Independent Art Voice

Joan Jonas Presented With Third Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon Award

Joan Jonas

The American artist Joan Jonas has been presented with the third Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award at a gala dinner at Christ Church Spitalfields, east London. Director Iwona Blazwick of  of the Whitechapel Gallery welcomed the 110 guests and said: ‘Jonas is a pioneer of early video art, performance and installation. At the same time the themes that continue to shape her work – myth as a conduit to the subjective and social unconscious, the holistic yet destructive relations of humans with other species, the beauty yet fragility of the natural environment – make her work of vital relevance to the 21st century. The Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon – our art Oscar – supported by the Swarovski Foundation celebrates the lifetime achievement of an important artist. This annual gala also enables us to raise the funds to nurture the next generation of artists and to connect children and young people from every social background with the arts.’ British performance artist Rose English then presented Jonas with the award designed in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery. 

Joan Jonas said: ‘I am honored to receive this recognition from Whitechapel gallery which has been for many years an important and inspiring place for art. My particular relation to Whitechapel began in 1979 when I performed Juniper Tree. It was one of my most memorable performances because of the architectural beauty of the space. I am also honored to be recognized in the city of London which has such a long and incredibly great tradition of performance.’ 

Guests included artists Rebecca Ackroyd, Celia Hempton and Amalia Ulman alongside Joan Jonas’s friends and supporters including Samantha Conti (Women’s Wear Daily), Richard Cook (Editorial Director, Wallpaper Magazine), Mark Francis (Gallerist), Candida Gertler (Founder, Outset Contemporary Art Fund) Maureen Paley (Gallerist), Alex Sainsbury (Gallerist, Raven Row and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Whitechapel Gallery), Lydia Slater (Deputy Editor, Harper’s Bazaar), Deyan Sudjic (Director, Design Museum) and Amanda Wilkinson (Gallerist). 

Guests bought tickets for the evening to help raise £145,000 for the Whitechapel Gallery’s Education and Community programmes. An auction led by Alex Branczik of Sotheby’s and introduced by Alex Sainsbury, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Whitechapel Gallery, featured work donated by leading artists including an abstract watercolour by American sculptor Lynda Benglis; a print from Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project titled Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 6th June 2014), (2016) and a multi-coloured print by American and British installation artist Susan Hiller. Artists who also donated a work included: Rebecca Ackroyd, Celia Hempton, Rachel Maclean, Thomas Ruff, Samara Scott and Bedwyr Williams. 

The event celebrated every decade of Jonas’s prolific career from the 1960s to the present day. Film works and drawings from performances and installations Mirror Performance (1969), Volcano Saga (1985), Reading Dante (2007), The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2004-6) were shown in the space alongside a publication specially produced with the artist for the occasion. 

The Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award was given to Joan Jonas for her presence as a central figure in contemporary art for over half a century. Jonas emerged as a key figure in the performance art and feminist movements of the 60s and the year 1979 saw Jonas’ UK debut at the Whitechapel Gallery. She presented video works and series of live performances titled The Juniper Tree, which incorporated movement, sound, film, mirrors and props in a reinterpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name. Trained in art history and sculpture, her body of work is distinctive in its layering of sound, images and ideas in sophisticated and ethereal multimedia collages, encompassing video, drawing, installation, sound, performance and text. She draws regularly from literary influences – from Dante’s epic Divine Comedy to the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness’ writings on the spiritual aspects of nature, which served as an important reference point for They Come to Us without a Word (2015), her recent critically-acclaimed work for the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (9 May – 22 November 2015). 

The artist was chosen as the third Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon by a panel of art experts chaired by Iwona Blazwick, including Stephen Deuchar, Director, The Art Fund; Ann Gallagher, Director of Collections (British Art), Tate; and Jackie Wullschlager, Chief Art Critic, The Financial Times. The initiative is generously supported by the Swarovski Foundation, whose commitment to the arts and to nurturing creative talent in art and design has a long established heritage.