Sarah Anne Johnson: House on Fire at the AGO
Probably the most provocative (and to my mind, best) museum show of the summer so far is nothing of the blockbuster variety, which, to me, signals how hard it is to cohere large-scale shows into something with resonance. No such problem with the AGO's recent installation of Sarah Anne Johnson's "House on Fire," a chilling true-life history of government conspiracy, cover-up and abuse. In Johnson's case, it cuts close to the bone; it wasn't a story she became interested in from afar -- her grandmother lived it.
You may recall the mind-blowing revelation in the late 70s that a Dr. Ewen Cameron, at McGill University's Allan Memorial Institute, had been enlisted by the CIA in the 50s to head up Project MK-ULTRA, conducting experiments in drug-induced mind control, shock therapy, and medically-induced prolonged sleep in his unwitting patients. One of them was Johnson's maternal grandmother; on learning of her participation, the family, along with many other patients, sued the CIA in 1977, when Johnson was a year old.
The spectre of this abuse, and its ongoing legal consequences, hung over Johnson's childhood, and her photographs in this show embody the haze that shrouded her youthful experience of her grandmother. Images of she and her sister, embraced on her grandmother's lap, are lacquered in macabre doodles; one particularly chilling image, of Johnson's mother as a child, is a hazy black and white, barely discernable for the blur and stencils layered on it.
Accompanying the images are a series of tiny sculpted figures, all escapees from the nightmare of a tortured childhood -- anthropomorphic semi-human creatures consuming tree trunks, or being absorbed by the earth. Add to this a dollhouse, its every room containing a twee version of hell -- a lab-coated figurine twirling a naked doll in a forced waltz; a kitchen where it's winter indoors -- and the unambiguous vision of the hardship Johnson's family endured in the name of American national security chills to the bone.
This is stern stuff, and worth whatever the AGO is charging for admission these days all on its own. If the AGO can keep up this kind of programming, I might consider forgiving them for that humiliating King Tut show they're endlessly touting. Might, I said. Only until Aug. 24, sadly. So hurry up.