Among the dimly lit chambers of the United States Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Joan Jonas has placed several glass cases among her installation of videos, props, drawings, and mirrors. The glass cases don’t command much attention at first glance. Their shadowy interiors contain clippings, curios, handwritten notes, masks, and small natural specimens. One case features a cylinder made of an impossibly delicate latticework of white glass, no more than eight inches long, tapered and curved at one end. An adjacent handwritten note explains that the object is a Venus basket, the skeletal remains of a deep-water sponge whose body is a cage-like structure of glass filament. A pair of shrimp occupy each Venus basket in a symbiotic relationship, the note explains, eventually growing too large to escape through the holes in the lattice. They mate, and their tiny babies slip out of the cage, off to find their own mates in their own glass prisons.
This is one element of one small part of Jonas’ installation, but it cuts to the core of a theme that weaves through the entire pavilion: the poetic and vexing relationship we have to animals. Videos contain bees, buffalo, dogs, vintage footage of a girl riding a horse through water so deep that the animal seems to be struggling. The walls are lined with quick, expressive drawings in colored ink of birds, bees, and fish. Videos are projected onto screens made of raw wood, set at angles in the center of each room. The videos record children manipulating props, wearing simple costumes, and responding to instructions, often overlapped by still more projected video of animals, wooded landscapes, and other performers. The artist is in the videos, too, drawing, moving, walking, dancing. All the action in the videos lives somewhere between instruction, ritual, and instinct. No one in the videos, perhaps not even Jonas herself, seems to be conscious of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Jonas has managed to cultivate a method of making and acting that feels automatic, unmediated, and animal.
A quote from John Berger’s Why Look At Animals? is handwritten on a wall. He suggests that animals were the origin of metaphor. In other words, the first time we were able to conceive of our actions as narratives—with moral, spiritual, and social consequences—was when we learned to imagine animals as ourselves, and ourselves as animals. If this is true, that animals played a crucial role in the development of abstract thought, it presents a bewitching irony: Only by using animals to think outside ourselves were we able to draw a clear distinction between human kind and animal kind. Human exceptionalism is self-declared, after all.
Jonas’ installation confronts the murkiness of this human/animal distinction by occupying it. She creates and performs in animal masks, a practice spanning many cultures and millennia. Masks can reveal inner truths while adding external layers. They lend themselves to ritual. In a mask we can imagine acting within another body, another mind, or without what we consider a mind at all. Ritual is action with meaning but without thought. Jonas’ incessant, deliberate actions, layered and intermingled with the ritual and creative output of animals, puts humanity in a humbled position in relation to beasts. Acting, and not just thinking, is a way of knowing, and it may be that animals understand ritual far better than we do.
The national pavilions in the Venice Biennale vary widely in how deliberately they present their nation to an international audience. Some seem like a joint production of the ministries of culture and tourism, proudly touting national character, while others don’t seem to communicate national flavor at all. At first, Jonas’ installation seems to be in the latter camp, chosen because she is an accomplished late-career American artist, not because the work is about American-ness. “They Come to Us Without a Word,” is, however, very much about America. America, from a European point of view, began as an untamed, uncivilized, inhuman place. For the first European settlers perched on the Eastern shore of the continent, peering West into the darkness, America was more than just a stage for future ambitions. It was a place where nature still existed without culture, where new metaphors lay waiting to be acted out.