For the last ten years, Sarah Anne Johnson has been making work in response to an unusual and deeply traumatic event in her family’s history. In 1956, nobody in the family suspected that Johnson’s grandmother, Velma Orlikow, was part of a secret medical study funded by the CIA. When she checked into Allan Memorial Hospital in Montréal, with what now would be diagnosed as post-partum depression, she unknowingly became a test subject in a subproject of MKUltra. The insidious medical study headed by Dr. Ewen Cameron at McGill subjected patients to electric shock therapy, sleep deprivation, heavy sedation, and large doses of LSD. The clandestine American agency hoped that the psychedelic drug could be used to psychologically control and extract information from individuals of national security interest at the height of the Cold War.
The psychological damage to the family was permanent and cyclical. “What happened to my grandmother,” Johnson explains, “is this horrible thing that never resolved. It got passed to my mom and to me; in my memory what the doctor did is a continual thing that’s still going on.” In a multidisciplinary body of work, Johnson reflects on this trauma by roleplaying as both her grandmother and the doctor. In the installation Hospital Hallway, which will be shown at Arsenal Contemporary New York in fall of 2018, Johnson performs the desperate acts of a medical patient. Wearing a mask of her grandmother’s face, her intense choreographed dance struggles against the walls of a custom-built octagonal hallway, her body following a loop without exit.
The Cave, which will be shown at Julie Saul Gallery in New York, is a frozen, icy room at the heart of the imaginary house Johnson built for her grandmother. What should be the kitchen, or the warmest room of the house, has been damaged by the psychological effects of MKUltra. Inside The Cave, Johnson is dressed in a doctor’s uniform, performing a circular dance with a languid, nude doll whose head periodically rolls back. “He’s in the lead. The doctor is in control and she’s vulnerable,” Johnson notes, “he’s just dancing around at her expense.” It is a slow, depressing waltz without music that digs itself under the skin. As onlookers, our detached view makes us complicit in the torture before us, like those scientific gazes that witness and carefully chart a woman’s suffering from behind glass.
Sarah Anne Johnson’s upcoming exhibitions include “Rosy Fingered Dawn” at Julie Saul Gallery in New York, which opens May 5th, 2018; a group show at the MET Breuer in September 2018; and parallel presentations of The Cave and Hospital Hallway at Julie Saul.
Written by Anna Kovler
Sarah Anne Johnson. Velma Orlikow. 2008. 20 x 26 in. Graphite on Inkjet.
Sarah Anne Johnson. Hospital Hallway, displayed with monitors between live performances. Upcoming installation and performances at Arsenal Contemporary New York, fall 2018.
Sarah Anne Johnson. Performing Hospital Hallway. 2015.
Sarah Anne Johnson. Stills from The Cave, 2018. To be performed at Julie Saul Gallery New York, September 2018.