Between the horrific extremes of drug-induced delirium and numbing sensory deprivation, Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson has reconstructed archival fact as fairytale, full of menacing scientists in which psychedelic patterns are stripped of colour and reduced to ominous graphite shadows. Her exhibition at the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, House on Fire, combines sculpture, painting and vintage photographic evidence to examine the surreptitious brainwashing experiments inflicted upon her grandmother whilst institutionalised for post-partum depression at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute in the 1950s.
This incomprehensible violation of ethics and trust, funded in part by the Cold War paranoia of the CIA, is brought down to earth by the intimate scale of Johnson’s imaginative retelling of her grandmother’s mental trauma, one that exacerbates the surface absurdities of Dr Ewen Cameron’s bizarre experiments. In the attic of a burning dollhouse, doctor and patient embrace in a darkly comic waltz twisted by the vulnerable nudity of the rotund woman, the silencing black bag over her head.
This meticulously crafted dollhouse is the cornerstone of Johnson’s project, its sweet conventionality undermined by the subtle nightmares contained beneath its burning roof. Tiny sideways windows reveal door-less rooms that cannot communicate with each other, like inaccessible memories locked away. Most are corrupted past function—crammed with fragmented stairs to nowhere, overgrown with tree branches and roots. A medicinally sleek white corridor bisects the core of the house like an alien spinal column, chilling proof that this house is estranged from the trappings of domesticity.
The visual subversions of the dollhouse recur in the somber bronze figures depicting Johnson’s ‘Nan’ as a catalogue of otherworldly symptoms—she is a squirrel, a sinking body, a tree exploding like a mushroom cloud. Amongst these bizarre transformations, the subtlest are the most alarming: ‘Backwards’, 2008, is a deceptively normal nude, almost mundane until one notices that her limbs are turned the wrong way.
The fragility of perception itself, with or without the threat of psychiatric intervention, adds a quiet tension to Johnson’s photographic manipulations, which trace the consequences of her grandmother’s ordeal in the thorny branches of her own family tree rather than the externalised
realm of government conspiracy theory. The relatively innocuous ‘Family Snapshot’, 2008, takes on a disturbing resonance when its trinity of female family members are repeated in Birthday Party, 2008, a disturbing tableau where Nan is costumed as a squirrel and a campfire is set in place of a birthday cake from which the child-artist inhales smoke like the Pythia glimpsing prophecies through toxic vapours.
Just as Johnson’s grandmother proved a difficult enough patient to resist Dr Cameron’s brainwashing efforts and later file a class action suit against the CIA, Johnson herself refuses to yield an easy narrative of this troubling history. Rather, she reclaims the contested ground of her grandmother’s psyche through a literal depiction of hallucinatory horrors where perceptions are merely almost-alright, emblematic of a healing process not yet fully realised.
Stephanie Vegh is an artist and writer based in Ontario