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Performance art pioneer Jonas fills all the rooms of the exhibition with video projections, drawings and objects to evoke a strange waking dream, filled with import and meaning.
Post-Art Week, scene still sizzles

The breadth of life, in 5 rooms

Singapore Art Week might officially be over, but some shows are still open and generating buzz. BT Lifestyle picks out four of the must-sees
Jan 29, 2016 5:50 AM

IT may only be January. But after seeing Joan Jonas' show at NTU Centre of Contemporary Art (CCA) in Gillman Barracks, one feels tempted to close the vote and call this the best art show of 2016.

When the show debuted at the US Pavilion of the prestigious Venice Biennale last year, The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith declared it "a triumph ... one of the best solo shows to represent the United States at the biennale in over a decade". Ms Smith is not known to exaggerate.

At 79, Jonas is one of the most original - if undersung - artists in the world. Her hybrid practice incorporates performance, dance, video, music and other forms to create a unique artistic language. In this acclaimed exhibition titled They Come To Us Without A Word, she layers visuals, objects, sound and text to cast a moon-lit spell on the viewer.

The exhibition comprises five rooms titled Bees, Fish, Mirrors, Wind and Homeroom respectively. In each room, she screens videos at the centre or the side of the room. Some of the videos feature child performers doing playful things such as braiding each other's hair or pretending to fish. There are dozens of drawings, masks, mirrors and other objects placed around the rooms - so many elements, in fact, that one feels overwhelmed at first.

But spend an hour or so in the rooms and ideas start to take shape. Images of the bees and the fish in the Bees and Fish rooms reflect Jonas' long-standing concern with the environment - bee populations around the world are dropping dramatically, while various fish specimens face extinction due to over-fishing and pollution.

Meanwhile, the Wind room has numerous handmade kites hung from the ceiling to indicate a different kind of extinction - the death of traditional trades such as kite-making and lantern-making.

This sense of an ending is augmented by the multi-layered soundscape that includes cryptic narratives of ghosts. One story goes: "My father used to hear voices from the other side of life. He'd go up in the forest to a space there, and he'd just sit down and talk with his own father, my grandfather, and others - other people in the world."

If the septuagenarian artist is interested in mortality, that interest doesn't express itself through sombre visuals and funereal music. Rather, the videos depict kids happily playing against backgrounds of honeycombs, the ocean and forests. And the drawings of fish, bees and other animals are child-like in their simplicity and brightness.

Jonas herself appears in some of the videos looking content as she swims with her dog or pretends that a grove of wheat is a harp she can play. Indeed, there is a profound sense of delight at the endless possibilities that life brings daily - even as ideas of extinction and ecological destruction abound.

Jonas became an artist in the 1960s but only gained widespread attention in the 2000s. But her five-decade-long practice has helped her create a language that one must decipher through feeling and intuition. Only by an open-hearted embrace of this strange waking dream can one channel the recesses of its meaning.

They Come To Us Without A Word is now on at NTU Centre of Contemporary Art, Gillman Barracks, till April 3. Open from Tues to Sun