June 30, 1931, Toronto – June 27, 1998, Toronto
Joyce Wieland is an intelligent, irreverent artist whose multi-dimensional explorations of female sexuality and domestic life and Canadian nationalism put her at the forefront of feminist practice. Her films combined the self-reflexive elements of materialist cinema — repetition, extreme close-ups, fragmented action, dislocation of image and sound, superimposition of text over image — with irony and political insight. Her work had an effect on 1980s narrative innovations in feature films and French theoretical writings on the concept of a distinctive female style, l’écriture féminine.
Wieland triumphed despite a tough upbringing. Her working-class parents, who emigrated to Canada from Britain, died when she was young, leaving her and her older brother and sister to fend for themselves. Isolated by poverty and the pressure to find work at odd jobs, Wieland was able to find pleasure in drawing. Her talent was noticed and encouraged by landscape artist Doris McCarthy, who taught Wieland visual arts at Central Technical School in Toronto and later acted as a professional mentor.
After graduating from high school and obtaining part-time work in the graphic arts industry, Wieland was given a permanent position with Graphic Arts, an animation company run by George Dunning. Here, she met other young Toronto painters (including Michael Snow, whom she would later marry) and with them made film parodies of work assignments like Salada tea commercials. One example is Tea in the Garden (1958) where Wieland plays a Lillian Gish–like heroine.
During this period Wieland’s paintings — bold, brightly coloured, humorous visualizations of male and female sexuality, akin to pop art — attracted much attention, as did her collages and wall hangings, assembled from fabrics associated with “women’s work.” Her first one-person show was in 1958 at the Here and Now Gallery. Two years later, she had a solo exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery, which was then the leading Toronto venue for contemporary Canadian art.
In 1962, Wieland and Snow relocated to New York City, as Wieland put it, “to be where the action is.” She continued to paint but found the gallery scene intimidating, and so she joined up with the city’s young filmmakers whose resourcefulness impressed her. In an interview from Afterimage magazine (May 1981) with Lauren Rabinovitz, Wieland described the interaction as critical to her own creative development: “There was a whole cinema language that people were inventing — without money.”
Wieland’s international reputation as a film artist is largely based on the work she made in New York between 1963 and 1969. These films display the modest production values and ingenuity she admired in others: Larry’s Recent Behaviour (1963), Patriotism, I (1964), Patriotism, II (1964) and Peggy’s Blue Skylight (1964–1966) were shot in 8mm. In Barbara’s Blindness (1967), Handtinting (1967–1968), Sailboat (1967–1968) and 1933 (1967–1968), she reworked found footage, camera outtakes and film ends. Wieland and her pets are the “stars” of Water Sark (1965), Cat Food (1968) and Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), while the inspiration for Reason over Passion (1967–1969) was a cross-Canada train journey. With each film, she advanced the female perspective: “I wanted to touch on subjects that men wouldn’t want to be bothered with,” she said in 1974.
Sailboat, Rat Life and Diet in North America and Reason over Passion received the most acclaim at the time of their making. Sailboat is a succession of shots of a boat moving across the screen with the word “sailboat” superimposed over it. The repetitive action and the text break the illusion of a three-dimensional cohesive space and redirect the viewer’s attention to the film’s surface and boundaries. At the same time, it invites an emotional response; for example, nostalgic feelings for beach holidays or fear of boating disasters.
Rat Life and Diet in North America, which was made at the height of the Vietnam War, is a political parable about revolutionaries, played out by gerbils escaping to Canada. It mixes conventional narrative and formal devices while remaining ambiguous about its intent as a critique of political documentary or of the political situation itself.
Reason over Passion examines notions of Canadian identity, conjoining the country's physical landscape with the familiar symbols — the flag, the anthem, bilingualism, the national railway — which stand in for Canadian identity. Midway through the film, sandwiched between the landscape imagery and located geographically where Ontario would be, is footage of Pierre Trudeau from the 1968 Liberal leadership campaign. Across the bottom of the screen appear 537 computer permutations of the title, taken from a quote attributed to Trudeau, “Reason over passion, that is the theme of all my writings.” When Debbie Magidson and Judy Wright interviewed Wieland in Canadian Forum (May-June 1974), they asked about her motivation for the film. Wieland said, "I was in a panic; an ecological, spiritual panic about this country... I photographed the whole length of southern Canada to preserve it in my own way, with my own vision."
At the time, Wieland’s distinctive style and cultural commentary set her apart from New York’s film community, which preferred minimalist work. Increasingly uncomfortable with the city’s rough environment, and worried about American influence on Canada, she returned to Toronto. In 1971, she became the first living Canadian female artist to be honoured with a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada. True Patriot Love was Wieland’s first large-scale effort to reach ordinary Canadians. With the help of skilled craftswomen, she re-interpreted the country’s traditional myths in quilts, sculptures, wall hangings, and even perfume and pastries.
Over the next four years, she divided her time between political lobbying and filmmaking. With Judy Steed, she made two shorts: Pierre Vallières (1972), which analyzes the aspirations of French-Canadian separatists, and Solidarity (1973), which promotes the rights of women workers to a living wage. But their greatest energy went into the theatrical feature The Far Shore (1975), Wieland’s next attempt to reach a mass audience about the cultural tensions in Canadian society. A carefully constructed period melodrama, with allusions to cinema history and painting, it was rejected by both art house and theatrical audiences who failed to appreciate its irony and symbolism. Wieland, exhausted by the production and dismayed at the hostile response, quit filmmaking. After an extended rest and a trip to the Canadian Arctic, she returned to painting. In 1987, she was honoured with a career retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which, for health reasons, was her last large-scale exhibition.
In the mid-1980s, Wieland returned briefly to filmmaking. With the help of Susan Rynard, a video artist and also her niece, she finished two pieces she started in her early career, Birds at Sunrise (1972–1986) and A & B in Ontario (1967–1984). The latter, a seemingly benign game of camera tag between her and the American filmmaker Hollis Frampton, is trademark Wieland in its spatial expression of sexual difference and its exposure of deceit at the heart of Hollywood cinema. This film’s release, together with renewed appreciation from feminist critics for Wieland’s sophisticated exploration of female sexuality in Water Sark and Handtinting informed subsequent assessments of her artistic oeuvre and ensured her a prominent place in Canada’s avant-garde film history.