Joan Jonas
Installation view of “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror,” 2018–19. Photo: Laura Shea

Joan Jonas

South Hadley, Massachusetts

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

A mirror is something like a black hole—you can’t really see it, only what’s around it. And it could lead into another dimension. Joan Jonas’s pioneering multimedia work has that same potential. Having experienced it, we come back altered. Over a long and distinguished career (beginning in the 1960s), the “mother of all performance art” has also produced objective art and installations, most notably at the Venice Biennale in 2015, as well as at Dia:Beacon and Tate Modern. With no pretense of covering all those bases, “Promise of the Infinite,” a mini-retrospective on view through June 16, focuses on one salient theme running from her earliest performances (captured on 16mm film) to recent installations—the mirror as metaphor and object.

The projected video Nudes with Mirrors features a handful of nude women standing next to full-length looking glasses, arranged so that their reflected images bisect the actual bodies and render perfectly symmetrical figures. For a time, no one moves except a nude man, who pointlessly puts on and takes off a dark jacket with mirrored panels that randomly flash like strobe lights but, oddly, reflect nothing. At length the women move their mirrors to reflect each other.

In Wind, a film produced during a stiff windstorm on a Long Island beach, Jonas’s actors battle nature. It’s hard to tell if we’re seeing snow, blowing sand, or a deliberate graininess in the medium. Dark-clad people, some wearing Lone Ranger masks, struggle against the wind, taking off their coats and trying futilely to put them on again. They brace against each other in pairs. One couple is wrapped back to back in aluminum foil; they try to stay upright and collapse into a tangle of black and foil. The power of the weather is palpable. In the background, a man and a woman wearing garments with mirrored panels sidestep calmly across the landscape, a weird counterpoint to the foreground action. As the film ends, a dark, cloaked figure walks straight into the camera, grinning a Cheshire cat grin that is the only thing visible against Jonas’s ebony image.

Mirror Improvisation, an almost silly piece shot in color but with antiquated jerky film speed, is antithetical in mood. Two women, wearing tall green paper hats and pink tutus over their rolled-up jeans, build, demolish, and rebuild something like a child’s quirky fort. They chase each other and fence with crudely whittled wooden swords. There’s a white dog, and a flag of sorts. Their distorted images appear to be shot from ground level with a fisheye lens. Only as the short piece proceeds do we realize that their capers are reflected in a convex oval mirror set on the grass. As a final tweak, Jonas holds another, smaller mirror to reflect into the oval mirror; we see the camera on its tripod, higher up, and we have no idea what is seen directly and what is reflected.

Small though this show is, with just four works, it reveals a playful and intelligent spirit, unafraid to blaze new trails. These many decades later, Jonas’s experiments with the mirror as a conceptual stand-in for the distortions and insights of the imagination remain fresh and wittily provocative.