ACT Professor Emerita Joan Jonas receives the 2018 Kyoto Prize

Joan Jonas and her dog, Ozu, at the Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by Moira Ricci
ACT at MIT

Joan Jonas, professor emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, is one of three individuals honored with the 2018 Kyoto Prize.

The Kyoto Prize is Japan’s highest private award for global achievement, given by Japanese philanthropist Kazuo Inamori’s Inamori Foundation, to top representatives of their respective fields who have also contributed significantly to humanity through their work. These are regarded by many as the most prestigious award available in fields that are traditionally not honored with a Nobel PrizeAs part of the prize, Jonas will receive a diploma, a gold Kyoto Prize medal, and 100 million yen (approximately $915,000) at a ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, on November 10, followed by Commemorative Lectures on November 11.

The Kyoto Prize is awarded annually in three categories — Advanced Technology, Basic Sciences, and Arts and Philosophy — and honors individuals who have contributed significantly to the scientific, technological, and cultural betterment of humankind. Jonas is this year’s recipient in the Arts and Philosophy category for her lifetime of accomplishment and global influence as an artist.

“Jonas created a new artistic form by integrating performance art and video art, and has evolved her original medium at the forefront of contemporary art continuously,” the prize announcement states. “Creating labyrinth-like works that lead audiences to diverse interpretations, she hands down the legacy of 1960s avant-garde art by developing it into a postmodern framework, profoundly impacting artists of later generations.”

After studying art history and sculpture, Jonas was a central figure in the performance art movement of the late 1960s and built relationships with many artists in her native New York. By participating in workshops by Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, who later became mythic figures in postmodern dance, Jonas was inspired to create her own original works based on the body. Since 1968, her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures. From the 1970s onward, her works have featured a nonlinear structure without stories. Her remarkable long-term achievements also include her contributions in handing down the greatest legacy of 1960s avant-garde art represented by John Cage to future generations by developing it into a framework of postmodern art based on additive, diverse values.

The Inamori Foundation specifically cited “Vertical Roll,” a Jonas piece from 1972 that integrated a performance with its real-time video screened on a TV monitor, as an archetype of the genre and her practice. “This work featured a revolutionary structure of coexistence of a live performance and its represented image,” the foundation stated, “with a discrepancy in time and space between the audience’s viewpoints and camera angles, as well as the effect of electrical delay within the system.”

Jonas received a BA in art history from Mount Holyoke College in 1958, studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and received an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. Jonas taught at MIT from 1998 to 2014, and is currently professor emerita at ACT within the School of Architecture and Planning.

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Jonas represented the United States in the U.S. Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Her exhibition, entitled “They Come to Us Without a Word,” was praised as “a triumph” by Roberta Smith, art critic and writer for The New York Times. A close curator of this work, MIT List Director, Paul Ha, states of her history, “Jonas’s extraordinary influence has been two-fold: firstly, through the performances and installations of her art history and sculpture studies…Secondly, Jonas has been enormously influential through her teaching and workshops.”

Jonas’ legacy is derived from her continuous creative capacity, her dedication to education, and her kindness and caring as a valuable member of the ACT community. Since 1998, she has mentored generations of artists in Germany, Holland, and the United States, where her respect in education has won her the title of outstanding retired professor, Professor Emerita. She taught two courses here at ACT. One course, Performance-Action (archaeology of the sea), was an exploration of using performance and “live” video as a medium for activism, with the deep-sea theme as the touchstone for inspiration. Former student of Jonas, Rebecca Uchill, describes her experience in class (Arts @ MIT July 7, 2015):

“In one course meeting, Joan read aloud from Moby Dick while we moved through the room, open to embodied responses. We made a group field trip to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn more about their work. I borrowed a departmental video camera and spent a full day at the New England Aquarium filming jellyfish as they tangled themselves into living abstract drawings in three dimensions. Over the course of engagement with the class themes, I became interested the fact that deep-sea archaeology explores sites untenable for human visitation. Its methods imply a type of exploration that is necessarily mediated by machines and tools, and this process of exploration through mediation was one my performance—let it suffice to say that it was a great challenge, and I became even more admiring of artists who fearlessly face the task of making work.”

Jonas has had numerous significant solo exhibitions around the world, including a career retrospective currently on view in London at the Tate Modern through August 5. Other recent examples include the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (CCA) (2016); Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu Project Gallery in Japan (2014); Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholm (2013); Proyecto Paralelo in Mexico (2013); Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (2013); Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (2011); and Museum of Modern Art in New York (2010). Jonas has been represented in dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, six times since 1972, and has had major retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart in Germany, and the Queens Museum of Art in New York.

Jonas is the 13th individual from the MIT community, including alumni, to receive the Kyoto Prize. Including this year’s laureates, 108 individuals and one organization have received the honor.