Sarah Anne Johnson has created an installation depicting a cave in which she will both enact a performance and alternatively place surrogate figures representing her grandmother and her doctor. The active installation has evolved from Johnson’s 2009 House on Fire series and is being shown in conjunction with the exhibition Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, 1969-2016 at the MET Breuer, running through January 6th, 2019.
The gallery space has been transformed into an enormous cave structure with the performance taking place within it. In addition, Johnson has created a series of three small porcelain sculptures depicting her grandmother and the doctor that eerily revolve on their bases. Johnson has previously created several installations and performances relating to House on Fire throughout Canada.
This installation has evolved from Johnson’s House on Fire series, based on a personal family story. In the 1950s Johnson’s maternal grandmother Velma Orlikow sought treatment for postpartum depression and unwittingly took part in the experiments of CIA funded American Doctor Ewen Cameron at MacGill University. Patients were subjected to a series of mind-control experiments including shock and drug therapies and induced prolonged sleep. The effects were permanently disabling to her, and have had a multigenerational effect on the entire family. In 1979 a class action suit was initiated by a group of nine patients, and was settled out of court in 1988.
The centerpiece of House on Fire was an enormous dollhouse, a topsy-turvy amalgam of rooms depicting scary metaphorical representations of personal family trauma and memory. The entire body of work was acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and the House and several works on paper will be on display at the MET Breuer. Johnson has enlarged the room at the core of the dollhouse, depicted as a frozen cavern, and blown it up to life size for the gallery installation. Inside the cave the doctor and the patient dance—she is limp and her feet don’t touch the floor. The doctor is in control but as they spin around the costume opens up at the back and you see Johnson inside—she is the puppet master.
Johnson’s section in the Conspiracy show at the Breuer dives headlong into the fever dreams of the disaffected, presenting fantastical works that nevertheless uncover uncomfortable truths in an age of information overload and weakened trust in institutions. Her installation and performance expands on this and is a reflection of the bewildering and paranoid inducing time we live in. Johnson will enact two performances, at the opening on Thursday evening November 8 and Saturday afternoon November 10th. A video recording of the performance will run when Johnson is not performing, and stand-in figures will be in place in the cave. Johnson intends to create an installation for every room of the dollhouse, and this is the third, the previous two being the Hospital Hallway and Kitchen, each involving performance and video.
Sarah Anne Johnson is known as a photo-based artist working also in video, sculpture and performance. She lives and works in Winnipeg. A Yale MFA graduate, she has been exhibited and collected widely, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, Maison Rouge, Paris, and the National Gallery of Canada.