Erin Johnson’s solo exhibition at Pelican Bomb Gallery X explores our human relationships to the natural world.
Pelican Bomb presents “Of Moving and Being Moved,” a solo exhibition of recent video and sound works by Portland, Maine-based artist Erin Johnson. In her practice, Johnson often explores our individual and collective human relationships to the natural world to better understand unwieldy concepts like memory, migration, and communication. The four works on view at Pelican Bomb Gallery X take water as their starting points, examining how communities live in relation to their respective, changing landscapes—particularly timely in the wake of this year’s massive flooding in Louisiana and the ongoing drought in the American West.
Originally commissioned by the Maine Maritime Museum, Johnson’s sound installation Many Thousand Miles Behind Us Many Thousand Miles Before, 2016, fills the entryway to Pelican Bomb Gallery X with song, weaving together disparate histories of loss. Two performers (Salam Nassar and Alison Lee Freeman) sing “Rolling Home,” a 19th-century sea shanty, and “Rajeen Ya Hawa,” a hit song first performed by Lebanese singer Fairuz in the 1970s that has remained popular across the Arab world. Sea shanties and ballads were used to forge a sense of togetherness and optimism on board large merchant sailing vessels, and the lyrics and subjects of individual songs often speak to the hope for smooth passages through treacherous waters and safe returns. Johnson connects this historic context to contemporary refugee crises around the world. In 2015 alone, more than a million refugees and migrants undertook dangerous sea routes across the Mediterranean Ocean. A Haaretz article from last year by journalist Thaer al-Nashef chronicles his experience crossing from Turkey to Greece with Syrian refugees: When onboard, “almost unconsciously, everyone began singing Syrian folk songs together, helping to overcome the fear.” Adapted for New Orleans, the sound installation, on infinite loop, never repeats itself, using real-time wave data from the Chandeleur Sound in the Gulf of Mexico to determine which speaker plays which track and when, unfolding according to the movement of the water.
“Of Moving and Being Moved” debuts two video works that center around Providence Canyon State Park in Georgia, where Johnson lived from 2013 to 2015. The park is comprised of an enormous web of gullies, the result of erosion caused by water run-off from farming in the early 1800s, which is echoed by the nearby town’s own wearing away as its population ages and its residents look for work elsewhere. In Providence Canyon, 2016, Johnson uses this constant state of erosion as a setting to poetically connect interrelated histories in the area—of land (mis)use, the historic exploitation of enslaved laborers, and the continuing economic depression of communities in the rural South. Using footage from her time living near the canyon, Johnson brings these histories to the present through storytelling and seemingly simple, formal gestures: A woman rubs her hand along the crumbling canyon walls; a violinist improvises a song from the landscape.
Johnson again turns her attention to Providence Canyon in Parts of Your Body Are Scattered in Water All Over the Earth, 2016. Johnson speaks on the phone with a former student as he walks through the canyon’s floor, relaying his observations about the movement of soil across park boundaries by water. To create the video, which takes its name from a passage in Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, Johnson never physically returned to Providence Canyon, instead embracing this disconnect, relating it to the desire for shared experiences and the malleability of queer identity. Whereas Providence Canyon attempts to trace a constellation of experiences rooted to a place, this second video views site as part of a larger web of disembodied associations that constitutes subjective experience, and Johnson combines visuals of the canyon with the history of the Daughters of Bilitis—an assimilationist lesbian organization—and the artist’s own letters to a former lover and collaborator.
Hole, 2013, similarly highlights the disconnect of place and time reflected in modern communication, mixing YouTube videos with cell phone conversations between Johnson, who was living in Oakland, California, at the time, and Tom, an ice fisherman in Minnesota. As Tom explains over the phone the basics of darkhouse ice fishing (the fisherman cracks a hole in the ice inside a temporary shack built for warmth and storage), Johnson uses a serrated knife to carve a hole from inside a light-tight cardboard box, mirroring the eerie glow of the sun refracting in the ice and the water below. In the video, Johnson links her artistic labor to that of fishing through the formal exercise of cutting and sawing.
“Of Moving and Being Moved” offers specific case studies to think about communities’—in Georgia, Minnesota, Maine, and the Mediterranean—complex and unique relationships to water, which stand in comparison to New Orleanians’ own ongoing struggles and solutions relating to past and future storms, coastal erosion, and technological developments to harness the power of water. In conjunction with Johnson’s exhibition, Pelican Bomb’s online Art Review features a thematic series—including reviews, personal essays, interviews, and digital artist projects—on living with water. Visit pelicanbomb.com for new features each week.
Pelican Bomb Gallery X is free and open to the public Wednesday - Sunday, 12 - 5 pm. The gallery will be closed November 18 - 20 and Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, November 24).
Contact Charlie Tatum at 504.252.0136 or firstname.lastname@example.org with all press inquiries.