Working with a wide range of materials and methods, Merritt Johnson navigates the spaces between bodies and the body politic, between land and cultures. For Johnson, performance art is a way to explore, express and reflect ideas and heritage, such as dedication to the land. Since 2014, she has published short videos on YouTube and other social media as part of the series Exorcising America. The clips in this series are characterized by a homemade expression typically associated with exercise and self-help videos. Similarly, Johnson positions herself in the role of an instructor showing off exercises to an online audience welcomed to follow her instructions from home.
The seemingly trivial exercises are a means of practicing something simple while also fundamental. On the surface, the lack of immediate or visible results read like simple parodies of the individualistic and perfectionist culture behind online work-out-videos. On a deeper level, however, the subtlety of Johnson’s exercises can be understood as an elaborate decolonial strategy: her soft voice is reminiscent of those encountered in ASMR videos, but her words carry poetic, humorous and razor sharp observations on the oppression of bodies, land, sex, and culture. Simply put, Johnson’s instructional videos offer tips and tricks on how to peacefully regain ownership of body and soul in the country that, since Columbus' time, has been called America.
As the title suggests, Johnson’s practice can also be understood as series of exorcisms directed at destructive forces. On an individual level, the actions can engender a sense of «presentness» when practiced over time — a way of being attentive to oneself and one’s surroundings. Presentness, as taught in Exorcising America, can take the form of anything from enjoying a cup of tea, to jumping through a hoop, to simply breathing. On a group level, the project bears an even deeper potential that is pivotal in the struggle to overcome inequality — for majority and minority peoples alike. Presentness enables the introspection required to navigate the world peacefully and see and respect others as they are.
As is typical for Johnson's artistic practice, Exorcising America embraces the impossibility of disentanglement. The heritage of dispossession is not over. Rather, dispossession continues to set the terms for native peoples' struggles for physical and cultural survival. The U.S. cavalry no longer rides in Indian country, but land and economic policies join with subtler forms of forced assimilation to frustrate those seeking self-determination. Native peoples still struggle to retain their identity as sovereign nations and to remove the many forms of control over their lives that have been imposed by governments not of their own making. By sharing the video performances online in a low-fi format, Johnson aims for the project to be met with a sense of familiarity: “I love that people can just find the videos on YouTube and get drawn into all the subtext and layering of things that one doesn’t expect to find there.” In this sense, the series Exorcising America subverts the logic of social media by sharing traditional knowledge in easily available ways. Furthermore, it is a way for the artist to position herself in the same domain as trolls and others spreading hateful and racist ideas, exorcising the very means of communication itself.
Merritt Johnson (b. 1977, Baltimore, Maryland) is a multidisciplinary artist and mother. She holds a BFA from Massachusetts Collage of Art and Design. Johnson’s work is a navigation of periphery, intersectionality, separation, and connection; she stands against the oppression of bodies, land, sex, and culture. Her practice is a synthesis of necessities; refusing binaries, refusing fractions of division and control-- insistent on the need for a multiplicity of tools to destroy oppressive systems, and survive them. She embraces peripheral overlap and the impossibility of disentanglement. Johnson is a pan-sexual cis-gender woman of mixed descent, and is not claimed by, nor citizen of, any nation from which she descends. Johnson lives and works with her family on Lingít Aani, her partner’s home territory, in Sitka, Alaska.
Curator: Malin Barth
List of films presented at Kunsthall 3,14
Killing it (2022) (03:59 min)
Keeping your Head (up, down & level) (2014) (04:56 min)
Leveling the Playing Field (2014) (04:04 min)
Dissappearing Exercise redux (2022) (02:36 min)
Table Excercises (2016) (04:11 min)
Fire Safety & Management Exercises (2022) (04:28 min)
Visibility Exercises (2017) (04:14 min)
Taking a Fall (2017) (04:08 min)
Not biting the hand that feeds you (2014) (03:46 min)
Conditioning Exercises (2021) (05:28 min)
Knowing Your Place (2014) (04:21 min)
Jumping through Hoops (2022) (03:39 min)