Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Splitting Mind: Annie Poon explores bipolar disorder through her stop-action film Split House

Annie Poon’s short film The Split House depicts and reconciles her personal struggle with bipolar disorder. The title comes both from the separated emotional nature that Poon experienced in the treatment of her condition, and the location of Split, Croatia, where she served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her film spanned 10 years in creation, summarizing her experiences and difficulties.

Poon, a Utah native and current resident of New York City, uses stop animation for her work. She says her inspiration comes mainly from the animation shorts on Sesame Street she watched as a child. Especially striking to her were the sketchy drawings used to introduce letters and numbers on the show; she liked the thrown-together, raw feeling. Poon’s own film features a selection of cut-out doodled characters moving across drawn, abstract backgrounds.

The Split House shows the outline of a girl in thick, black lines, who, after traveling through the landscape of Split enters a house, greets an old woman and lies down on a couch in the manner of a person receiving therapy. As the two women presumably discuss Poon’s difficulties with bipolar disorder, both figures are turned into doodled, white owls. The viewer then enters Poon’s mind and watches as she meets several figures including: a black owl, a half-black half-white yeti, a set of detached eyes, and a narwhal, a tusked whale. The whole film runs close to five minutes and is currently featured at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

Many of the symbols in Poon’s piece relate to personal archetypes. The therapist owl is a symbol of several women who have aided Poon with her bipolar disorder through emotional and physical support. The black owl inside of Annie’s mind — that protects Annie from danger in the form of an octopus tentacle — symbolizes Poon’s twin sister, whom she calls “Black Beauty.” The yeti represents the split of Annie’s mind and the juxtaposition of her and her twin sister, who she sees as near opposites. The eyes are windows to Annie’s mind and by going past them she descends even further into her unconscious.

The whole film also contains several allusions to Poon’s Christian beliefs, including a scriptural reference to power, with an animation of a foot crushing the head of a serpent. The narwhal acts as a sort of Savior figure rescuing Annie from drowning and bringing her to the final scenes.

The end of the film shows the Annie figure being dressed by two women and going through a transformation; her hair becomes long, she wears a princess-like dress and tiara, and she becomes pregnant. The last scene is this Annie bobbing along the ocean at the front of a ship. She has gone through a transformation, becoming something that she was not before; content, carefree, and a mother.

Though the film relies on some prior knowledge, whether of Christian and Mormon theology or Poon’s own personal iconography, The Split House is a strong personal examination of the struggle that many face with emotional illness, and the type of hope Poon experienced throughout her treatment. Her work spans a decade in production, meaning that the viewer can go on a journey with Poon as she unfolds her thoughts on the long-term struggle rather than a sprint to the finish. Poon’s doodles keep the heavy subject matter more relatable while still inspiring thought and empathy.

Annie Poon: The Split House is on view at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo through Summer 2017.
Hannah Sandorf Davis is pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts at Brigham Young University. She is also a journalist for the BYU College of Humanities.

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