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Art Professor Bridges American Midwest and Thai Cultures in Experimental Documentary

Art Professor Bridges American Midwest and Thai Cultures in Experimental Documentary

Associate Professor Jonathan Johnson, who teaches photography and digital media in the Department of Art, recently finished filming in Thailand for his sabbatical project, an experimental documentary film that threads together personal narratives with travelogues shot in Thailand.

Born to an American father and a Thai mother, Johnson grew up in Minnesota, but would make almost yearly visits to Thailand.

“Because I've always straddled two cultures, the Midwest and Thailand, I thought that a visual and conceptual melding of these two places that are seemingly on opposite ends of the exotic spectrum would be an interesting way to meditate on these differences and similarities,” Johnson explained about his film.

When asked about what first comes to mind when thinking about the Midwest, Johnson responded, “I think of farms, friendly people and hockey. There’s something called a ‘Minnesota goodbye,’ which means standing at the doorway with your boots, jacket and hat saying your goodbyes at the end of a gathering. Then 40 minutes later you’re still there, spreading rumors and re-telling funny stories. It’s partially from the warm nature of Minnesotans, but also partly to avoid heading out into the cold, where your car may or may not start.

“As for Thailand,” Johnson continued, “I think of intense starchy afternoon light and perfectly golden sunsets where the same scene is completely transformed by the time of day. I think about sitting around on a woven mat at a park, having a picnic of sticky rice, grilled chicken, green curried beef and eggplant. And again, friendly people, who will take an entire day of their life to help a lost stranger or traveler.”

On his latest shoot in Thailand, Johnson — who described himself as an artist who uses photography, primarily, and also video and film — did extensive shooting at a Muay Thai (kickboxing) training gym located in the countryside.

“I had this feeling that I should shoot this,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do with it exactly. Culturally, especially in the rural populations, Muay Thai plays an important role.”

Johnson, while in Thailand, did additional shoots of migrating water buffalo, fisherman fishing and crabbing, and local food markets. As for the Midwest, Johnson backpacked and camped throughout the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, shooting along the way, and did some additional work on his visit home in Minnesota over Christmas. Johnson also conducted interviews with his mother, father, sister and two brothers.

How this all will come together in a finished product is anyone’s guess since it is, after all, an experimental documentary. Johnson plans to spend spring and summer in post-production and have the film ready for his sabbatical exhibition and film festivals by fall.

As an example, Johnson explained, “the film might have some audio from the interview with my mom talking about growing up along a river. Then I may have footage playing at the same time of a riverboat going by, and it may not be the same exact river. Maybe that sequence of the river and the riverboat jumps to something. Maybe there is a lot of blue in the water. The next shot could be a blue sky with clouds in it. Maybe there is a reflection of the clouds in the water. Then we could cut from the water to the clouds.

“It may not be a complete logical sequence of events, but in terms of texture, color and form it allows the viewers to enter a kind of meditative space and make their own connection,” Johnson continued. “There will be sequences like that which don’t follow a very strict logic, but follow a logic of art.”

Johnson’s work has been exhibited in over 30 countries, including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain; Modern Art Museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Most recently, his work was exhibited at the Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago and in competition at the Roma Docs Film Festival in Rome, Italy.

Learn more about the Otterbein Department of Art.

See more of Jonathan Johnson's projects on his personal portfolio website.