The most anticipated art exhibition of the season has morphed into a dance show.
Sarah Anne Johnson, the internationally recognized Winnipeg artist who is best known as a photographer and sculptor, was to have shown House on Fire this month at aceartinc.
The work is based on Johnson's grandmother's ordeal as a patient subjected to CIA-funded mind-control experiments in Montreal in the 1950s. It earned acclaim last year in New York, Toronto and Calgary.
But House on Fire -- consisting of a handmade "burning" dollhouse, altered family photographs and nine doll-size bronze sculptures of a tormented woman -- was so hot, the Art Gallery of Ontario bought it in the fall for its permanent collection. That made it unavailable to show here.
In its place, Johnson offered to show past work. But aceart countered that its mandate is to show new creations.
That's how the artist ended up hiring contemporary dancers Ming Hon, Tanja Woloshen and Holly Treddenick and challenging herself over the past month to rework House on Fire into Dancing With the Doctor.
The show officially opens Saturday. Interest in the 30-minute production has been so great, all nine performances -- each seating about 30 viewers -- are sold out. Johnson's parents are completely supportive of the deeply personal work and will attend the show.
During gallery hours until March 5, the public can view the set and costumes, but there are no additional components to the work.
Johnson, 33, admits she's nervous about the project, which depicts three female characters inspired by sculptures from House on Fire.
"I have no idea what I've done," she says.
"I'm the choreographer. Holly pointed out that I was more sculpting (the dancers) than what they're used to. There was a lot of improv. Some parts, I had really specific moves I wanted. Other parts, I'd say, 'Where do you feel like going now?' They had a lot of input."
For Johnson to turn choreographer is not as far-out as it sounds. In her teens, she was a serious dance student and aspiring actor. She holds a theatre degree from New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Though she describes herself as a terrible performer, until about 10 years ago all her artistic impulses were stage-based.
On Tuesday, after a rehearsal of the work, which is performed in silence except for a few sound effects, Johnson told the dancers, "It's still hard to watch."
Her grandmother, Velma (Val) Orlikow, suffered from post-partum depression after the birth of Johnson's mother. She was sent to Montreal for several treatment stints, totalling three years, under the care of psychiatrist Ewen Cameron.
She was made an unwitting guinea pig in secret brainwashing experiments financed by the CIA that used frequent shock treatments at far stronger than standard levels. She was the subject of 14 experiments with LSD.
Orlikow, who lived until Johnson was in her teens, ultimately led a class-action suit against the CIA that was settled out of court. But the damage to her mind was permanent.
As the title Dancing With the Doctor implies, Orlikow was manipulated into a fondness for the Scottish-born Cameron, who would scold her as a bad wife and mother if she tried to object to his methods.
"She fell in love with him," says the artist. "Apparently he had a way with the ladies... He would charm them."
Johnson designed the set for Dancing as a life-size, realistic version of three rooms from the dollhouse. The costumes are also her work. All three dancers' heads are hidden. One wears a squirrel head, an image based on Orlikow's comment that the drugs made her feel "like a squirrel trapped in a cage," and on how her personality turned nervous and skittish after the treatments.
Another dancer wears a disorienting black bag and padded arm tubes, used in cruel sensory-deprivation experiments that Cameron did not perform on Orlikow, but did on others.
The third figure wears a backwards mask. The rear-facing, 1950s-mannequin-style face makes her head seem to be wrongly, grotesquely fused to her body.
Like Orlikow, who had been an avid reader and writer before treatment, this character can no longer concentrate and has outbursts of explosive rage. But Johnson hopes Orlikow's courage and determination also come through. "She kept trying. She would force herself to write and read. I think that's so admirable."
The artist intended to have a dancer play the psychiatrist, but changed her mind. "I'm not ready to deal with the doctor yet," she says. "I'd have to bring him back to life, and I don't want to do that. He's better off dead."
Johnson hopes to remount Dancing With the Doctor in Toronto and New York. She says she may use video in her next exploration of this haunting family story.
"Right now, I need a break from it," she says. "But I think this is something I'm going to keep returning to, maybe for the rest of my life. It's part of who I am."
Snapshot of Sarah Anne
Sarah Anne Johnson earned her master's degree in fine art at Yale University. Tree Planting, her breakthrough 2005 exhibition of photographs, some depicting sculptural dioramas, was bought in its entirety by New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Her 2007 exhibition The Galapagos Project further solidified her status as an art star. In 2008, she won the inaugural $50,000 Grange Prize for photography.
Johnson, who lives in the West End with her boyfriend, is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Manitoba. In October, she was one of about 15 artists invited on a 12-day Arctic Circle voyage from Norway. She plans to paint on her photos, sculpt small figures and make dioramas when she works with those images. "I might build a boat," she says.
Meanwhile, Johnson exclaims that "the biggest news ever" is that the Guggenheim will exhibit Tree Planting for the first time this spring. The show is also slated for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, probably next year.