C Magazine

Top

Issue 138

“Phallus in Wonderland”: Role Plays with Joyce Wieland
by Maryse Larivière

After gently pouring tea into each of our cups, Phyllis Lambert pushes a plate of delicate accompaniments arranged for our meeting in my direction. A shortbread cookie seems mess-free, so I take a few bites even though it is fairly small in size. I don’t have time to nibble, I tell myself, and put down the last bite of the sweet. Sitting in the conference room on the top floor of the Shaughnessy House at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, I reach into my tote bag to pull out a copy of the exhibition catalogue for Passion Over Reason: Tom Thomson & Joyce Wieland recently presented at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Inspecting the exhibition’s didactic panels during my visit, I had discovered that many works in Passion Over Reason were on loan from Lambert’s personal collection. I remembered reading that Lambert was a patron of Wieland’s. Of course, I had to interview her. I was curious to hear the story behind each of these relatively small, intimate works she owned and how they came into her possession. In the pink room where most works from Lambert’s archives were exhibited, I turned around to give one last look to the artiste ardente in the painting Artist on Fire (1962), a work from the Robert McLaughlin Gallery’s holdings, before the gallery closed.

Lambert and I are browsing through the catalogue, turning each page slowly, occasionally both at the same time, in silence. “Oh, I love those, I adore that, I am sure I got that one, all of those,” she exclaims. The shy tension in the room disperses with Lambert’s profuse excitement over Wieland’s artistic ingenuity. A burst of laughter is prompted by the sight of a pale, soft, untitled coloured pencil drawing of a nude woman lying on her stomach, propped up on her arms, a delicate yellow flower in her hand, leaning her head upward, her lips kissing the muzzle of a goat. “Oh, it’s wonderful! Here it is! I have this little one, but I particularly love Adventures of Lapin, Tuktu and Shithead Von Whorehead in Akinada (1970) because I was very much interested in her attitude towards nature that I absolutely found wonderful, and I loved her humour! I enjoyed her freedom, this wonderful freedom…”

Lambert recounts how she was introduced to Joyce Wieland in Toronto in the mid-seventies, through her dealer Av Isaacs, who was looking to fund the production of Wieland’s feature-length romantic comedy film The Far Shore (1976). In our interview, Lambert emphasizes that she liked Wieland immediately. It was during this particularly intense period of creation for Wieland that they became close friends. Lambert pauses to look at film stills from The Far Shore – the main characters, Eulalie and Tom, are in an embrace while they are swimming – before adding that what created a real bond between Wieland and her was Claude Debussy’s piano composition Petite suite. Wieland’s heroine Eulalie plays this piece in one of the scenes of The Far Shore. It resonated with Lambert because she had done a film about her father for his eightieth birthday and used the same music for the film. “Joyce was always thinking in film,” Lambert adds, when the book opens to a page with a small, simple painting, oil on cardboard, of a grid of four bright red hearts.

Like tokens of affection, Wieland gifted works to Lambert, who, in return, supported the artist by purchasing her work. Lambert even owns one of Wieland’s large quilts. “It was about a friendship, about the work of someone I liked so much,” Lambert elaborates. But a number of pieces entered Lambert’s collection as an in- heritance when Wieland’s estate was divided after the art- ist passed away in the late nineties. When I mention the recent meeting of a certain Secret Society of Joyce Wieland.2 Lambert admits not knowing of its existence, but is not surprised to hear that still, to this day, a community of women gathers to commemorate of the artist.

Joyce Wieland was well loved by her family, friends and colleagues, for her passionate personality and infinite creativity. Like her many friends, who all have very fond memories of her, I wonder if Lambert too “has her own personal Joyce?”3

***

PHYLLIS: There are a few things I remember wonderfully, which will give you a sense of her. Of course, we always had wonderful parties. Once, I brought a crown made out of laurel leaves and flowers for Joyce’s sixtieth birthday, a picnic, near a temple, with beautiful buildings. Or was it for Jean’s party that we had wreaths of flowers? Joyce had that instinct, of the likes of Robin Hood or Peter Pan… We had a wonderful party when Jean Boggs was pushed out of the National Gallery!

Jean was a very intelligent and beautiful woman. She had done her PhD at Harvard and was a Degas specialist. When she was the director of the National Gallery in Ottawa, it was a glorious time [for the arts in Canada]. In fact, she is the only really great art historian and director ever appointed there. There are other people of course, but not [of] the quality of Jean Boggs. She was just wonderful! Pierre Théberge was the curator of the show, but it was Jean who asked Joyce to do her exhibition there. So, Joyce adored Jean.

With the construction of two new buildings, the National Gallery got rid of her. So, when Jean was pushed out, we did this wonderful party for her at my house. I have a book on it here, because we photographed it and made up a little book on it.

MARYSE:[You made an artist’s book with Wieland?]

PHYLLIS: A book that had only two copies, a book that wasn’t distributed, that wasn’t published in many copies… Joyce stage-managed the whole evening. The only thing I did was this little temple, which was [meant to represent] the museum and I still have it around somewhere. It is [a model I] made out of paper. Trudeau was there, of course.

MARYSE: [Oh, are you talking about the celebration for Jean Boggs, with this avant la lettre institutional critique performance à la Andrea Fraser where Wieland had mimes rectifying the narrative around Boggs’ demotion?]

PHYLLIS: There was this great play that Joyce established. It was a play that was also a masquerade. There were moneymen that came in. That was sort of the big thing. They [had a giant dollar bill] and they had scissors. These evil men came and, for the money, they were going to build a temple.

MARYSE: [I read somewhere that they handed over the miniature temple to the woman that played Jean Boggs, and lifted her from the ground, in a symbolic restitution of her authority and success. With this play, Wieland was hoping Boggs would be re-appointed, but Trudeau, dressed as a cowboy, was quick that night to respond to the affront: “So you think bureaucrats can change their minds like that?”4 ]

PHYLLIS: Ah, the joy of the whole thing! We all wore silly costumes and it was just really great fun. Joyce was marvellous at that real spirit of creativity and fun!

MARYSE: You had a lot of fun together?

PHYLLIS: Oh yeah, we used to call each other stupid names.

MARYSE: Stupid names, what do you mean?

PHYLLIS: I called her Marilyn.

MARYSE: That’s not a stupid name…

PHYLLIS: Isn’t it your name?

MARYSE: No, my name is Maryse…

PHYLLIS: We would call each other names that weren’t ours. Anyways, I don’t remember what I would call her exactly…

MARYSE: You were role playing?

PHYLLIS: Yes, but not really. We were just having fun… [“And now there’s nobody with whom I can play silly games.”5 ]

***

What I find moving about Lambert is her commitment to summoning Wieland for me throughout our conversation. Lambert’s answer to my last question, about an architectural detail on Wieland’s house – an alleged Romeo & Juliet balcony – converges on a similar observation: “It is very much like Joyce.” I tried bringing up the McMichael exhibition’s curatorial vision, and while it did give momentum to our discussion, Lambert, as diplomatic as she may be, continuously diverted these questions by way of affective storytelling. Now, how can I mobilize the intensity of such a personal narrative about Wieland’s attitude to tell a story about her work, about her practice?

Back home, I keep staring at the catalogue, opened to page 110, while I am having a cigarette: a photograph of Wieland and her then-husband the artist Michael Snow in front of the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1970. Their performance entertains me; they are crouched on the ground, their bodies completely hidden underneath a large Canadian flag, with only their heads sticking out. Squatting, Wieland also sports a tiny silk flag on top of her puffy hair and a mischievous smile on her face, while Snow, on all fours, raises his head sideways, from below the maple leaf design. Coincidentally, the voiceover from the CBC short documentary about Snow’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale calls out to me: “Snow never really got what he was after, but it doesn’t matter because its central to his art to collaborate with chance, to take whatever comes up and make that dictate what he’ll do next. He once said that he makes up the rule of a game that he then attempts to play; if he seems to be losing, he changes the rules.”6 I close my computer to welcome this sign without further distraction.

Joyce Wieland is playing a game too, but by a different set of rules. Her work is not as concerned with following the meanderings that abstract concepts may dictate as it is engaged with the performativity of dialogical collaborations. The game she played with Lambert, where “they would give each other names, like Louise and Dorothy, and then take on the character of whatever they thought suited the names they chose,”7 takes a critical turn when the boundaries between life and art are challenged to bring Wieland’s game into the realm of her art practice. Lambert’s stories about Wieland’s antics highlights something about the artist’s sensibility – a sensibility that I believe extends into and across her oeuvre. Wieland’s lively personality breeds an artistic attitude, one that is revealed through thinking of her practice as a role-playing game. Reading Wieland’s life into her work exposes the camp aesthetics shaping her practice as romantic comedy and as an idiosyncratic brand of feminism, although the contours of Wieland’s feminism remains to be studied in depth.

Her conceptual art game consists of inserting the feminine – the personal, the intimate, the subjective – into the prevailing discourse on Canadian art. By embodying the transformative potential of women’s discourse, defined by Cixous and Irigaray as écriture féminine, Wieland’s humorous and colourful role plays exaggeratedly perform femininity as to engage the male-dominated Canadian art world in dialogue from a feminine perspective. Sugarcoated with airs of tenderness, romanticism, frivolity and naivety, role play allows Wieland to speak truth to power and propagate her vision of love as a catalyst for artistic, political and ecological reform.

While Wieland never described her practice as a role-play- ing game, this notion provides a useful framework for revealing her dialogical explorations of feminine subjectivity and identification. Role-playing games allow Wieland to articulate what Griselda Pollock describes as a tenet of feminist art, which is “an intersubjective relationship that constitutes her as a feminine subject, and not object,”8 and as an artist.

Role plays are enacted through the many subject positions Wieland has created for herself as a woman artist, and that, through the making of her work, she activates by way of real and fictional conversations and collaborations with her pets, her husband, the Canadian flora, fauna, and landscape, her sister’s quilting bee, her family, friends and lovers, racially, sexually, linguistically and politically marginalized people, historical figures, imaginary artists and many women. Immersed in the American Women’s Movement during her stay in New York in the 1960s, Wieland describes the emergence of her feminist consciousness and its influence on her practice as a critical reimagining of the figure of the artist:

“I was on my way in a sense to become an artist’s-wife type of artist… until I got into looking around in history for female lines of influence. I read the lives and works of many women, salonists, diarists, revolutionaries, etc. I started to invent myself as an artist. I saw only gradually that my husband’s artistic concerns were not mine, although I loved Cézanne, Vermeer, etc. I still had to look into the lives of women who had made independent statements in their lives. In a sense my husband’s great individuality and talents were a catalyst to my development. Eventually women’s concerns, and my own femininity, became my artist’s territory.”9

Now, what is not accounted for in this excerpt is how Wieland’s feminine imaginary expands beyond her own territory to mesh with the artistic, ecological and political concerns of three iconic figures in Canadian culture: her then-husband Michael Snow and her longstanding crushes – artist Tom Thomson and former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The hints of a collaboration between Wieland and Snow in the making of Snow’s book Cover to Cover (1975) were first noted by Toronto artist Derek Sullivan at Artexte in 2015. During his “walk through the book, the book as a journey, cover to cover,”10 Sullivan identified, within the series of photographs that compose the book, a strongly felt presence, an apparition: “although Joyce Wieland is not visible, she is constantly present in the book. She is this ghost in the book, it is the house that [Wieland and Snow] shared, and on the window sill is her work.”11 In Cover to Cover, two works by Wieland appear within the photographic compositions: the bronze sculpture The Spirit of Canada Suckles the French and English Beavers _ (1971) on the window sill in the couple’s home, and the quilt _The Camera’s Eyes (1966) installed at the Isaacs Gallery.

For Sullivan, the presence of Wieland’s two artworks, “sit[ting] equidistant from one another, almost like book- endings,”12 both a few pages in from each of the book’s covers, “makes material a dialogue that most likely was made with her, a conversation that went into the development of the book, as a film is never made by a single person.”13 Indeed, for Sullivan Cover to Cover is “essentially a book-as-film,”14 that narrates Snow’s journey from home to his gallery through a continuous series of images that alludes to film stills. Taken simultaneously by two photographers, these images not only portray Snow, but also performatively reveal the photographers’ presence, their “doubling of the camera,”15 to lay bare the predetermined creative process, a direct reference to structural film, in place for the making of Cover to Cover.

The Camera’s Eyes, installed in the gallery, reiterates the book’s reference to structural film, a genre of cinema that informs both Wieland’s and Snow’s individual and collaborative filmmaking practices. With the insertion of Wieland’s The Camera’s Eyes within Snow’s artist’s book, a mise-en-abyme occurs in Cover to Cover that strengthen its concept. The specificity of the choice and placement of The Camera’s Eyes in _Cover to Cover _ signals a deliberate intervention of Wieland’s work and artistic attitude into Snow’s bookwork. This buried conversation between Snow and Wieland suggests that the ghost of Wieland is an inscription of the feminine within the codes that structure the book.

In an original and intrepid reversal, the role play in Cover to Cover _ recasts Michael Snow as the “Walking Man” on a journey across Joyce Wieland’s artistic territory, namely from the intimacy of the home to the public space of the art gallery. Both cameras having their sight on Snow, this role play appoints Snow as the object of desire in the “images made by two photographers aiming their cameras at the object-artist, who is caught in a photographic cross- fire.”16 This very _Wielandian manoeuvre that weaves Snow’s practice into his love life brings Cover to Cover towards the realm of her oeuvre. Wieland’s phantasmatic role play captured in the book – in which Michael Snow is an object of desire – functions as a feminist strategy to “disrupt the law of subjectivity ruled by the phallus,”17 and signposts the deep and complex intertwinement of influence they had on each other’s respective artistic endeavours.

Scholarship on Wieland’s films tends to only hint at the question of address and multiplicity of voice in her work, which is mostly due to how these interpretations focus solely on works of her performance in front or behind the camera, as opposed to examining her feminist praxis, her creative process, her role plays that happen on and off camera, in and out of the studio and into real life. Passion Over Reason: Tom Thomson & Joyce Wieland inadvertently tackles the issue head-on. The exhibition’s curatorial vision is incarnated in a seemingly innocuous assertion by the curator Sarah Stanner that speaks to the notion of role play: “Joyce Wieland was not ashamed to have a sort of love, a crush, for Tom Thomson and that is something we can all relate to.”18 Joking with her audience, Stanner might have been inspired by Joyce Wieland’s camp reimagining of the myth of Tom Thomson as Canadiana in the “tragi-comic historical love story”19 The Far Shore _(1976). Stanner’s remark also sends an invitation to the gallery-goers to take part in Wieland’s role-playing game by identifying with her fascination for the _Group of Seven’s mythical painter.

Through her artistic pas-de-deux with Thomson, Wieland transfers onto The Far Shore characters, Tom and Eulalie, her own ruminations on artist-couple dynamics, as well as a reflection on Canada’s two solitudes, and formulates a proposition for what masculinity could be under the gaze of feminism. Indeed, in the film, the figure of Thomson, of the male artist, is turned into a feminist man, attuned to a woman’s sensibility and intelligence, to nature, to his feelings, to love. Not only that, Wieland’s creative and romantic investment in the figure of Thomson materializes into artworks and props for the film. The research for The Far Shore exposed Wieland to rare photographs of fish by Thomson, and in one scene, Eulalie embroiders a pink and blue fish on a hoop, a work in fact made by Wieland herself, intend- ed as a “very subtle but meaningful nod to [Thomson].”20 Wieland further extends her conversation with the figure of Thomson in a photograph that documents her stitching that exact piece, sitting on a blue couch in front of what could very well be a painting by Thomson.

But Wieland’s role play with Thomson becomes critical in the context of Passion Over Reason when it proposes an apt response to the institutional reframing of her work in light of the celebrations of both the centennial of Thomson’s death and Canada’s sesquicentennial. Indeed, the McMichael’s curatorial vision attempts to instrumentalize Wieland’s feminism with its literal reading of her love for Thomson, which obliterates Wieland’s feminist critique of Thomson as a Canadian male artist-genius. Now, what actually happens is that Wieland’s camp, her invisible laughter, subvert the hierarchy that tries to put her work at the service of Thomson’s authority and legibility. Indeed, the series of small paintings by Thomson, presented as an installation similar to the arrangement of quilts in 109 views (1970–77), and brought directly in dialogue with Wieland’s film The Far Shore and its many artefacts and artworks, gets transmuted into mere props in Wieland’s artistic wonderland.

The exhibition Passion Over Reason hinges on a third important role play, the one between Wieland and Pierre E. Trudeau. The title of the exhibition references Trudeau’s motto “Reason over Passion,” but also Wieland’s works that infiltrate the famous slogan in the form of film, textile and print. The exhibition includes: the etching Trudeau du Canada (undated), a careful composition akin to the doodles of a Trudeaumaniac, with motifs of hearts, lips and female and male sexual organs repeated to surround the many occurrences of “Reason over Passion” scrawled all over the page; the quilt Reason Over Passion (1968), the end product of a happening – a “quilt-in party for Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Art Quilt Gift” at Wieland’s New York studio – which was advertised by a giant poster featuring the portrait of Trudeau; Wieland’s film footage of Trudeau at the Liberal convention; and the 16mm film Reason Over Passion (1969), documenting Wieland’s journey across Canada by train, and sandwiched in the middle where Ontario would be, a romance, a cameo portrait of Trudeau. All these works carry on the role play by rendering visible Wieland’s excitement that spurs the conversation between her and Trudeau. Like a declaration of love, the role play bears the signs of a performing feminine subject: the hysteria of a Trudeau fan, the art-happening eventfulness of a women’s community, or the confidences of the travel diary in moving images. “There was a dialogue between Trudeau and myself. But I was speaking to (and working for) Canada. The whole thing is a very high, far-out fantasy, I admit, and to the power figure, the father figure.”21

Yet, it is another, and unexpected, collaboration around the quilt Reason Over Passion that informs the reversal of Trudeau’s slogan into the exhibition title Passion Over Reason. In her memoir Beyond Reason, Margaret Trudeau recounts the anecdote where she defaced Wieland’s artwork– the quilt had been gifted to Trudeau and installed at 24 Sussex – and articulates how she identifies with Wieland’s artistic subjectivity:
“One day I did what in Pierre’s eyes was the unforgivable. We were having a frosty argument about clothes, and suddenly I flew into the most frenzied temper. I tore off up the stairs to the landing where a Canadian quilt, designed by Joyce Wieland and lovingly embroidered in a New York loft with Pierre’s motto, ‘La raison avant la passion,’ was hanging. (Its bilingual pair was in the National Gallery.) Shaking with rage at my inability to counter his logical, reasoned arguments, I grabbed at the quilt, wrenched off the letters and hurled them down the stairs at him one by one, in an insane desire to reverse the process, to put passion before reason just this once. Pierre was icy. Vandalizing a work of art. How low could I sink? (Hildegard sewed them all on again, invisibly and without comment, the next morning.). All of it seemed beyond reason to me.”22
Margaret Trudeau’s impromptu interaction with the quilt points to how Wieland’s work entices viewers to participate in role play just as Wieland’s did in the process of production by identifying with the fantasies and desires that structures her critical and creative project. By way of emotional outburst, Margaret Trudeau accesses a more complex understanding of the quilt’s meaning that is aligned with Wieland’s ironical appropriation of the motto, which is to say that the artwork is not simply a celebratory emblem as Pierre Trudeau would have liked it to be. The reiteration of Wieland’s role play by Margaret Trudeau thus underlines how affect can trigger a better interpretation of an artwork, and Wieland’s response to the press about the anecdote is eloquent of her artistic intent for the piece: “I think what she intended was to put passion over reason, and I don’t blame her.”23

The slogan inversion of the McMichael exhibition title positions Wieland in the role of a propagandist, minimizing the complexity of her feminist critique of Trudeau’s Canadian patriotism, and dispossessing contemporary artists such as Cynthia Girard and Mark Clintberg of their artworks’ critical inversions of the slogan that highlight the feminist and queer politics at stake in Wieland’s work. In early conversations around Reason Over Passion, Wieland does in fact acknowledge that she initially imagined herself as a propagandist. However, the purpose of this role-playing game with Trudeau is an attempt to critically examine the relationship between landscape, femininity and national identity. She indeed states that it became a significant worry for her that her work might be misinterpreted by institutions and instrumentalized for partisan-political ends. She didn’t see herself as a government propagandist filmmaker. Instead, she believed that her practice involved “working not for, but with the people of Canada.”24

Casting herself in the role of a trickster or an agitprop artist, Wieland explains that what she was “doing to Trudeau [wa]s putting him on for his statement ‘Reason over passion; that is the theme of all my writing.’”25 By including “the words ‘reason over passion’ in the beginning of the film,” Wieland was “treating them as a propaganda slogan and through permutation, turn[ed] them into visual poetry, a new language.”26 Media scholar Janine Marchessault discusses the 537 permutations of the slogan flashing across the screen throughout the film as a resistance to “all that is fixed, and resulting not in simple inversion but in ambiguity,” with the slogan’s “letters becom[ing] unhinged – spinning and changing over (and in relation to) the fluctuating images, [to] resist one position, transfigured from sense to nonsense, from reason into passion: working to formulate a new language, separate from the discursive resonances of the old.”27

This “new language” has already been interpreted in terms of women’s discourse, yet only through analysis of Wieland’s films’ formal aspects by scholars such as Lauren Rabinovitz, Leila Sujir and Kay Armatage. Now, the framework of role play as an art-making process that embraces a fictional mode of creative engagement and inter-subjective participation allows for a reading of Wieland’s entire practice as an embodiment of écriture féminine. The women’s discourse engendered by Wieland’s role-playing allows the many Joyces to bypass the limitations she would otherwise encounter if she had to address her feminine and artistic concerns directly in reality. It is exactly, and only, from within this space of fiction that Wieland took on her creative personas and momentarily inserted herself in the skin of these personages to make her work. In another sense, there is only one Joyce, and she saw herself as “an activist who feels.”28 Putting women’s discourse into action was her modus operandi, from reason to passion and back. For Wieland, it was never about the totalitarian passion over reason and vice versa, nor was it something beyond reason and certainly it was not all passion. No, “for Joyce, it was passion and reason. But maybe a bit more passion, over reason…” to give Phyllis Lambert the last word.

UP