They Come to Us Without a Word: Art Installation by Joan Jonas

Scene from one of the videos. They Come to Us Without a Word: Installation by Joan Jonas at the Venice Biennale 2015

They Come to Us Without a Word was the art installation by American artist Joan Jonas that occupied all five galleries of the American Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

You can view the whole installation in this video:

The main part of the exhibit consisted of four rooms. In each room, there were two large screens displaying video projections. The videos were dreamy, multi-layered shots of children and young teens who performed wordless role plays set against video of landscapes and other scenes shot by the artist. In each room, one video would be related to the main theme of the room—for example, one room had a bee motif, with inkblot drawings of bees on the wall, while another room had a fish motif—while the other video would be an ongoing narrative that continued from room to room.

Video scene (in the fish-themed room)
Drawings in the fish-themed room

The rooms also contained drawings by the artist, props from the videos and free-standing mirrors. An audio soundtrack was also playing—this featured spoken narration as well as a soundtrack featuring ambient music by Jason Moran and songs by Ánde Somby. But what did it all mean? In the official press release, Jonas states:

Although the idea of my work involves the question of how the world is so rapidly and radically changing, I do not address the subject directly or didactically,” said Jonas. “Rather, the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting and the juxtaposition of images of children, animals and landscape.

Press Release: Pavilion of the United States

The summary by NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, where the installation was also exhibited is more explicit:

With this exhibition Jonas evokes the fragility of nature, using her own poetic language to address the irreversible impact of human interference on the environmental equilibrium of our planet

Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word

My own response to the work, however, was a strong feeling of nostalgia. The videos reminded me of childhood summers. The forest landscapes were reminiscent of summers spent visiting relatives or going to cottages and summer camps. The role-play scenes brought to mind vague memories of elaborate role plays with the daughters of my grandparent’s neighbours. The ‘fish’ room brought to mind summer days at the cottage of my step-grandfather, an avid fisherman. For me, walking through the exhibit was like navigating through the gauzy haze of childhood memories.

Drawings in the bee-themed room
Video scene
Video scene: They Come to Us Without a Word
Video scene

This was my sister’s favorite pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale. I liked it as well, though my favorite was Chiharu Shiota’s installation in the Japanese Pavilion: The Key in the Hand.

Joan Jonas: Artist mini-bio

Joan Jonas has had a long and influential career in work with video and performance art. She was born in New York 1936. After studying at Mount Holyoke College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Columbia University, she also studied and worked with choreographers in New York. At first, she focused on sculpture, but by the late 1960s, she started focusing more on performance art. After buying a video camera and visiting Japan in 1970, video became a key ingredient of many of her works. She is considered one of the most influential artists of her generation. 1998, she has been a professor of visual arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Go Further

This section includes discussion questions, an art challenge and links to online photo galleries and websites.

Online Galleries

Higher resolution images (e.g. 2048 x 1365) can be viewed online at:

Read More

Official Biennale Page:

Three Questions

  1. What you think about the ideas in this installation?
  2. In what ways has the world changed since you were a child?
  3. Are there any things that you used to do as a child that children nowadays no longer seem to be doing?

Art Challenge

Create a visual collage and/or short audio soundtrack (e.g., spoken word, sound effects and/or music, etc) that represents part of your childhood.

~ text and photos by


Return to Artjouer’s Gallery of Artists

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