Love Song
( Merritt Johnson )

Presented by 
SFU Galleries

Curated by 
cheyanne turions


Image description: A dark-haired, light-skinned baby of mixed Indigenous heritage wearing blue jeans and a white, long-sleeved t-shirt sits up on a white floor, in front of a plain white wall. The baby wears a VR headset woven from sweetgrass with sweetgrass braids securing it over the baby’s head. The baby tilts their head slightly down, as if focusing into the VR world, and rests one hand on the headset. With the other hand, they hold up a small, partly burnt sweetgrass braid. Scattered on the ground near the baby’s outstretched legs and bare feet are small bits of sweetgrass fibre, some slightly darkened.

Mindset (sweetgrass)29 × 24 inches, 2019 (archival digital print, edition of 10)Courtesy the artist and Accola Greifen Fine Art.

Merritt Johnson’s artistic practice navigates the spaces between bodies and the body politic, land, and culture. Deeply invested in Indigenous self-determination and informed by necessity, her works foreground the urgency of socio-political transformation. Love Song, an online exhibition and artist’s publication, confronts the violence of cis-hetero patriarchy, environmental exploitation, and white supremacy through the articulation of practice and the building of armatures that dismantle these logics.

Love Song collects a selection of videos from Johnson’s ongoing Exorcising America series, each engaging with an aspect of how the so-called Americas manifest sickness, and exert control and violence over land and bodies. Love Song also documents the artist’s sculptural practice, specifically as activated through her material interventions into different kinds of technological apparatuses, proposing an amalgamation between different ways of knowing and being.

Love songs are celebrations of love and loved ones. They also mark trajectories of desire, acknowledging the distance between what is and what could be. The title of the exhibition is drawn from Johnson’s sculpture Love Song (translation basket), which speaks directly to the need to understand the beat of every heart as a love song, and the fundamental changes that translation and understanding can bring about in relationships. Taking a heartbeat as a love song – as a rhythm that sings connection – requires belief in more than we can see. To live in the space of a love song – a good one – is to honour and celebrate connection and community beyond who and what we know. It is to believe in feeling made flesh, of belief made manifest, of justice come to fruition. It is often a complicated place to be, but Johnson offers ideas about how to fortify ourselves for this labour: by rejecting control masquerading as love, and instead celebrating connection and interdependence.

In the image above, the VR headset made from braided sweetgrass offers temporary disconnection from toxic cultural surroundings, creating an imaginative space to envision ways to contribute to present and future realities that are rooted in connections to land.

In the videos below, Johnson proposes that the work of social, political, and personal change can begin from where one already is, with what one already has.

Exorcising America: Disappearing Exercises2:36min, 2014 (performance for single channel video)Courtesy the artist and Accola Greifen Fine Art. Closed captions are available.
Exorcising America: Taking a Fall4:08min, 2019 (performance for single channel video)Courtesy the artist and Accola Greifen Fine Art. Closed captions are available.

Drawn from Johnson’s extensive Exorcising America video series, Disappearing Exercises and Taking a Fall outline survival strategies that respond to our necessarily incomplete knowledge of the world around us. From the attempt to remove oneself from danger, to mitigating damage and injury when danger is encountered, these videos acknowledge the strange contortions that endurance sometimes necessitates.

Modelled on amateur, do-it-yourself instructional exercise videos, and filmed within the artist’s home, the Exorcising America series confronts myriad systemic oppressions while acknowledging and celebrating resilience and resistance. The voiceover narration moves between literal descriptions of Johnson’s exercise movements to socio-political interpretations of her guided activities. In Disappearing Exercises, disappearance is willful and forced, a double bind that attempts protection from threat while removing visibility and representation. Taking a Fall engages with the idiom’s characteristic meaning, which references blame and punishment for someone else’s actions: she literally falls to the ground as a way of navigating the physical, emotional, and mental consequences of racism, sexism, and assimilation. The artist proposes that the modest practices outlined in these videos have profound implications. As she states, “these works do not suggest we exorcize something from America. These works reflect on how to exorcize America from the land, and everything living on it. America is the name of the demon, not the name of the land.”

Forest Seed Basket
for present and future understanding,
Black Ash

Image description: A life-sized oxygen tank on its wheeled cylinder cart, with the tank, regulator, tubing, and mask all composed of handwoven black ash splints. The cart handle is crafted from wooden dowels and black ash splints. The body of the oxygen tank is pale with reddish stripes circling it, made of darker splints. This basket holds seed cones for Sitka spruce trees, Indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America. The tank is positioned on a pale floor near a stark white wall.

Forest Seed Basket for present and future understanding, Black Ashlife size, 2019 (handwoven black ash, wood)Courtesy the artist and Accola Griefen Fine Art. Image courtesy of Patel Brown Gallery.
Exorcising America: Conditioning Exercises5:18min, 2020 (performance for single channel video)Courtesy the artist. Produced with the support of SFU Galleries. Closed captions are available.

Created in 2019, Forest Seed Basket for present and future understanding, Black Ash is, from our current vantage point, an unnervingly prescient work, prefiguring a pandemic illness whose lethal force is rooted in the lungs, in the struggle to take in breath. This work transforms an oxygen tank into a container for collecting seeds. Through the intervention of black ash on the conventionally metal form, Forest Seed Basket for present and future understanding, Black Ash links the literal lungs of the earth to the mechanical assistance needed by many to promote healing or enable survival. This relationship builds upon the interdependence that is foundational to the mutual flourishing of land and bodies.

This proposition, that survival must be actively maintained, is taken up again Exorcising America: Conditioning Exercises. Commissioned for this exhibition, this video references resistance-based workouts to insist that strength and power are not synonymous, and that conditioning for strength is necessary to dismantle power. In productively conflating physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exercise, Exorcising America: Conditioning Exercises explores co-existence and interdependence as it plays out over a range of phenomena, from social justice to climate justice. What does it mean to condition oneself for the world? For Johnson, it requires a stamina to persist through violent and oppressive practices enacted upon bodies because of their gender, race, and / or sexuality, yet always avoiding the trap of dominance. Significantly, Exorcising America: Conditioning Exercises proposes we use our own body weight for conditioning, with the implications that we can begin with ourselves and all the weight of violence and oppression that our bodies carry. The point is not how the physical exercises themselves are performed, but rather that engagement extends to all bodies, that every body can work to interrupt and abolish the violence and oppression enacted by extractive capitalist states on land and life.

Love Song
(translation basket)

Image description: Against a simple white surface, a black and gold stethoscope. The ear tubes and ear tips are replaced by a palm fibre basket handwoven in the shape of life-sized over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones. This basket can serve to translate heartbeats into love songs. Light glints off of small gold cuffs along the rubber tubing of the stethoscope, and the tubing is gently curved so that the gold drum is set next to the woven headphones.

Love Song (translation basket)Life size, 2020 (handwoven palm fibre, stethoscope)Courtesy the artist and Accola Griefen Fine Art.
Exorcising America: Picking Yourself Up3:02min, 2019 (performance for single channel video)Courtesy the artist and Accola Greifen Fine Art. Closed captions are available.
Exorcising America: Visibility Exercises4:14min, 2017 (performance for single channel video)Courtesy the artist and Accola Greifen Fine Art. Closed captions are available.

Love Song (translation basket), the title work of this exhibition, is a tool for translating medicalized measurements of life and health into a love song. In linking the stethoscope with acts of translation, Johnson foregrounds the reparative potential of active listening:

“Stethoscopes are used by emergency medical workers in hospitals and at sites of state and police violence on Black and brown bodies. They are a listening tool for assessing and saving lives. The translation basket is a reminder that every heartbeat is a precarious love song with an inevitable end. Failure to recognize, value, honour, and protect these songs and the bodies who sing them has been instrumental in building violent, white supremacist, and anthropocentric cultures, governments, and individuals. The translation basket is a container to remedy these disconnections.”

Other strategies for survival can work in complement with these life-saving technologies, such as those outlined in the final episodes of the Exorcising America series included here. In Picking Yourself Up, Johnson considers how to get a body up off the ground as much as she suggests tactics for recovering from trauma. In Visibility Exercises, she delineates how to make oneself seen in a landscape, and she shares strategies for being recognized as fully human in violent and disrespectful circumstances. What she makes abundantly clear is that the structures of settler colonialism, cis-hetero patriarchy, environmental exploitation, and white supremacy are wily, changing their tactics to enforce, maintain, and justify control and oppression. Revolution will come, and it will require adaptive and mutable strategies, passed through communities of shared concern, practiced here and now.

Embedded within the yearning of any love song is a shadow acknowledgement of the end of all things. The song ends, as do the lives of the singer and the subject, as will systems of dispossession, violence and oppression. Merritt’s Johnson’s Love Song celebrates resilience, connection, and belief in the possibility of alternatives for the present and future.

Below, with Fancy Shawl for the frontlines, Johnson celebrates this labour, creating a kind of armour for those people – Indigenous women in particular – who are showing up and doing the work of protecting the land and remaking the world in a good way.

Fancy Shawl
for the frontlines

Image description: This adult-sized fancy shawl is made from an inexpensive waterproof tarp, azure and shimmering where light hits folds and crinkles in the plastic that coats the tightly-woven tarp fabric. The sides and bottom edge are adorned with matching blue fringe, and near the shoulders are shiny blue ribbons to recognize the importance of celebrating and protecting Indigenous women as instrumental protectors of land, water, culture, and future generations. The fancy shawl is displayed on a plain white background.

Fancy Shawl for the frontlinesLife size, 2020 (tarp, ribbon, fringe)Courtesy the artist and Accola Griefen Fine Art.

Merritt Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist and mother. She holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) and an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Boston). The multiplicity of materials and processes Johnson employs embody her multiplicity; navigating agency, layering, and allegiance to land, water, and culture.  Her ancestry is a mix of Kanien’keha:ká (Mohawk), Irish, Blackfoot, Jamaican, and Swedish; she is not a citizen of any of the nations from which she descends. She has exhibited throughout the Americas and in Europe.


The artist wishes to thank her partner Nicholas Galanin, her children, her family and friends (past, present and future), all the artists whose shoulders she stands on, the curators and administrators who have supported her work, her gallery Accola Griefen Fine Art, SFU Galleries, and all those who are working to abolish racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, violence, and oppression. Nia:wen kowa / thank you for your love, support, and vision.

As part of this exhibition, the artist’s publication Exorcising America: Conditioning Exercises is published by SFU Galleries in an edition of 500. To receive a copy, please email with your mailing address.

Publication design: Vicky Lum

Publication illustrations: Francisco-Fernando Granados
Printing: Linx Print, Vancouver

Website development: Naomi Cui

Image descriptions: Cheryl Green

© All images and texts copyright of the artists and SFU Galleries, 2020. All rights reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means without the permission of the publisher.

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