore, and therefore joy is not necessary; beauty alone reigns there, beyond all demands [1]."
- Halldór Laxness

The beauty of nature is called upon in much of Joan Jonas’s work. This is beauty that is beyond words, beyond definition, or as Laxness states above, beyond demands. Along with its beauty, the force of nature is ever present in Jonas’s art production. She calls our attention to the fluidity and rhythm of the natural world, with its sounds, movements and textures. At times nature is strong and overpowering, as in Wind (1968); other times, we are awestruck by its sublime quality, as in Glacier (2010). But beyond simply referring to nature, its force and its beauty, Jonas’s engagement with the natural environment and the animals that inhabit it is paramount to many of her works.

This is most poignant in They Come to Us Without a Word (2015), where spaces are dedicated to bees, fish, the ocean, and the wind. In this work, Jonas addresses the very present danger of climate change and the extinction of numerous animal species. One of Jonas’s inspirations for this work is John Berger’s influential text, “Why Look at Animals?” from 1980, in which he discusses the evolving relationship between humans and animals throughout history. In reference to this text, Jonas states: “I think of the honeybee and how it functions, building combs, pollinating flowers, making honey, and dancing in order to communicate to the bees of the colony [...]. Bees are in trouble, as we all know. We depend on their existence [2]”.

Jonas taps into our relationships with both animals and nature in her theatrical choreographies. In Reanimation (2012), she transforms into a fox with a mask and a gesture. With a series of movements, fluid and agile, she becomes the animal interacting with its environment, as images of Icelandic landscapes are projected onto its body – onto her body. In this way, she also becomes the landscape, connecting with the ice, glaciers, mountains, and volcanoes that inspire this work, as outlined in Laxness’ poetic description above.

Perhaps, as Laxness suggests, we do not need sorrow, nor do we need joy. Perhaps the earth and the sky are indeed one. Perhaps all we need is the honeybee, the fish, the wind, and the ocean, offering us a sublime and transcendental beauty. This is what we must strive to protect. Should we become one with these natural elements, as Jonas does, and as Laxness suggests, our prospects might look brighter.

Nature has been a popular subject matter for artists throughout history. Through painting, drawing, photography, and installation, artists have explored many different views of the natural world (for example, nature as wild, tame, sublime, beautiful, overpowering). How would you situate Jonas’s practice in this long tradition?

In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger writes: “In the last two centuries, animals have disappeared. Today we live without them.” What do you think of this statement?

Amanda Beattie
DHC/ART Education


[1] LAXNESS, Halldór (1969 [1940]). World Light. Translated from Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
[2] JONAS, Joan (2015). “‘Why Look at Animals?’ by John Berger. Five Artists, Five Book Reviews”. The New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 25 edition. Online.

Photo: Joan Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word, 2015. Video still, courtesy of the artist.

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