The 2018 PMA Biennial Spotlight: Erin Johnson

The 2018 PMA Biennial Spotlight: Erin Johnson

One particularly cool thing about the 2018 PMA Biennial is the video component, which has never been done in a PMA Biennial in quite this capacity. Using the soundproof room that held The Ballad of Sexual Dependency from last fall's exhibition Nan Goldin: As the World Turns, we've set three video by artists from or connected to Maine on a continuous loop. These videos tackle a range of critical topics, from the environment and use of natural resources to the threat of nuclear holocaust.

Erin Johnson's The Way Things Can Happen examines the latter concern in striking fashion. She interviewed extras from the made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983), looking back and recalling their experiences of filming scenes about a fictional nuclear attack on Kansas. The Day After was fairly experimental for a TV movie—blurring the distinction between its characters' real lives and the events of the story in an attempt to replicate the urgency and magnitude of live coverage of a nuclear attack on America's heartland. When asking her interview subjects to recall their Day After scenes, Johnson had them omit references to the movie itself, further eroding the distinction between what happened in the film and what happened in reality.

Johnson recalls being struck by The Day After when she first saw it. “I was interested in the fact that 5,000 people who were extras in the film were from Lawrence and the surrounding area. That's where the film had been shot on location. I started to think about how all of these people had performed their own deaths, which at the time was maybe their worst nightmare: that nuclear war would happen. There was something about the idea that it hadn't been shot in L.A. on a Hollywood set. It happened where the extras actually went to the grocery store, where they actually went to college, where they actually went to school, all those different things. That intrigued me.”

In addition to being an exquisitely shot work of visual art, The Way Things Can Happen helps us consider an alternate history in which the United States was destroyed by nuclear war, and invites viewers to use this imaginary scenario as a political tool in the face of contemporary threats. “My project was dramatically shaped by the people who are in it," she told the PMA. "It's made up of what the participants wanted to talk about or were interested in talking about. It wasn't lost on anyone that this is a particularly precarious moment in history, and that this is a moment in which nuclear war is back on the table.”

Johnson has shot extensive videos and exhibited throughout the country. She moved to Maine in 2013 to teach in the Digital and Computational Studies and Visual Arts departments at Bowdoin College. On 6 p.m. Friday, March 30, she comes to the PMA for a special discussion during Free Friday. Don't miss this opportunity to explore or revisit the Biennial and discover new layers to the art on view.

Image, top: Erin Johnson (United States, born 1985), still from "The Way Things Can Happen," 2017, HD video with sound, 19 minutes. Courtesy of the artist ©Erin Johnson
Image, bottom: Erin Johnson (right) at the opening of the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial

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March 28, 2018
Editorial and Brand Specialist

Robert is a native of Winslow, Maine, and a graduate of Boston’s Emerson College. After spending years as a screenwriter in New York City and an arts journalist in Santa Fe, he moved back to Maine to raise a family in 2008. He currently lives in Portland’s Back Cove with his wife, who owns a business up the street from the PMA, and two young sons.