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Artist Sarah Anne Johnson poses amongst her sculptures in her exhibition, House on Fire, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Artist Sarah Anne Johnson poses amongst her sculptures in her exhibition, House on Fire, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

'They were looking for the ideal Manchurian Candidate' Add to ...

For some people, family history is like a vulture at the feast of life, waiting to swoop down and envelop you in its gnarly embrace.

Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson has clearly felt its wing beat overhead, and, sitting last week in the middle of House on Fire , her new show at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, she has the jitters.

It's understandable. At 33, she has taken it on her shoulders to confront her family's dark story in an exhibition of sculptures and works on paper that come from her core. Before coming to meet with her, I reviewed the facts: In the mid-fifties, her late maternal grandmother, Velma Orlikow, was diagnosed with postpartum depression. She was sent to Montreal for treatment, to the Allan Memorial Institute at McGill University, the site of now infamous mind-control experiments under the direction of Dr. Ewen Cameron.

Though her family didn't know it at the time, the clinic was receiving funding from the CIA to conduct procedures in brainwashing. The project was called MK-Ultra, and the team made the Winnipeg mother of two, and a number of other patients, their unwitting subjects. "They were looking for the ideal Manchurian Candidate," Johnson says. "It's almost impossible to believe, it is just so crazy."

Over the course of several stays, her grandmother was subjected to intensive electro-convulsive therapy, with an aim to wipe her memory clean for re-programming.

"Dr. Cameron called it psychic driving. He was willing to push his experiments to the limit," Johnson says. The medical records also show that her grandmother was the subject of 14 experiments with LSD.

"When I was little, I used to go every day and spend a couple of hours at my Nan's house after school, waiting for my parents to finish work," Johnson recalls, remembering her grandmother's later years. "There were always so many books and magazines stacked up everywhere in her house, and I used to think: 'Wow, she is so smart to have read all of this stuff.' It was only later that I understood it could take her a month to read a newspaper, or a week to write a note. Before the hospital, she had been a huge reader, but now she just was sitting there in the middle of her own failure."

Johnson, who has read her grandmother's journals, marvels at her vulnerability. "In those days, you didn't ask questions, and my grandfather was convinced that she was receiving the best cutting-edge care," Johnson says. Her journals report that she protested the treatment, but the doctors prevailed. "One of them was from Scotland, and he would say, 'Now lassie, you know you have to trust me.' She fell in love with him I think. In her journals, she writes about his hands, his voice. She gave her sanity over to him. How can a person do that?" If she failed to comply with treatment, Johnson says, the doctors would tell her she was a bad mother and a bad wife, unwilling to take the steps necessary to get better for her family's sake.

It was by fluke that they came to understand what had happened to her. The New York Times broke the story of the experiments in an article in 1977. "My grandfather happened to read it and he thought, 'Wait, those are the years Vel was there.' " She mobilized herself, leading a group of seven other former patients and waging a class-action suit against the CIA. (In 1988, they finally settled out of court, each receiving less than $80,000.) "She was just such a fighter," Johnson says, describing the life her grandmother would make for herself in the aftermath, travelling with her husband, David Orlikow, who became an NDP member of Parliament. "I mean, she was one of the first Canadian women to go to China. I have a picture of her patting a lion in Africa."

The damage, though, was irreversible, and Johnson's works reveal its profound legacy. Johnson's mother had to grow up fast, caring for a mother given to deep depressions and sporadic rages. Some of the works on paper in Johnson's exhibition present the three generations of women, sometimes together, the photographic imagery overlaid with decorative patterns suggesting psychotic or psychedelic visions, or delicate Victorian lacework. In one, a photograph shows the smiling grandmother holding her two grandchildren in her lap (Johnson and her brother), with the grandmother's hands turning into vines and tendrils that encircle the children in an insidious grasp. Other images show her eyes sprouting decorative cable-like forms that suggest, Johnson says, "snakes, DNA, ropes, those sorts of things."

It's in the sculptures, though, that the full force of Johnson's feelings emerge. Her grandmother was a collector of Inuit soapstone carving, and Johnson often played with these objects during her after-school visits. They haunt this display of small, rounded bronzes, nudes of her grandmother as rotund as the Venus of Willendorf and appended with wooden branches that emanate from her mouth or her arms. In one, she appears to chew at her branch-arms, expressing, Johnson says, the efforts to amputate those parts of one's family tree that threaten the people you love. In another, the hands and feet are turned backwards, or the face is sheared off and turned in on itself, inscrutable.

"When do you get the chance to pry, to ask your mother or your grandmother about the things that were hard in their life," Johnson says to me. "When they are sad? No, because it makes things worse. When they are happy? No, because you don't want to bring them down. So you just don't." In one sculpture, the head is replaced with the head of a squirrel, a reference to her grandmother's description of the effects of her treatments, which made her mind race, and her attention scattered and frantic.

This show is a departure for Johnson, whose earlier sculptural dioramas and photographs have dealt loosely with environmental themes. Educated at the University of Manitoba and Yale School of Art, she has a rising reputation both in Canada and internationally.

Last year, she won the $50,000 Grange Prize at the AGO for her photographs on the theme of tree planting - some of them documents of her own travels and others studio shots of her mixed-media dioramas peopled with handmade clay figurines.

Through it all, however, her grandmother's experience has played in the back of her mind. "My first work in art school was a collection of boxes that you could look inside of," she remembers. "In one of them I remember there was a hospital bed with a green strobe light beneath it and a woman crawling up the wall. It was her."

For all that these works have arisen from a particular family's story, their relevance is far from specific. Like the French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois, who took a bizarre family history and created an iconography with broad feminist implications, Johnson too has made work that will be revelatory for anyone who has lost their voice, or felt the obliterating effects of manipulation.

They are also icons of recovery, opening up avenues for further work. "Every piece I made here opened the door to another cellar full of ideas," Johnson says. "See, there are little birds here," she adds, using her fingertips to separate the branches and leaves of the tree which grows up through her dollhouse of horrors, another large sculptural piece in the show. Spreading the foliage so these birds can be seen more plainly, she adds, "It's not all bad, you see?

"There's some optimism. Things are getting better."

House on Fire continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until Aug. 23.

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