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Erin Colleen Johnson’s Videos Mesmerize in Tuscaloosa

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Georgia Museum of Art
Erin Colleen Johnson, still from Hole</i?, 2013.
Erin Colleen Johnson, still from Hole.

At first, Erin Colleen Johnson’s show “Seek You” seems like it could be titled “Miss You.” It is one of the most poignant, delicate, quiet, and intimate exhibitions about the passing of time that I have seen in a long while. Consisting of five videos, “Seek You” represents, metaphorically, how tenuous human interconnectedness can be and how disconnected humans have become.

Using Morse code as a trope for the chasm between past and present, Johnson—who lives in Atlanta and received her MFA from UC Berkeley in 2013—explores how people communicate using what is regarded by many as a dead technology. In most instances, she reinforces this distancing by requiring viewers to don a single pair of headphones, resulting in their undivided attention and their isolation from everyone and everything else within the exhibition space.

Erin Colleen Johnson, still from To Sea, 2011, showing a strip of Morse code.
Erin Colleen Johnson, still from To Sea, 2011, showing a strip of Morse code.

With To Sea, however, the sound seeps out into the space. A filmed image of the sea is projected onto a wall. Overlayed onto the film is a Morse code strip punctured with the text of a report on the state of the ocean. The soundtrack of the text being transmitted makes standing in the space slightly unsettling—the high-pitched tone of the code signal and the strobe-like effect of the projected image combine to create a queasiness that might, perhaps, mirror what one would feel if they were to decode the text of the environmental report.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Come in literally and figuratively juxtaposes Morse code and the Spiritualist church in a split-screen projection, highlighting the relationships between the two. The crescendo of a hymn is echoed by the crescendo of Morse code, each on its own channel.

Erin Colleen Johnson, still from Come in, 2011.
Erin Colleen Johnson, still from Come in, 2011.
Installation view of Erin Colleen Johnson's video Hole.
Installation view of Erin Colleen Johnson’s video Hole.

Arguably, the most compelling work is Hole. The wall text explains that it was made with the artist sitting in a cardboard box in California and speaking with an ice fisherman in Minnesota. The work itself is experienced inside what is essentially an ice fishing hut. Inside four plywood walls, viewers look down at the floor, into the projected “ice” and “water” as Johnson speaks with Tom Johnson (a great doubling), who explains the intricacies of ice fishing. He talks about how he likes to set up his equipment and handle his ice spear. Then, Johnson the artist slices through a block of Styrofoam, and light streams in from behind. The projected image is filled with dust, which looks like bubbles in deep water. A bright light burns on the floor, you wonder if the image is dust on the projection or dust in the air, and Tom Johnson’s voice says, “Then you just sit there and you wait.”

Less effective, though no less beautiful, is If it won’t hold water, it surely won’t hold a goat. The issue with this work is not that it is in any way unresolved, but simply that in the larger context of the exhibition it seems out of place. Each of the other works engages in a dialogue that teases a seemingly narrative relationship between Morse code and spatial relationships—viewers are often grounded in the space of an architecture of signals or in a space of physically experiencing communication. Even Hole hinges in part on the idea of long-distance communication. If it won’t hold water deviates from this formula. At the same time, it may be the most directly metaphysical work in the exhibition.

So, over the course of five video works, Johnson takes viewers on what seems to be short explorations of the temporal experience of communication. In fact, each is more like a meditation on one aspect of the human condition, and more often than not that aspect is hope—hope that someone is out there, that someone or something will (or won’t) come, hope that there is something else. Maybe this is what Johnson means by “Seek You” after all.

Erin Colleen Johnson’s “Seek You” is on view at the Sella-Granata Art Gallery at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, through January 27.

Brett Levine is a writer and curator based in Birmingham. 

Erin Colleen Johnson, still from "If it won't hold water, it surely won't hold a goat. 2013, HD video.
Erin Colleen Johnson, still from “If it won’t hold water, it surely won’t hold a goat. 2013, HD video.