For Joan

For Joan,

It is raining and water is collecting on the roof of my atelier, certain to re-vaporise and ascend to the clouds. Two young Polish men with sledgehammers are smashing a hole in a wall in the blind alley behind my atelier. Tomorrow there will be four windows and within a month someone will be living there. The man with the hammer stands laughing face to face with a man inside, on the other side of the wall. A familiar and exemplary theatrical situation. I am the spectator who sees this, sitting on a chair with a laptop in front of me. Time and again my fingers fail to find the right keys and I keep having to correct myself. In the distance the sound of cars. It has stopped raining. I prefer to write in the evening with a small lamp above my table so that the space shrinks, and I find myself in an illuminated circle in an unfathomable dark space. In the dark I”m firmly connected to the chair I am sitting in and sense an intimacy with the world that is unique. The perception of space is intense and the room becomes a world in which anything and everything can happen. Life is an intimate affair. When I turn out the light to go to bed I walk the route through my dark studio and shuffle along a dark corridor, climb a stairway to switch out the light in the living room, and tentatively feeling my way I find the handle of the bedroom door. I have to be careful not to knock anything over or to stumble. The world is so different in the dark, infinite in every direction. Once it is utterly dark I open my eyes and absorb the darkness. That is how I fall asleep, with my eyes open …

“There”s no one that waits for you but sleep, inside the empty house,” I wrote in an introductory text for the exhibition that Wako invited me to curate in his gallery in 2002, in which the work of Joan Jonas was first presented to the Japanese public. In monochrome images, a small monitor in the corner of the gallery shows the hand of Joan as she draws a pyramid or a figure of 8 or some other geometric form familiar to everyone. It seems as if by drawing and re-drawing the shapes they continue to exist. As if their re-use protects them from decay and can guarantee their continued existence. An archive has to be checked: the books are opened to see that the words are still there, that the letters and numbers are still in the correct order and have the right form. Repetition as a methodology ensures a certain continuity. Am I still at home? Yes. Am I the same person I was? Eh, no. What has changed over these last few minutes? Joan draws a circle. Yes, the circle still exists, the ends meet. The house, yes. The stairs. The garden. The animal. Everything exists …… until the telephone rings. “Hi Henk, it”s Joan. I”m working on a performance called Lines in the Sand and I thought of you I need an old man ….”

I spent so many evenings accompanying Joan in the city while we looked for a restaurant to take a breather after an intense day of teaching at the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany, where we were each responsible for tutoring a class. I had never perceived myself as an old man, nor Joan as an old woman, yet suddenly I became one, all at once I was counting my years without a care and saw my grey hairs. What do 50 or 60 or 70 years represent in the light of the thousands that preceded us and are certainly still to come, the timeline in which we have but briefly existed, as contemporary, as loved one, as friend. My career as an old man has just begun, was my reply to her, and I remembered how, as a 7-year-old, I was once called “grandpa” by another 7-year-old. The horizons of reality were broadened, the insight of being an old man was not so much a constraint, but just one of the many possibilities of the new phase in which I allowed myself to be swept along. I felt on top of the world. Joan sent me a text: “We all know the story of Helen of Troy but few of us have followed her to Egypt,” ran the first sentence. “How did she get there?”

I”m lying on a hard wooden sofa painted a vibrant green, feeling profoundly uncomfortable. Hidden behind a mask, I try to peer into the auditorium; I become a spectator and the public becomes the actor. I”m peering through the eyes of a paper dog. Too late I stand up, forget that I”m an image, a sculpture, and my legs are no longer mine and I have to regain control and order them to set one foot in front of the other, and I mustn”t forget to bring along my back and my arms, because nobody needs to be aware that I don”t know what to do with my arms. I don”t move my head. Suddenly I”m an actor, I feel the spotlight turned on me and I say: “She is both phantom and reality.” It takes a really fine actor to enunciate the word “reality” convincingly. For an instant I was the priest of a secret society and I was sure to be found out as a liar soon. I tried to turn the word “reality” into something, but I didn”t know how to. I tried to delay being found out by lending greater force to my words. “Re” was fine as a start, leaving the throat and travelling towards the front of the mouth, to the “a”, the most rewarding of all the vowels that serves as a reinforcement after the “e” (for a moment I was a vocalist), then the “li” with the tongue against the teeth, at which point a strange interplay emerges unintentionally between my eyes, which I screw up slightly along with the corners of my mouth, so that a certain strange grimace must have been visible, as if I had suddenly come across an unusual idea that I had no desire to explore further. I allowed this to be for a few seconds, I enjoyed it, for an instant I was a scholar who knew more than his audience. And to “ty”, which is terribly difficult, almost superfluous, so I raised my voice and let the “y” hover and looked up at an angle, beyond the audience. I was exalted and had lost the plot. My mouth was an inn for travellers, tired and hungry, there was a place for everyone there. My mouth was a house for the words and my body was a sculpture, an image that can only exist in the present. Now. I was in trance.

An image is needed to remind us what reality is. Everything exists in our sensory perception and as a thought. In art, which is a tradition of representation, the thought about reality is reinstated in reality and a disparity arises. It is only in this extra conceptual space that we start to see and understand things properly. In the theatrical tradition, and most especially in performance art, there is no difference between image and reality. Here the thinking about the “world” coincides with the image of the world, with what you see. What we call signs, metaphors or symbols are defunct. This mechanism magnifies the reality. I turn round and walk like a foreigner who has lost his way but overconfidently tries to refind it, resolutely heading towards the back left-hand side of the stage, where big blocks of stone with which to build a wall await me on a pallet. It is wonderful to feel the weight of a stone and appreciate the power of the human body. Now I can be myself again and I adapt the tempo at which I stack the blocks to the tempo of Joan as she draws big maps of an unknown territory. “Length, breadth, thickness, the shape, the scent, the feel of things.” Joan”s voice is powerful and strong, a voice from the countryside, a voice that is authoritative without being raised yet remains accessible, the words swathed in tenderness as they are uttered, and between the words is calm. Each word is convincing and self-explanatory. Each word is true. She stops drawing and preaches “the actuality of the present”. At the word “actuality” and the word “present” she bangs hard on the ground with a stick. In conjunction with her voice this inevitably transports us back to the here and now. The actuality and the present have become one. This play is reality.

“They are as real as any of the bronze or marble or pottery or clay objects that fill the cases around the wall, that are set in elegant precision in a wide arc, on the professor”s table, in the other room. But we cannot prove that they are real.” This is my last sentence and is delicious to deliver, because it doesn”t seem to want to draw to an end. Everything is real and true. Because it is the professor saying it, he has authority. But in another room. This no longer sounds so certain.

Then we dance an old dance. We start opposite each other and we both follow the same figure of 8, inevitably meeting each other in the middle but having to make sure we do not collide or wait for one another, as that would break the magic created by the flowing movement. I have to concentrate properly. I”m also carrying a roll of paper with texts. Then something unexpected happens. Joan pulls a totally crazed face at me, at the very moment I am most exposed to the audience. When she sees my utter horror she starts to laugh at me. I look at her, shocked, and she starts to laugh audibly. Suddenly everything is real and I simply try to carry on. I manage: I had learnt to dance and I was now an old man.