Thursday, February 11, 2010

Johnson in Winnipeg Free Press for her performance piece "Dancing with the Doctor" at aceart

Winnipeg Free Press

Shock to the system
Violent, visceral dance work makes a powerful, personal statement

By: Alison Gillmor

The first act of Johnson’s exhibit, below, deals with sensory deprivation.

The first act of Johnson’s exhibit, below, deals with sensory deprivation.

Sarah Anne Johnson takes a big risk with her latest body of work. It pays off: this performance-installation piece is intimate, unsettling and almost unbearably powerful.

The 33-year-old Winnipegger hit art-star status in 2005 when her first solo exhibition, Tree Planting, was bought by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Johnson followed up with The Galapagos Project, another ecologically themed series involving small sculptures and photo-based work, winning the inaugural Grange prize for photography in 2008.

Johnson could have easily continued in this artistic direction, but in 2009 she decided to investigate a painful passage in her family's history with the mixed-media exhibit House on Fire. Her current show at aceart expands these deeply personal and emotional concerns, this time working in tricky terrain bounded by dance, theatre and visual art.

In the 1950s, Johnson's maternal grandmother, Val Orlikow, underwent treatment for postpartum depression with Dr. Ewen Cameron at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute. It was later revealed that Cameron's experimental therapies had been funded by the CIA as part of a Cold War program to develop brainwashing techniques.

The charismatic, crusading Cameron believed that the brains of patients suffering from depression or schizophrenia could be wiped clean and then built back up with massive amounts of electroshock, dangerous drug cocktails of speed and LSD, and long stretches of induced sleep. Orlikow suffered permanent psychological damage from her experiences at the Allan.

Johnson's 30-minute performance piece is structured as a simple triptych, with three sets and three dancers -- Tanja Woloshen, Ming Hon and Holly Treddenick -- representing aspects of her grandmother's fractured psyche.

At the centre of the gallery is a medical examining table, the stirrups at the end of the table subtly suggesting the power dynamic of the male doctor and the female "hysteric." A dancer in shapeless hospital garb, her face eclipsed by a black hood and her hands turned into rigid tubes bound with electrical tape, gropes blind and insensate, a reference to Cameron's use of prolonged sensory deprivation. She bangs her useless hands on the ground before collapsing, defeated and exhausted.

In the second movement, the focus shifts to a marital bed. The painted headboard and ruffled linens seem old-fashioned and homey, but the bed is flanked by a B-movie mechanical device and outfitted with the kind of thick leather restraints used in psych wards. One side of the bed is blackened with scorch marks, Johnson's dark allusion to Cameron's infatuation with electroshock.

The dancer is dressed in silk pyjamas and an outsized furry squirrel head, an ensemble that sounds comic but quickly takes on an eerie sense of otherness when a buzzing noise causes the dancer to go into back-arching convulsions, followed by frantic, fretful, squirrely skittering.

The last act moves to a desk strewn with books and paper. The third dancer wears pants and a top, but her unseeing mannequin face is screwed on backwards, giving all her motions a grotesque, contortionist quality. The figure tries desperately to scrawl her thoughts onto yellow legal pads, but is thwarted by her broken memory and scattered concentration. She erupts into pounding rages, the violence of the dance heartbreakingly counterpointed by her grandmotherly orthopedic shoes.

A strong sense of the uncanny permeates this performance. It's interesting that Freud translated that term as unheimlich, or "un-homelike." By combining horrific medical abuse with domestic interiors, Johnson suggests the way Orlikow's suffering reverberated through the generations of her family.

"Dancing With the Doctor" is a physical performance with a physical effect. It hits the viewer in the gut. But this visceral surge is balanced by the work's incredible control. Johnson's disciplined choreography, her eye for the telling detail, the precision of the dancers -- all these things tighten and concentrate the emotion into an almost classical evocation of pity and terror.

(The performances at aceart are now sold out, but Johnson's sets and costumes are on view during gallery hours.)

Art Review

"Dancing with the Doctor" by Sarah Anne Johnson
Aceartinc., 2-290 McDermot Ave.
Until March 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2010 D3

For the original link, please go to:

No comments: