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At the opening of the 56th Venice Biennale this week, is a seemingly unlikely presence: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose reputation of more than 150 years has been built on its laboratories and its innovation in the sciences, math, and engineering. (As of 2014, more than 80 Nobel laureates—in chemistry, medicine, physics, et cetera—and more than 50 National Medal of Science recipients have been affiliated with MIT. Plus, a whole lot of patents.)
But this year’s biennale represents a milestone for MIT, which is presenting a solo show of work by the New York–based artist Joan Jonas in the U.S. Pavilion. That’s because it is the third time in 15 years that the United States has chosen MIT as the presenting institution for the Biennale—meaning that they are responsible for proposing the artist who will represent the country and raising funds for to make that artist’s vision a reality. That is a record for any university, including colleges and art schools whose lifeblood is the arts, since the United States first began participating in the biennale in 1930.
The campaign for this year’s biennale began with Paul Ha, who in late 2011 became head of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA. “I knew from the minute that I got to MIT that I wanted to present Joan as the U.S. representative for the Venice Biennale,” says Ha. “Her work is endlessly thought-provoking and inspiring.” During his first semester on campus, Ha cold e-mailed Jonas, who has taught at MIT since 1998 and is now Professor Emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology. He invited her “to a little pizza joint on campus” to propose that MIT pitch her to represent the United States. She was reluctant, he recalls. “She said, ‘Don’t . . . We’re not going to win.’”
Jonas is a pioneer for her work in video (she bought her first video camera in 1970) and for her early exploration of the TV monitor as a sculptural object. Her work grew out of her art history studies and sculptural practice, expanding into performance and film in as part of New York City’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s. With solo shows and retrospectives at major art institutions around the world (the most recent in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in her hometown of New York City), Jonas has been a major figure in the fields of performance and video art throughout the past five decades.
But she knew that Venice Biennale is not a lifetime achievement award. Nor is it a retrospective. Rather, being chosen for the Biennale means “a consensus of curiosity about an artist’s future and what’s next,” explains Ha, who had previously served on the selection committee, run by the U.S. State Department under the advisement of the National Endowment for the Arts. Those who vote are mostly artists and curators who are “fans themselves,” so it’s all about “someone whose new work they want to see.” He emphasizes, “You really want to propose someone who represents what’s currently going on in art.” Ultimately, Ha convinced Jonas, who is 80, to apply.
While MIT had organized the pavilions by the American artists Fred Wilson in 2003 and Ann Hamilton in 1999, since Jonas was an MIT professor, there was more at stake for MIT. This time, as they say in the movies, it was personal.
“A year and a half later, you get this phone call from the [U.S.] State Department,” Ha says. The U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini was theirs.
With this exhibition (open through November 22), Jonas joins an illustrious shortlist of artists who have been invited to take over the U.S. Pavilion with a solo show. Her peers include the artists Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, Jasper Johns, Fred Wilson, and Bill Viola.
Ha and curator Ute Meta Bauer, formerly of MIT, organized They Come to Us without a Word, in which Jonas transformed the pavilion’s five galleries into a dynamically immersive environment with new original video, drawings, objects, and sound, including fragments of music from the American jazz artist Jason Moran. The exhibit extends Jonas’s investigation into the work of the late Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness and other literary inspirations.
For those not gondola-bound, MIT also has on view at the List through July 5 a small survey of Jonas’ 40-year oeuvre. Ha made the point that no one should be surprised to see MIT in Venice again. Like all universities and cultural institutions, at MIT “we learn about the past,” he says, “That the List Center has been able to present at the Venice Biennale three times is a good indicator that just like all the other laboratories on MIT’s campus, we really are about invention. And that’s what exciting art is all about.”
A version of this article will be published in the summer 2015 issue of Whitewall next month.