In 2008, Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson turned to her family history as a source of inspiration. During the 1950s, Johnson’s maternal grandmother struggled with depression and sought help at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. While there, she was subjected to tortuous mind-control experiments which were part of a CIA research project. Using family photos, newspaper clippings, a surreal dollhouse and diminutive bronze figurines, Johnson reconstructed and interpreted the extreme pain, humiliation and emotional scarring this event had on her grandmother and her family. This research culminated in the exhibition “House on Fire,” which was mounted in the summer of 2009 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Johnson’s most recent piece, Dancing with the Doctor, is a continuation of “House of Fire.” A choreographed installation, the work is a hybrid of modern dance and performance art. All the costumes, sets and dancers’ movements were designed and arranged by Johnson. Emotionally powerful, the work taps into profound feelings of anxiety, worry, grief and despair.
Set within the main space at Ace Art Inc., Johnson used the century-old warehouse architecture of the gallery to delineate three distinct performance environments. The work begins with a woman, outfitted with a white-cube helmet and substantively bandaged hands and forearms, perched on a generic doctor’s examination table. Clothed in hospital garb, the dancer rolls and slides on the table, providing a physical manifestation of pain coupled with extreme internalized turmoil.
The focus shifts next to a figure lying in bed wearing a squirrel head and silk pyjamas. The antique bed is hooked up to a menacing machine of 1950s sci-fi movie vintage. As very loud shocks pulsate through the bed, the dancer responds with a series of shakes and tremors followed by very laboured breathing—an attempt to control hyperventilation. This troubling and very literal sequence occurs several times until finally the dancer comes to a form of stasis on top of another figure sleeping in the bed.
The final vignette takes place in an office setting, featuring a desk surrounded with books and paper. With exasperating frustration, a figure with her head on backwards attempts to write a letter. This is the most physically demanding segment in terms of choreography; the dancer flips, flops and stomps all around the desk, spewing papers and books out into the audience. With the dancer dressed in a “grown-up” outfit, complete with a snappy scarf, this scene alludes to the everyday struggle that occurs in the real world long after institutional “treatment” has concluded.
The conclusion of the work sees the three performers spinning in the centre of their respective sets, each dancing with the invisible presence of the doctor. After viewing Dancing with the Doctor, the range of emotion it evoked persisted for an extended period of time. Residing in the darker side of human nature, the performance recreates an incredible amount of physical and mental pain—a trauma whose legacy is still quite present two generations later.