Joan Jonas, Rineke Dijkstra, Joachim Koester. Oct 2012

In this essay I will be discussing Performance, somewhat focusing on using the body to express something unseen, in two exhibitions and one artist talk I attended in July/August of 2012. I will be looking at works by Joan Jonas, Rineke Dijkstra and Joachim Koester from the subjective perspective of being a member of the audience. With the exception of having seen Dijkstra’s photographs before, the artists were unfamiliar to me. It surprised me that experiencing their work offered a complex mix of feelings, ideas and resolutions that insidiously crept into the domain of my own artistic process. I picked up threads in the work of the three artists, as well as my own, that latticed sometimes harmoniously and sometimes jarringly.

Renike Dijkstra
I saw ‘BuzzClub’ (1996) and ‘Krazyhouse’ (2009) as part of the ‘Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective’ exhibition at the Guggenheim, NY. Both video works are of teenagers filmed dancing to music, however, I perceived a very different tone in each one. According to Don Burmeister, Djikstra “specializes in teenagers – awkward, anxious, determined, placed into positions that they can barely understand” (The New York Photo Review, Volume 3/Issue 30). My initial reaction to ‘BuzzClub’ was one of simultaneous fascination and discomfort. Added to this were layers of nostalgia, scopophilia and protectiveness. The voyeur in me was rapt watching the revealing performance on the large screen, I related to the subject through my own memories of being a passionate teenage dancer and clubber in the UK, and as a high-school teacher regularly witnessing the fragility and bloody mess that this transitional phase entails, I was annoyed. ‘BuzzClub’ seemed particularly exploitative to me because many (if not all) the subjects were “high”, appeared to have been yanked off the dance-floor (sweat and all) isolating them from their context and making the direction aggressive and intrusive. In his article, Burmeister comments that: “what comes across is the brazenness of the videographer… The power of the adult to force these people to ‘dance’ on command is chilling… there is no empathy between the subject and the artist” (The New York Photo Review, Volume 3/Issue 30). Like a typically offensive reality show, I dismissed it and moved on.

When I came across ‘Krazyhouse’ (a few floors up), the effect was very different. The dancing teenagers appeared more in control of their visual presentation; they were carefully prepared and fully clad in their fashionable attire. They responded to and engaged with, what I perceived were, their own musical preferences (some mouthing to the lyrics) slowly and incrementally, and their performances seemed more grounded and conscious. There were no seats available in the room, and as these images loomed larger than life on screens, the audience either stood or sat on the floor, while watching them. It was mesmerising to witness the gradual influence the music had on each performer, as its energy unfurled, Kundalini like, building up into a joyous and dynamic climax, at a pace directly proportional to the individual’s loss of inhibition. I was suddenly aware of my own body moving in full participation. It occurred to me that the experience felt “spiritual”, as the teenage dancers, Guru-like, embodied a powerful, yet hidden, transformation and transmitted it successfully so that I was fully engaged. I became appreciative of what Kyle Chayka attributes to Dijkstra’s work:
 “[She has] the power of shooting her subjects in moments of distress or suspension, times when the wall between the individual and society comes down and the soul is bared.” (Kyle Chayka, 2012)
What struck me most was the extent to which the nuances of the process, which Dijkstra describes as: “having control and not having control” over, affected my perception. The contrast between the two video installations was dramatic.  In one, the subject was ogled at, singled out like an anthropological specimen, in the other, the dancers enticed inspiration, elation and engagement.
Joakim Koester

“The unknown – in its scientific, metaphysical, and historical variety – has been central to the work of Joachim Koester… for over two decades” (MIT press release, 2012). ‘Tarantism’ (2007) was a film shown as part of Joachim Koester’s ‘To Navigate, In A Genuine Way, In The Unknown…’ exhibition at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. A large screen displayed a number of performers convulsing and jerking wildly, and was situated at the end of a dark room, pricked by tiny rays of light coming through boarded up windows. It was a spacious room, so did not feel claustrophobic, and I sat in the dark watching the screen, trying to decipher my surroundings. The boarded up windows evoked a literal meaning of something hidden, unknown and, for me, connected with Koester’s ‘Morning Of The Magicians’ (2005) depicting the Sicilian villa where Alistair Crowley conducted his “religious, social and personal” experiments (also part of the exhibition). I was not sure whether they were also referencing a cliché image in horror movies, of being shut up without hope of escape therefore alluding to being trapped (in a body?S). As I watched the performers “dance”, I was conscious of experiencing something orchestrated and was responding analytically and not emotionally or physically. Koester comments: “…the film [is] structured around six individually choreographed parts, each defined by a different set of rules”. That the performance is staged, is enhanced by the fact that the dancers, each using their own expressive gestures, stop their extreme movements suddenly and resume their normal positions.

Sebastian Smee, wrote in his article (Boston Globe, 2012) that, even though he considered ‘Tarantism’ one of the artist’s most successful works: “Koester’s efforts almost never achieve the buoyancy required to become their own thing, rather than a series of intriguingly illustrated Wikipedia entries”. I must admit that the historical evolution of the dance inspired me more than the work did. It was once believed to ward off symptoms caused by the bite of the tarantula, and in an interview, Koester disclosed that the spider has since been proven harmless, and that it was estimated that only a few of the afflicted had actually been bitten. “It was known as a cure for physical poisoning, but it addressed subconscious ailment” (Koester, Whitehot Magazine, 2007).

In both Dijkstra’s and Koester’s work, the audience is confronted with performers expressing something internal. Associations are perhaps made with the prevalent, yet often hidden rituals performed globally, the complexity of the physical, mental and spiritual components of our being and of the body being manipulated by the unknown.  
Joan Jonas

In her artist talk at AIB, Jonas talked about there being a thin line between acting and performance. In her attempt to distinguish the two, she said: “[In performance, I] treat[ing] my body as material… It has to do with the way people perform in rituals – a little related to dance - and acting is primarily involved with text and also manipulating the voice and face in different ways” (Jonas, 2012).

Several of the ideas that Jonas discussed that evening interested me. She mentioned that through the process of wearing masks, dressing up and using disguises, she developed imaginary characters, states of mind and alter egos. “In a way, I found myself through the video transformations” (Jonas, 2012). The medium of video enabled her to add a layer of detail and projection to her performances. She also talked about how she created drawings of her dog, which became part of the set, representing the presence of the dog and referencing “a mythic relation to animals” (Jonas, p.54). In ‘Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy’ (1972), Jonas performs by physically juxtaposing herself with the dog drawing, unifying the two elements, and “the dog and the woman become one.” (Jonas, 2012).

In my own video work, which I am still in the process of resolving, I am addressing all of the core themes mentioned above. The hybridization of woman and animal, archetypal personae, mythology and the layering of imagery in video, all feature in my assembly of moving images.

In terms of thinking about my own creations, the work of all three artists not only explored the role of the performer extensively but also made me reflect on who that performer should be. Using one’s own body and image enables more control of the process and result. However, it may be that the loss of control is precisely what is needed to do the content justice. Jonas employs a “double” now that she is older and Koester hires professional dancers who can operate their bodies very deliberately, as the body’s limitations are another consideration. The ‘objectification’ of a performer is an issue that I am interested in, especially when dealing with women and animals, and I intend to push this in my own work. The function of video as a device to move experiencing the performance from directly to indirectly, and thus heightening the mystery and the unknown, is also potent to me. And lastly scale is something that I would like to experiment with. Although all the work I saw was on a large screen, Jonas’s small ‘My New Theatre’ series (1997-2006) resonated with the way I am thinking of presenting some of my films. 
Word count: 1520

Ratti A., Pinto R., Jonas J. et al, ‘Joan Jonas’, Charta, Milan, 2007


‘Joan Jonas Visiting Artist Presentation’ DVD, The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, 25 June 2012


‘If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’, Joachim Koester, online article, accessed 17.9.12,

’Tarantism’, Sebastian Smee, Bostonn Globe, online article, accessed 17.9.2012,

’Tarantism’, Jan Mot, Whitehot magazine, online article, accessed 17.9.12,

‘Joachim Koester at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge’, Conversation with Joachim Koester and João Ribas , MIT press release, online article, accessed 17.9.12,

‘A Return To Video Is Moving, Roberta A Smith, New York Times, online article, accessed 17.9.12,

‘At the Guggenheim, Rineke Dijkstra’s Portraits Dive Into the Deep Waters of Human Vulnerability’, Blouin Artinfo, Kyle Chayka, online article, accessed 17.9.12,

‘Teenage Wasteland’, Don Burmeister, The New York Photo Review Volume 3/Issue 30, online article, accessed17.9.12,  

 ‘Kadiview with Joachim Koester 2’, Kadview, online video, accessed 17.9.12, 

‘Joachim Koester’, typischmichiel, online video, accessed 17.9.12,

‘Artist Rineke Dijkstra on “The Krazyhouse” Series at the Guggenheim, Guggenheim, online video, accessed 7.9.12,

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