I don’t normally bother with RTE’s culture series The Works but I did look at the programme about visual artist Jesse Jones, having read that she had been selected as Ireland’s entrant for the Venice Biennale, the ‘art Olympics.’ Back I sat waiting for my mind to be broadened and, in fairness, the show was a real eye-opener, just not in a good way. Let me explain by discussing her back catalogue as touched on by the show via film clips and chat, along with details I tracked down myself, online.
I’ll start with the recreation of an American drive-in movie theatre, which was shown as laid out in the derelict vicinity of Dublin’s Pidgeon House. I saw it and thought, ok, you first thought of doing a sculpture, then realised you could upscale it, and express an interest in cinema-so what? Where’s the actual art here- I mean, I have an interest in classical Rome, and might decide to reshape the garden round a copy of a mosaic from that time and place, hell, I could replace the whole house with a full-scale replica of a tribune’s villa, but that wouldn’t be an artistic statement, just a display of personal taste. And the same goes for Jesse Jones and her drive-in; it didn’t ask a single question or make any statements about film and its role in a wider context, nor use the setting to say something about the decrepitude of reality compared to the glamour of celluloid, for example, in fact it didn’t say anything, at all, other than Jesse Jones likes films. She could have stuck an outsized 39 Steps or Jaws poster on the power station wall and communicated as much, so the drive-in went nowhere for me. In fact it irritated, especially when I dug deeper and found a claim that ‘through re-staging and re-appropriating the drive-in, the artist Jessie Jones created a collective social and political space’-no she didn’t; surely it was the promise of the actual movies, specifically the dozen ‘made by and about workers and activists’ as part of the overall presentation, 12 Angry Films, by Fire Station Artists’ Studios, that brought the crowd in, if there was one; she just decorated the physical area through which they entered and left, and if that counts as social and political activation then the Carlton got there nearly a century before her. I do now know that FSAS, along with Dublin Dockland Development Authority, commissioned her to ‘produce’ the project, but nobody, including Jones herself, claims she actually made 12 separate movies about workers and activists- made by them is explicit remember, so I don’t care what they called her, the commissioning bodies paid for and got a project manager/festival organiser, not an artist, at least on this occasion. And not even a particularly competent one, because her work was hardly conducive to the content of that produced by those marginalised people, if it truly was angry in tone as well as name. I imagine it must have been like stumbling on a picket line in the midst of an Oscars-theme party; I wonder was there popcorn to go with the consciousness-raising?
Likewise a portrait of the artist as poseur came to mind as I saw a group of musicians play Leonard Bernstein’s score for the 1954 film On The Waterfront in a snippet from Jones’ 2005 production of the same name, obviously another ‘re-staging’ or ‘re-appropriation,’ and play it quite well too. The location for the shot we saw was plainly a piece of Northside Dublin’s urban squalor, and I must say it matched the pallet of Boris Kaufman’s original cinematography effectively enough, but everything else was off- I mean, where was the waterfront itself?- it’s not as if Dublin didn’t have any, suitably seedy, even at the height of bubblemania. And again, what was the point of the whole exercise, why was 1950s New Jersey juxtaposed symbolically with Dublin in the ‘noughties, what resonance was she trying to evoke, what bells was she ringing? I didn’t catch anything. So for creative content I’d award 10/10 to Leonard Bernstein, 7/10 for musicianship to the lads, while Jones gets a mediocre 2/10 as location manager, and a big round zero for artistic merit. But at least Waterfront didn’t assault the ears, like.The Specter and The Sphere.
This 2008 film, commissioned by a certain Tessa Giblin of Project Arts, features a lady called Lydia Kavina playing The Internationale on an obscure musical instrument called the Theremin, just a few notes of which immediately explains the obscurity. I should point out that player and instrument are described as individual ‘characters,’ with a physical space filmed for the soundtrack, the Veruit in Ghent, described as the third ‘cast member’- why? ‘Cos, you know, art, innit! Anyway, Jones’ self-proclaimed Marxism apparently inspired this piece, and is supposed to be obvious because (a) Lenin purportedly admired Theremin music, (b) the instrument was oft-used on Hollywood B movie soundtracks of the cold war era and (c) the Veruit was proclaimed a ‘socialist castle,’ at least by Jesse Jones. Having heard and seen these elements we are invited to now recognise how they ‘collectively evoke the specters of ideology’ and amplify ‘the residual voices that haunt the cultural vessels of history.’ Where do I begin with this nonsense? Perhaps by pointing out that, Hollywood movies aside, nothing implied by The Specter and The Sphere even is a ‘cultural vessel’ for the audience Jesse Jones (and Tessa Giblin) were serving; how many Irish people know or care enough about an obscure piece of Belgian architecture and Lenin’s musical taste to grant them that status, let alone feel a vibe, spectral or otherwise, once those subjects are connected? And surely The Internationale is itself a ‘residual voice’ without need of further elaboration? So, as is becoming usual with Jones’ work, I’m asking why, what was the point? All I can assume is it provided a pretext for continental travel, or a chance to show off her profound knowledge of Lenin’s biography, Ghent’s building stock, and less recognisable Hollywood tropes- an opportunity to metaphorically place her academic footnotes before us as things of self-evident beauty. In other words, The Specter and The Sphere is a classic example of the vanity project, that ugliest of intellectual creations. Subsequent projects highlighted by RTE do little or nothing to improve this view.
To take The Other North as an example, the very premise-the translation/transposition of northern Irish narratives for recital by Korean performers- is too ridiculous for serious discussion. I mean we might suspect residents of Seoul could, if pushed, find Belfast on a map, but could any put a finger on the pulse of life in Ulster at any time, troubled or not? Brecht could surprise an audience and subvert theatrical conventions only because all concerned shared basic codes, unwritten rules of the traditional workspace beforehand- giving him something residual against which to leverage his ‘anarchy’, preconceptions to subvert. Jessie Jones in contrast gives a Korean audience stuff which must be, for them, white noise culturally and psychologically- so they have no preconceptions to shift; it is anything but ‘Brechtian,’ though I suspect she might make such a claim. Which leaves The Other North as not a serious work at all, just a game, mind game maybe, Jones is playing. It thus belittles the audience and demeans the original interviewees, who have their words distorted and commodified in Jessie Jones’ professional interest, for her personal gratification. Which is not to say she is totally without merit, for there are promising germs in the remaining works, Mahogany, The Touching Contract and No More Fun and Games, if only they weren’t so soon buried beneath layers of self-regard. And finally, coming to two of Jones’ overtly feminist projects, The Touching Contract and No More Fun and Games we again find sound instincts led astray by an overbearing ego. For I have no quarrel with ‘understanding the political gesture of touch through an immersive performance work’ as The Touching Contract proposes; or revisiting the historic injustice done to female painters by galleries, as No More Fun and Games does. I just wish Jessie Jones would learn when enough is enough. Let’s deal with them in turn.
The Rotunda Lying-In Hospital Dublin, one of Europe’s oldest maternity hospitals is, by definition, the site of countless historic abuses and indignities. It could not be anything else given the Irish religious context and the male professional ethos. So inviting a contemporary, primarily female audience, to and into an explicitly tactile performance there, as a form of emotional response and spatial reclamation, seems a wholly laudable act by Jones and her collaborators. Furthermore, I can entirely see how getting that audience to sign up to their own participation, via an actual contract, further overwrites a long history of unsanctioned male interference, medical as it was, to reassert rights of female agency and self-possession. But why does Jesse Jones have to abuse this contractual privilege, as I think she does. I’m specifically thinking here of the clause described by one of the participants thus; ‘there was the option to refuse consent [for man- sorry woman-handling] and instead to act as ‘witness,’ in which case one’s senses would be impeded with a blindfold and earplugs.’ Again, Jesse Jones-WTF! Was this supposed to be clever/’arty’? -if so it just sounds ridiculous. Was it meant to clearly identify those withholding consent, so the performers didn’t inadvertently touch them?- surely reserved floor space would have sufficed. Was it an ironic reference to those who, in earlier times, chose not to bear witness when women were abused on the premises?- why wasn’t such a point made explicit, and couldn’t a performer or two have taken on this rather demeaning role, to greater effect? No, I can think of no explanation that fits better than the simplest one- when it comes to her art, her art, Jesse Jones can’t see any free-flowing, interactive situation without imposing authority, however arbitrary, and sod anyone else or their autonomy!
This same sense of collectivism subverted by egoism is evoked by descriptions of No More Fun and Games. Like Touching it starts from a premise all right-thinking people would support, that of giving female artists of old the wall space they were wrongfully denied by past curators, dragging them, literally, from dusty storage rooms to public view. So why oh why did Jesse Jones then inflict her overblown cinematic signifier, a middle-aged woman’s arm on a sort of curtain- sorry, ‘screen’- on the proceedings? I sense she would claim a ‘Brechtian’ impulse to subvert the conventions of the gallery space, or some such codswallop, as an explanation, but codswallop that would be. She did it because she could, because the idea occurred to her, and all her ideas are, de facto, delightful insights. I wonder did she run this one past her grassroots collaborators before figuratively, and actually, dragging it across their faces and, with telling irony, the very pictures that had been so long obscured by the tastes of the patriarchy. Weren’t those artists, not Jesse Jones, supposed to be at the heart of the project? Not for her, I’m afraid, and I say that not to be personal but because I’ve looked at her work in some depth by now, more depth than elite selectors for international art jamborees, I suspect. Then again, who am I to judge, right- a layman, not a parchment-carrying initiate? Here’s who I am, a citizen and a taxpayer who, like all the other plebs, helps to underwrite work by people like Jesse Jones and her ilk. That means I have a say, and I’m going to give my two cents worth now- enjoy Venice Ms. Jones, but afterwards, get a real job; no more fun and games, not at my expense!