Telfair Museums Presents Contemporary Spotlight Exhibition with Erin Johnson

  • SAVANNAH, Georgia
  • /
  • September 05, 2018

  • Email
Erin Johnson (American, b. 1985) Digital stills from Heavy Water, 2018, Digital video © Erin Johnson

SAVANNAH, GA. Telfair Museums presents a Contemporary Spotlight exhibition with artist Erin Johnson (American, b. 1985). The immersive video and sound installation titled Heavy Water is a new commission that resulted from the artist’s past year-and-a-half spent researching the region and learning about the complex relationships at the Savannah River Site (SRS).


On view October 5 through March 3, 2019, at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center, Heavy Water investigates the social and political implications of the SRS, specifically in relation to the free-ranging, wild dogs living on the site. Owned by the Department of Energy, the SRS is a nuclear production facility and National Environmental Research Park occupying approximately 300 square miles in southwestern South Carolina. The site, adjacent to the Savannah River and just 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia, is considered one of the most contaminated places on Earth.

To create the work, Johnson attained security clearance and spent a week at SRS, though she was not granted permission to film or photograph anything within the site’s boundaries. A significant portion of her time was spent with Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, a senior ecologist at the Savannah Ecology Laboratory with the University of Georgia in Aiken, SC, who for the past 40 years has been studying the effects of radioactivity on animals at the SRS. Dr. Brisbin pointed the artist toward the wild dogs on-site that he first encountered in 1976 and later officially named Carolina Dogs. Some ecologists suggest these dogs descend from the first dogs that entered North America more than 8,000 years ago, and Johnson’s work converges this epic ancient timeline with another: that of the precarious future use of nuclear weapons and the half-lives of radioactive waste.

The resulting two-gallery installation blends commissioned ambient soundtracks with surround sound, several oversized video screens, and a color palette of bright yellow and blue. These colors reference both an industrial space as well as Cherenkov Radiation, a process by which heavy water surrounds a nuclear reactor and emits a glowing blue light.

“The Savannah River Site is ripe territory to mine given its divisive history in our region and the opportunities it presents with regard to storytelling and blurring the lines between fact and fiction,” said Rachel Reese, Telfair Museums’ Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “Erin Johnson’s practice, which is deeply embedded in research, questioning, documenting, and relationship building, situates itself perfectly in this context to tell a poetic story pertinent to our region and relevant to today’s heightened state of global politics and nuclear posturing. It also reiterates the importance of local communities and how systems – economic, ecological, political, environmental – are all interconnected.”

Johnson holds an MFA and Certificate in New Media from University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Digital and Computational Studies at Bowdoin College. Her work has been exhibited at several galleries and museums across the nation, including the 2018 Portland Biennial at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine; University of Texas, El Paso; the Lawrence Arts Center, Kansas; Power Plant Gallery, Duke University; Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts; the Asheville Art Museum; and Vox Populi in Philadelphia, among others. Her work has received multiple grants, awards, and residencies, and has been written about in the New York Times, Artforum, VICE, Burnaway, Pelican Bomb, and Temporary Art Review. She utilizes fictional and historical narratives to create works blurring lines between real and imagined, rehearsal and performance, and perception and interpretation.

Telfair Museums’ Contemporary Spotlight series is an artist-centered exhibition platform that highlights contemporary art by nationally-emerging artists through small exhibitions and featured loans. These projects are organized and curated in-house and are typically commission-based. Artists are encouraged to respond to place and to reflect the issues of our time. Through these smaller scale projects, which are often an artist’s first introduction to Savannah audiences, Telfair Museums broadens the museum’s contemporary art program by supporting nationally-emerging artistic voices as a means to foster dialogue.

Contemporary Spotlight exhibitions are organized by Telfair Museums and curated by Rachel Reese, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.


Related Programs

Artist-Led Town Hall, in partnership with For Freedoms 50 State Initiative Programming:

Artist talk by Erin Johnson, along with performance of Ken Ueno’s Jepson Satellite

Date: Sunday, October 7, 2-4pm / Jepson Center and Cluskey Embankment Stores at Factor’s Walk

Free and open to the public


Join exhibiting artists Erin Johnson and Ken Ueno in an artist talk, performance, and walking conversation about their individual and collaborative work, particularly how place and histories drive their methodologies. Johnson will talk about her exhibition Heavy Water in the Jepson Center and discuss how her research into Cold War politics and experience in gaining access to government research sites have informed her work over the past few years. The artist talk will be followed by Ueno’s presentation in the Jepson Center atrium titled Jepson Satellite, during which he will activate the architecture through a site-specific extended vocal performance with snare drums and a megaphone.

The group will then walk to the Cluskey Embankment Stores at Factor’s Walk, built in 1842 in historic Savannah. Along the walk, artists Johnson and Ueno will lead a public dialogue on how their art practices utilize, capitalize on, and challenge the stories people tell about a place. Once at the Cluskey “Vaults,” Ueno will discuss how he activates architecture as instruments through site-specific compositions.

This For Freedoms Artist-Led Town Hall conversation will be driven by fear and speech, particularly with regards to artistic and creative freedoms as well as public discourse.

About For Freedoms and the 2018 50 State Initiative:

Founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, For Freedoms Federation encourages new forms of critical discourse. The medium is American democracy, and their mission is to support the effort to reshape it into a more transparent and representative form. For Freedoms produces exhibitions, installations, public programs, and billboard campaigns to advocate for equality, dialogue, and civic participation. Inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms Federation uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century.


About Telfair Museums:

Opened in 1886, Telfair Museums is the oldest public art museum in the South and features a world-class art collection in the heart of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District. The museum encompasses three sites: the Jepson Center for the Arts, the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, and the Telfair Academy. For more information, call 912-790-8800 or visit

Telfair Museums
207 W. York St.
, California

  • Email

ARTFIXdaily Artwire