Joyce Wieland, O Canada, 1970
Lithograph in red on wove paper, 57.4 x 76.4 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
To make O Canada, Wieland, wearing bright red lipstick, sang the national anthem while pressing her lips to a lithographic stone with each syllable. The resulting print shows rows of lips in various stages of opening and closing. Using the title as an important clue, viewers will likely feel their mouths twitch in recognition. In effect, this is a kind of interactive art.
With this artwork Wieland actively responds to one of the new symbolic artifacts adopted by the government of Canada in the 1960s: the maple leaf flag (replacing the British-affiliated Red Ensign) was officially unfurled in 1965, and “O Canada” was officially approved as the national anthem in 1967. Wieland made a number of artworks that adopted or reinterpreted the new flag, as well as this piece, inspired by the new anthem. Her act of patriotic allegiance has been deliberately gendered, moreover: these are female lips, and possibly sexy lips. The art historian John O’Brian remarks that “the print ironically conflates male patriotic love with female erotics, while refusing to collapse the tension between the two.”1
O Canada was displayed in Wieland’s exhibition True Patriot Love at the National Gallery of Canada in 1971, where it was part of an extravaganza of objects and images made by the artist. All the artworks strategically distorted or transformed recently introduced or traditional Canadian national symbols to make a new kind of political art. Instead of taking national identity for granted, Wieland called on visitors to reimagine and reclaim nationhood.
Wieland would on other occasions use the distinctive image of lips that appear to move as they speak or sing, such as in The Maple Leaf Forever, 1972; The Arctic Belongs to Itself, 1973; and Squid Jiggin’ Grounds, 1974. The national anthem was featured again in O Canada Animation, 1970, this time with the sequence of red lips embroidered onto a piece of white cloth.