Hardly a small victory, half of the fourteen artists featured in this weekend’s Reel Artists Film Festival are women. And of these, the five solo artists highlighted in the festival’s documentaries demonstrate distinct feminist elements in their work.
Reel Artists is produced annually by the Canadian Art Foundation, publisher of Canadian Art Magazine, and showcases Canadian and international artists working in a variety of media. Organizer Ann Webb says, “Our festival programme seeks to demystify visual art by allowing audiences to consider key personalities and the thinking behind contemporary art.” For this year’s line-up, Webb sought-out films that reflect a variety of contemporary women artists.
What is in fact more impressive than the sheer extent of female representation is the breadth seen amongst the artists’ oeuvres. This range is perhaps most explicit in the striking juxtaposition of the opening night’s two films, Annie Pootoogook and Vanessa Beecroft in Berlin. Marcia Connolly’s doc on the Sobey Award-winning Pootoogook follows the Inuit artist’s practice and daily life amidst the stark conditions of Cape Dorset, Baffin Island. Pootoogook’s childlike yet painstaking drawings eschew the mythical qualities of much traditional Inuit art in favour of chronicling the contemporary realities of her community, including domestic violence, poverty, and geographic isolation. The sobering documentary makes patent how firmly the artist stands within this world —and moreover apart from the broader contemporary art scene currently paying her so much interest. She appears baffled by the explosion of attention she’s received, calling Toronto’s Power Plant—the venue for her first major solo exhibition—”The Big Building.”
The contrast with Marina Zenovich’s film on controversial performance artist Vanessa Beecroft couldn’t be more glaring. The documentary follows the Italian-born Beecroft as she executes her largest work yet, VB55, a performance involving 100 nude women at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. It is impossible not to be ambivalent about Beecroft’s tableaux vivants, which often seem to be more aligned with fashion than any particular artistic sentiment (in previous performances models have worn Gucci bikinis and Prada stilettos) and arguably further exploits women in their already subjugated position under a masculine societal gaze. However, Zenovich brings deeper complexities in Beecroft’s performance to light as she documents the voyeuristic and frankly uncomfortable exchange between its models and audience members, both of whom play an equally consummative role in VB55 (which, incidentally, involves no fashion save the sheer nylons worn by the models).
Delving back to the earlier days of feminist art (yes, Vanessa Beecroft considers herself a feminist) is the 1987 documentary Ana Mendieta: Fuego de Tierra, shown here in its Canadian premiere. Kate Horsfield, Nereyda Garcia-Ferraz and Branda Miller’s film, originally released two years after Mendieta’s untimely and dramatic death, traces the work of the artist best known for her female silhouettes inscribed in sand and mud, back to her childhood in Havana and subsequent adolescence spent in Iowa. Footage of post-revolutionary Cuba, conversations with family members and colleagues, and an interview with Mendieta herself weave an enriching narrative of the artist’s life and work, which ultimately concerned itself with the “violence and the vulnerability of women’s bodies” according to fellow artist Nancy Spero.
Though working slightly earlier and in a different artistic context, Post-Minimalist artist Eva Hesse presents an interesting correlative to Mendieta. Drawing from Minimalism and Post-Pop aesthetics, Hesse employed industrial materials to create unique abstract sculptures that have played a seminal role in contemporary art since. Unlike Mendieta, who forged direct associations between the female body and nature, Hesse’s installations are characterized by their ambiguity – though persistently suggestive of the body, they are rarely literal and hence open themselves to layers of intimation and semiotic play.
In a departure from most of the artist docs at the festival, Victor and Sally Ganz: Discovering Eva Hesse focuses on the collectors who bought and propagated Hesse’s work. Filmmaker Michael Blackwood’s straightforward interview with the elderly Ganzes provides an insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the 1960s art world. Following the screening of Blackwood’s film, a segment of Joan Simon’s earlier documentary on Hesse features an interview with the artist and rare footage in her studio.
Finally, Kay Armatage’s Artist on Fire: Joyce Wieland pays tribute to one of Canada’s most important artists and a true feminist pioneer in painting and filmmaking. The busy documentary covers Wieland’s diverse and prolific pursuits in painting, quilting (Wieland was one of the first to incorporate traditional women’s crafts into her fine art practice), and experimental cinema. Wieland’s themes were as varied as her techniques. Through footage of her practice, a conversation with the elder Canadian painter Doris McCarthy, and voiceovers by other Canadian art heavyweights such as Michael Snow (Wieland’s former husband), her concerns with sexuality, nationalism, and the environment are revealed. Unfortunately, the artist’s approach to gender issues are sometimes questionable—projections of the Canadian wilderness over Wieland’s voluptuous naked form conjures sexist tropes binding women to nature, not unlike Mendieta’s earth-women—and the tone of Armatage’s film is far too laudatory to admit criticism. Still, it paints a telling portrait of a complex person and artist.
The multifariousness of these artists breaks down any notion of a unified feminist sensibility in art, instead pointing to the expansive potential of its subjects. Other artists featured in Reel Artists include John Baldessari, Tony Oursler, Matthew Barney, Richard Tuttle, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Jack Smith, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The festival runs Thursday, February 22 to Sunday, February 25 and tickets and passes can be purchased from Canadian Art at very reasonable prices. All screenings are at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC. Many filmmakers will be in attendance and interviews and question-and-answer sessions follow several screenings.
Images by Annie Pootoogook, Vanessa Beecroft, and of Eva Hesse courtesy of Canadian Art.