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Joan Jonas on Her Island of Wonder

The view never ends from the weathered porch of Joan Jonas’s summer home on a hill in Cape Breton Island, on the tip of Nova Scotia. Just beyond a thicket of treetops, the Gulf of St. Lawrence sways in a gradient of blues, a cobalt horizon line hovering where sea meets sky.

For decades, the vista has served as the summer backdrop for New York City artists, including Richard Serra, Philip Glass, Robert Frank and June Leaf, seeking rugged beauty, anonymity and temperate weather.

For Jonas, who arrived with friends in the ’70s, it has been a canvas.

“I performed in it” she said of the landscape in a recent interview, her voice gruff and blunt but not unkind. “It inspired me. What can I say?”

Many honorifics have been heaped on Jonas in an attempt to sum up her trailblazing legacy and elusive spirit: vanguard, mystic, stalwart, pioneer of ecological feminism, canonical video and performance artist. A new exhibition, “Good Night Good Morning,” at the Museum of Modern Art, brings these genres into a sweeping retrospective of the 87-year-old artist’s multimedia career, and includes still images of “Nova Scotia Beach Dance” (1971), one of Jonas’s first performances in Cape Breton, which audience members reportedly viewed from the vantage point of a cliff.

She also drew from the island’s imagery and regional lore. “They Come to Us Without a Word,” her installationat the 2015 Venice Biennale,featured gauzy projections of Jonas, animals and bees layered with narrated ghost stories in the oral tradition of Cape Breton.

Toby Coulson’s playful mirror photographs riff on Jonas’s fascination with reflections — mirrors are a recurring motif in her work.Credit…Toby Coulson

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