Fitzcarraldo Editions is looking for a full-time publicist based in our Deptford office. The publicist will work closely with the publisher, associate publisher and publishing assistant to manage publicity and communications for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Responsibilities will include leading press campaigns for a dozen books published each year, organising and leading author tours, coordinating with colleagues on marketing initiatives (including selling books at book fairs, online sales, etc.) and publicity for our smaller US list. The position will suit someone able to work as part of a small team but also willing to use their initiative, with good communication and organisation skills, an aptitude for social media and engagement with online communities, an ability to work well under pressure, and good attention to detail. Industry experience in publicity is essential. To apply, please send your CV and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org by 1 February 2019. Interviews will be held soon afterwards. Salary is £24,000/year.
We’re delighted that Agustín Fernández Mallo will be in London for two events later this month:
Agustín Fernández Mallo will be in conversation with Isabel Waidner at Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, as part of the Goldsmiths Prize’s ‘Literary Laboratory’ event series.
7 – 8.30pm. Entry is free. RSVP via eventbrite.
LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building (PSH), Goldsmiths, University of London, London SE14 6NW
Agustín Fernández Mallo and Thomas Bunstead will be talking to the British Library’s translator in residence, Rahul Bery, about the Nocilla Trilogy, at the British Library.
7.15 – 8:25pm. Tickets £10 and available here.
Knowledge Centre, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB
Patrick Langley will be reading from Arkady at UEA Live.
From 7pm. Dragon Hall, 115-123 King Street, Norwich, NR1 1QE. Entrance is free.
More information can be found here.
Alejandro Zambra will be giving a keynote speech based on Not to Read at the Political Histories of Modern Reading conference at St John’s College, University of Oxford.
5–6.30pm. St John’s College, St Giles’, Oxford OX1 3JP.
Booking is required. More information can be found here.
Alejandro Zambra will be in conversation with Adam Thirlwell at TANK.
7–8.15pm. TANK, 91-93 Great Portland Street, London W1W 7NX. Tickets £8 (price includes the latest issue of TANK and a complimentary drink).
More information can be found here.
Brian Dillon will be chairing a panel discussion on contemporary approaches to narrative across different media and artistic forms at Tate Modern.
6.30–8pm. Starr Cinema, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Tickets £12.
More information here.
¶ Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it – the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.
You want to join us.
Your fear and confusion propel you into our arms; you want to nestle in there, but your tough body keeps clinging to its certainties; it pushes desire away, refuses to surrender.
I don’t blame you.
You live in another prison, a world of strength and bravery where you think you can be carried aloft in triumph; you think you can win the goodwill of the powerful, you seek glory and wealth. But when night falls, you tremble. You don’t drink, for you are afraid; you know that the burning sensation of alcohol plunges you into weakness, into an irresistible need to find caresses, a vanished tenderness, the lost world of childhood, gratification, the need to find peace when faced with the glistering uncertainty of darkness.
You think you desire my beauty, the softness of my skin, the brilliance of my smile, the delicacy of my limbs, the crimson of my lips, but actually, what you want without realizing it is for your fears to disappear, for healing, union, return, oblivion. This power inside you devours you in solitude.
So you suffer, lost in an infinite twilight, one foot in day and the other in night.
¶ Three bundles of sable and mink fur, one hundred and twelve panni of wool, nine rolls of Bergamo satin, the same quantity of gilt Florentine velvet, five barrels of saltpetre, two crates of mirrors and one little jewellery box: that is the list of things that disembark with Michelangelo Buonarroti in the port of Constantinople on Thursday, 13 May 1506. Almost as soon as the frigate moors, the sculptor leaps ashore. He sways a little after six days of difficult sailing. No one knows the name of the Greek dragoman waiting for him, so we’ll call him Manuel; we do, however, know the name of the merchant accompanying him: Giovanni di Francesco Maringhi, a Florentine who has been living in Istanbul for five years now. The merchandise belongs to him. He is a friendly man, happy to meet this hero of the republic of Florence, the sculptor of David.
Of course Istanbul was very different then; it was known as Constantinople; Hagia Sophia sat enthroned alone without the Blue Mosque, the east bank of the Bosphorus was bare, the great bazaar was not yet that immense spider-web where tourists from all over the world lose themselves so they can be devoured. The Empire was no longer Roman and not really the Empire; the city swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews and Latins; the Sultan was named Bayezid the second, nicknamed the Holy, the Pious, the Just. The Florentines and Venetians called him Bajazeto, the French Bajazet. He was a wise, tactful man who reigned for thirty-one years; he loved wine, poetry and music; he didn’t turn his nose up at either men or women; he appreciated the arts and sciences, astronomy, architecture, the pleasures of war, swift horses and sharp weapons. It is not known why he invited Michelangelo Buonarroti of the Buonarrotis of Florence to Istanbul, though certainly the sculptor was already enjoying great renown in Italy. Some saw him at the age of thirty-one as the greatest artist of the time. He was often compared to the immense Leonardo da Vinci, twenty years his senior.
¶ That year Michelangelo left Rome on a sudden impulse, on Saturday 17 April, the day before the laying of the first stone of the new St Peter’s Basilica. He had gone for the fifth day in a row to request that the Pope deign to honour his promise of additional money. He was turned away each time.
Michelangelo Buonarroti shivers in his wool coat; the spring is timid, rainy. He reaches the borders of the republic of Florence as the clock strikes 2 a.m., Ascanio Condivi, his biographer, tells us; he stops over at an inn thirty leagues from the city.
Michelangelo rails against Julius II, the warlike, authoritarian pope who has treated him so poorly. Michelangelo is proud. Michelangelo is aware that he is an artist of great talent.
Knowing he is safe in Florentine territory, he turns away the attendants the Pope has sent after him with orders to bring him back to Rome, by force if necessary. He reaches Florence the next day in time for supper. His servant gives him a thin broth. Michelangelo curses the architect Bramante and the painter Raphael, those jealous types who, he thinks, have served him a bad turn with the Pope. Pontiff Julius Della Rovere is a proud man too. Proud, authoritarian, and a miser. The artist had to pay from his own pocket the cost of the marble that he went to pick out in Carrara to build the papal tomb, an immense monument that would sit enthroned right in the middle of the new basilica. Michelangelo sighs. The advance on the contract signed by the Pope had been spent on furs, travel, and apprentices to quarry the blocks.
The sculptor, exhausted by the journey and his troubles, a little warmed by the broth, shuts himself away in his narrow Renaissance bed and falls asleep sitting up, his back against a cushion, because he is afraid of the image of death the outstretched position suggests.
I imagine limbo as an extraterritoriality without walls, without corners, windows, entrances or exits. I can also cast it as ocean and desert wilderness. Or a blind-black void that has swallowed all light and matter and threatens a sublime death. ‘’Tis a strange place, this Limbo!’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagines ‘Time and weary Space / Fettered from flight, with night- mare sense of fleeing / Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.’ (As Ridley Scott’s Alien warned audiences: ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’) Limbo might bring to mind a zone of white nothingness. A space of minimalist perfection that looks like a giant infinity curve or the interior of a contemporary art museum. In his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’, the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty describes the effects of the ‘unshadowed, white, clean, artificial’ spaces of the art gallery, in which art ‘exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of “period” (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status: one has to have died already to be there.’ Limbo is at the apex of visual sophistication: an extra-dimensional loft done out in luxury-plain Jil Sander grey. Empty and placid, with not even a reproduction Eames chair to interrupt the anodyne tastefulness. No mess, no colour, no life. No hint of recidivist ornament – Adolf Loos would have loved limbo. In Harold Pinter’s words, a ‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’ (And full of dread: ‘Nomaneslond’ was the fourteenth-century name for execution sites to the north of London’s city walls.) No day, no night, no seasons. ‘Lank space,’ Coleridge called it. Or is it? By definition it stands for an in-between space. Limbo appears at the edge of daybreak and at dusk. It’s a cusp word used for ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼conversations held in the golden hour.
Limbo; that corporeal first consonant, the symbolic, annular nothing at the end of its second, the deliciously dumb sound that both sing together. How do you define a secular nothing into which you can drop anything? This green zone’s permutations are many. For comics fans, Comic Book Limbo is where old or unwanted characters are dumped by their publisher, DC: Animal Man, Merryman, Ace the Bat-Hound, The Gay Ghost. In the final instalment of The Wachowski Sisters’ Matrix trilogy, limbo is anagrammatized into Mobil Avenue subway station, and in Christopher Nolan’s action flick Inception, it’s the name of an ‘unreconstructed dreamspace’ into which a pair of lovers retreat. The titular free spirit in Andre Breton’s 1928 surrealist novel, Nadja, announces: ‘I am the soul in limbo.’ When she is committed to the Vaucluse sanitorium, the narrator observes: ‘The essential thing is that I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.’ The Man From Limbo is a novel written in 1930 by Hollywood screenwriter Guy Endore, later blacklisted as a Communist; limbo is the poverty from which the book’s hero tries to escape, and where Endore later found his career had slipped. The Man From Limbo is also the title of a 1950s noir detective story by John D. MacDonald in which a damaged army veteran on his uppers, coerced by his shrink to become a salesman, gets caught up in a political corruption scandal – limbo is where the anti-hero’s war trauma has consigned his dignity.
For the Danish game developers Playdead, Limbo is a quiet, puzzle-solving videogame about loss. In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life, a drab administrative centre-cum-film studio processes dead ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼souls on their way to heaven. Here, social workers help the souls identify their happiest memory. The dead wait patiently in limbo as this memory is recreated for them to experience for the rest of eternity. The subtitle to John Wallace Spencer’s Limbo of the Lost, written in 1969, promises ‘Actual Stories of Sea Mysteries’. Limbo District was the name of a a short-lived but influential band in Athens, Georgia, during the 1990s. I am told that in Marseille there is a neighbourhood bar with a sign in the window which declares: ‘Bienvenue dans les limbes.’ For the Long Trail Brewing Company in the US state of Vermont, Limbo is the name of an India pale ale. On the bottle’s label a skeleton sits beneath a blood-red tree, bringing to mind the one about the skeleton who walks into a bar and orders a pint of lager and a mop.
Tuesday, 2 October: Launch party for Limbo by Dan Fox
Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions for the launch of Limbo by Dan Fox at Tenderbooks.
6-8pm. Tenderbooks, 6 Cecil Ct, London WC2N 4HE.
The launch is free and open to all. Please RSVP to email@example.com
Wednesday, 3 October: Christina Hesselholdt at the American University of Paris
Christina Hesselholdt will be presenting her novel Companions at the AUP.
6.30pm. Room 103 of 6 rue Colonel Combes (75007). Free and open to all but please notify AUP at firstname.lastname@example.org at least 24 hours before the event and bring a photo ID.
Annie Ernaux will be reading from and discussing The Years at Shakespeare and Co.
7pm. 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France. Free and open to all.
More information can be found on the Shakespeare and Co. website.
Monday, 15 October: Launch party for Olga Tokarczuk at TANK.
Please join us for the launch of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Olga Tokarczuk and Antonia Lloyd-Jones will give a short reading and there will be some drinks.
The event is free to attend but please RSVP to email@example.com
6.30pm-8.30pm. TANK, 91-93 Great Portland Street, London W1W 7NX.
We host an exclusive UK screening of Spoor (Pokot) – directed by Agnieszka Holland and based on Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – in partnership with the Curzon Bloomsbury. There will be a Q&A with Olga Tokarczuk after the screening.
6pm-9.30pm. Curzon Bloomsbury, The Brunswick Centre, London WC1N 1AW.
Tickets are £16 and available to book on Curzon’s website.
Olga Tokarczuk will be in conversation with Kasia Boddy at an event hosted by the Cambridge Literary Festival at Heffers Bookshop Cambridge.
6.30pm. Heffers, 20 Trinity St, Cambridge CB2 1TY.
Tickets are £10 and available to book here.
Olga Tokarczuk and Antonia Lloyd-Jones will be discussing Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead at London Literature Festival, hosted by the Southbank Centre.
7.45pm. Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX.
Tickets £15 (£3 booking fee) and available to book here.
Mathias Enard will be in conversation with Nicola Lagioia (chaired by Catherine Taylor), discussing the role of the European novel in the face of political turmoil. The event is part of the Festival of Italian Literature in London, and will take place at Print Room at the Coronet.
4.45pm. Print Room at the Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate, Kensington, London W11 3LB.
Tickets are £5 and available to book here.
Mathias Enard will be reading from and discussing his novella Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (tr. Charlotte Mandell, published 1 November 2018) with Elif Shafak at the London Review Bookshop.
7pm. 14-16 Bury Pl, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL.
Tickets are £10 and available to buy on the LRB bookshop’s website.
Please join us to celebrate the launch of Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (tr. Charlotte Mandell) at Caravansérail, 5 Cheshire Street, London E2 6ED from 6.30-8.30pm. There will a short reading; there will be drinks. The launch is free and open to all but please RSVP here.
I. NOW PAY ATTENTION
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.
Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the sky, I wouldn’t have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I had fallen very fast asleep; I had helped myself with an infusion of hops, and I also took two valerian pills. So when I was woken in the middle of the Night by hammering on the door – violent, immoderate and thus ill-omened – I was unable to come round. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn’t make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if about to lose consciousness. Unfortunately this has been happening to me lately, and has to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and tell myself several times: I’m at home, it’s Night, someone’s banging on the door; only then did I manage to control my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I keep the pepper spray Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what now came to mind. In the darkness I managed to seek out the familiar, cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came my neighbour, whom I call Oddball. He was wrapping himself in the tails of the old sheepskin coat I’d sometimes seen him wearing as he worked outside the house. Below the coat I could see his striped pyjamas and heavy hiking boots.
‘Open up,’ he said.
With undisguised astonishment he cast a glance at my linen suit (I sleep in something the Professor and his wife wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from the past and the days of my youth – thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental) and without a by-your-leave he came inside.
‘Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead.’
For a while I was speechless with shock; without a word I put on my tall snow boots and the first fleece to hand from the coat rack. Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons.
‘What do you mean, dead?’ I finally asked, my throat tightening, as I opened the door, but Oddball didn’t answer.
He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve. We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and clouds of white steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Oddball’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just in front of him, as I tripped along in the Murk behind him.
‘Don’t you have a torch?’ he asked.
Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to tell where it was until morning, in the daylight. It’s a feature of torches that they’re only visible in the daytime.
Big Foot’s cottage stood slightly out of the way, higher up than the other houses. It was one of three inhabited all year round. Only he, Oddball and I lived here without fear of the winter; all the other inhabitants had sealed their houses shut in October, drained the water from the pipes and gone back to the city.
Now we turned off the partly cleared road that runs across our hamlet and splits into paths leading to each of the houses. A path trodden in deep snow led to Big Foot’s house, so narrow that you had to set one foot behind the other while trying to keep your balance.
‘It won’t be a pretty sight,’ warned Oddball, turning to face me, and briefly blinding me with his headlamp.
I wasn’t expecting anything else. For a while he was silent, and then, as if to explain himself, he said: ‘I was alarmed by the light in his kitchen and the dog barking so plaintively. Didn’t you hear it?’
No, I didn’t. I was asleep, numbed by hops and valerian.
‘Where is she now, the Dog?’
‘I took her away from here – she’s at my place, I fed her and she seemed to calm down.’
Another moment of silence.
‘He always put out the light and went to bed early to save money, but this time it continued to burn. A bright streak against the snow. Visible from my bedroom window. So I went over there, thinking he might have got drunk or was doing the dog harm, for it to be howling like that.’
We passed a tumbledown barn and moments later Oddball’s torch fetched out of the darkness two pairs of shining eyes, pale green and fluorescent.
‘Look, Deer,’ I said in a raised whisper, grabbing him by the coat sleeve. ‘They’ve come so close to the house. Aren’t they afraid?’
The Deer were standing in the snow almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn’t fathom. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones. And in fact why only two? That time there had been at least four of them.
‘Go home,’ I said to the Deer, and started waving my arms. They twitched, but didn’t move. They calmly stared after us, all the way to the front door. A shiver ran through me.
Meanwhile Oddball was stamping his feet to shake the snow off his boots outside the neglected cottage. The small windows were sealed with plastic and cardboard, and the wooden door was covered with black tar paper.
On a normal evening in January, a year and a half ago, I lay beside my mother on her bed. Although the television was on across the room, probably tuned to the news, we were on YouTube watching music videos by a singer named Anbuley. Anbuley, a stunning, lithe-limbed Ghanaian singer, has hair long enough for her to look like an African rendering of Eve. But this was not the reason for our watching. Rather, I had brought her to my mother for translation. She sings each of her songs in vibrant, forceful Ga, the language of my parents. Even now, she is the only contemporary artist I know of who does this and, since I don’t understand a word, my mother began to interpret for me.
My inability to speak or comprehend Ga is both surprising and unremarkable. Surprising, because my parents share this ethnic group, and have spoken the language to each other all my life. Surprising, also, because while I don’t understand it at all, I know its signature intimately. I’ve overheard it spoken between strangers on the street and guessed – with their confirmation – that what they were speaking was Ga. What, then, could be unremarkable about this? Nothing other than the fact that it is a very common experience. Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and writer, uses a daunting comparison to make this clear. “No biologist,” he warns in his essay collection The Wayfinders (2009), “would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” Davis goes on to summarise in more frank terms: “Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes.”
When I let these words sink in, I hear a forest full of birds. An orchestra of seven thousand songs that combine and sometimes clash to form a living, organic, polyrhythmic heartbeat of life. For whatever reason, some of the songs rise over the others. Forget, for this moment, about history; about colonialism or conquest. These louder songs carry the overall melody – perhaps they are the strings section. Other songs, in the meantime, are audible only rarely, and mostly not at all. They are the triangle that dings subtle-bright in the background, easily missed. As time goes by, these quieter songs disappear, or join the winning tune. The overall melody becomes homogenous and weighted, too heavy for itself to carry that sense of lightness that great music can invoke. It grows boring, first, then unbearable, then oppressive. It is without joy, or surprise, and is all that can be heard.
As I lay beside my mum in conversation that evening, a thought came to me. If, as had long been happening, I could approach my mother to translate Ga songs into English for me, why, then, couldn’t I ask her to translate my own work into Ga? If, as a poet who performs regularly, I knew my own work deeply, surely the access to Ga translations would enable me to become more familiar with the language as a step towards learning it. Then, another thought, or rather, a remembering: my situation is unremarkable. I don’t have enough fingers – and possibly not even enough toes – to count the individuals I know who do not speak the language of their parents. Knowing that a number of them are poets too, it occurred to me to think bigger about this small idea. Even where the language had survived the generational distance, was there not still something of value in the act of sharing and translation alone? That night, back in my own room, I scribbled everything down in a new notebook. I named each of my motivations and fears, then noted the names of the poets I had in mind. I wrote continuously for about five pages, and headed it all with the title MOTHER TONGUES.
A year and a half on, at the time of my writing this, MOTHER TONGUES is an intergenerational poetry, translation, and film project that sees four celebrated young, female poets in collaboration with their mother-figures. Each poet invites her mother to translate a poem into her native language. Later, the poet and mother visit a studio where the mother is filmed reciting her translation, followed by the poet reciting the original. A conversation is then captured between the two, prompted by questions (from myself) that aren’t heard in the final cut. Each ten-minute film features one poet-daughter and her mother, the poets being Belinda Zhawi, Theresa Lola, Tania Nwachukwu, and myself. The films debuted at Rivington Place Gallery in Shoreditch, London on Wednesday 26 July; tickets sold out within 48 hours.
Something Bright, Then Holes
I used to do this, the self I was
used to do this
the selves I no longer am
Something bright, then holes
is how a girl, newly-sighted, once
described a hand. I reread
your letters, and remember
correctly: you wanted to eat
through me. Then fall asleep
with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough
to hear it kick. Learn everything
there is to know
about loving someone
then walk away, coolly
I’m not ashamed
Love is large and monstrous
Never again will I be so blind, so ungenerous
O bright snatches of flesh, blue
and pink, then four dark furrows, four
funnels, leading into an infinite ditch
The heart, too, is porous;
I lost the water you poured into it
Joan Jonas bought her first video camera, a Sony Portapak, also known as the Video Rover, on a trip to Japan in 1970. In the history of video art, there is no more celebrated piece of kit. It’s said that on its release in 1965 Nam June Paik was the first artist to start using this newly consumer-priced set-up. Andy Warhol’s videos of the same year (including a dazed portrait of Edie Sedgwick) were made with a large borrowed Philips camera, but he too began using the smaller and simpler Sony in 1970. William Eggleston bought two, stuck fancier lenses on them, and documented the Memphis demi-monde for his film Stranded in Canton. Jonas, who at this point had worked mostly in performance and made one short film, realised that the combination of camera, monitor and recorder would allow her to see results straight away in her studio. Already preoccupied by mirrors and mirroring – Borges was an influence – she turned the Portapak on herself and executed what Rosalind Krauss would later call a ‘weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism’.
‘Narcissism’ is not exactly a judgment, more a description of process. In her earliest videos, which one comes across quickly in Tate Modern’s ambitious but sometimes frustrating survey (until 5 August), Jonas appears as Organic Honey: a feathered 1930s-style starlet, wearing a close-fitting mask from an erotica store on Manhattan’s 42nd Street. In blurry black and white, Organic Honey stares into a broken mirror, then back at the camera. She distorts her features by pressing her face to a large glass jar full of water, into which she tosses coins as if it were a lucky fountain. The enigmatic action is periodically accompanied by loud electronic buzzing. There are more mirrors: small and round, large and triangular, close-up and getting smashed with a hammer. Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972) is a study of pictorial space, the performing body and Jonas’s relationship with certain eloquent objects, whose outlines she draws frenziedly: old dolls and fans inherited from her grandmother.
Though she is commonly referred to as a performance artist, both the content and form of Jonas’s videos from the 1970s make a good case for seeing her as a major figure in the medium. Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1973) is shown in the same room at Tate Modern. This time, Organic Honey examines her naked body with a handheld mirror, performs a belly dance, and jumps up and down in time with a regular upwards slippage of the video image. (Jonas tweaked the vertical hold on a monitor to make it break into something resembling the frames of a film, and then trained a second camera on this glitchy video feed.) Elsewhere in the exhibition, tucked a little shamefully into a corner, is the sparse installation Glass Puzzle II (1974/2000). Projected in black and white, Jonas and the artist Lois Lane pose (to a reggae soundtrack) in attitudes based on E.J. Bellocq’s famous photographs of prostitutes in Storyville, New Orleans, in the 1910s. There’s a child’s desk in the foreground of this video, and a later copy of it in the gallery. Nearby, a small colour monitor shows the two women standing beneath a horizontal pole that swings back and forth: a reminder that Jonas is as interested in minimally sculptural forms as she is in any sort of external reference point.
Glass Puzzle II operates very well as a single-channel video: a conceptually smart and formally arresting work in itself, and the record of an unrehearsed performance at Jonas’s SoHo loft. But like much of her art it has been reconfigured as a dispersed set of objects in the gallery, including props and images, which may function without the artist’s presence, and so provoke the question of where and how each of these categories – video, performance and installation – abuts or bleeds into the others. In 1976 Jonas had an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where she began calling her installations ‘stage sets’ – these could incorporate performances, or stand in for them. The Juniper Tree, from the same year, was originally conceived as a performance for children, and is based on the Grimm tale of the same title, which the poet Susan Howe, an old friend, had recommended. (A young boy is beheaded by his wicked stepmother, served up to his father, reincarnated as an avenging bird.) The ‘stage set’ version at Tate Modern, constructed in 1994, has a recording of Jonas reading the story, projected slides of various performances of the work and an assemblage of paintings, props and costumes. It feels dense and lurid and generous, even in the absence of Jonas and her collaborators.