The Cave: Sarah Anne Johnson’s Haunting Performance at Julie Saul New York

by Anna Kovler

The interior of Julie Saul Gallery in New York is one season ahead of the city. Transformed into an immersive ice cave by Sarah Anne Johnson, visitors are sent on a serpentine walk through a white snowy tunnel before reaching a stage. Florescent lights buzz above a twirling couple. Held in the arms of a cold-faced doctor, a life-size patient is forced to dance with her captor. It takes a moment to realize we are looking at two dolls with the artist moving them both. Johnson is inside the doctor’s costume as she dances the Waltz with her patient. She animates both positions. She is authority figure and lifeless ill body, dominant male and docile female.

It is said in hindsight we can see with 20/20 vision, and from many positions at once. The Cave embodies Johnson’s looking back at her grandmother’s life as a test subject for MKUltra, the CIA’s infamous secret medical study. Over the past ten years, Johnson has made several bodies of work in response to her grandmother’s experience.

Velma Orlikow checked into the Allan Memorial Institute in Montréal in 1956, seeking help for post-partum depression. Her family could have never known what was to happen to her inside the icy walls of the hospital. The treatment Johnson’s grandmother received included “sleep therapy,” where individuals were asleep for months at a time, “depatterning,” which required electroshock and many doses of LSD, and “psychic driving,” which involved heavy sedation and special rooms where patients were played repeating messages thousands of times from speakers in their pillows. The CIA hoped these methods could be used to turn Soviet spies into double agents.

Johnson’s grandmother was never the same again. Deeply traumatized, she became unable to do the things she loved, living her life as a pale version of herself, trapped in the clutches of the doctor who tortured her.

In the absence of Johnson’s live performance, a sculptural version of the doctor and patient spins endlessly on a rotating base set in the gallery’s floor. Outside the cavernous ice cave, smaller sculptures and photographs explore the same theme, including a series of bronze figures portraying Johnson’s grandmother in various states of dysfunction. To express the effects of the medical experiments on her ability to function she is shown with her head exploding into a mushroom cloud, with a long twig stuck in her mouth, and with boxes over her arms and head.

Johnson’s haunting performance and installation prove that Velma Orlikow’s treatment and the CIA experiments may be long gone but the event still ripples through her family. Animating a disturbing history and its lasting effects, the project is not only a cry for justice but also a testament to human endurance in the face of incomprehensible cruelty.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s “The Cave” is on view at Julie Saul Gallery in New York from November 8 – December 15, 2018. Her work on this theme is currently part of the group exhibition “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy”, on at The Met Breuer through January 6, 2019.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Dancing With The Doctor (1, 2, 3), 2018. Porcelain, fabric, rotating wooden base.

Sarah Anne Johnson, The Cave, 2018. Mixed media.

Sarah Anne Johnson. Black Out, 2008. Bronze and cardboard. Ed 3/3. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery.


Sarah Anne Johnson. Poison Branch, 2008. Bronze and twigs. Ed 3/3. Image courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery.