Shary Boyle’s status as one of Canada’s best-kept secrets is about to change. This summer, the Toronto-based artist will bring her dreamlike creations to the 55th Venice Biennale, taking over the country’s discreet modernist pavilion with fantastical sculptures, installations, and projections. Details are still under wraps, but the exhibition — curated by National Gallery of Canada’s Josée Drouin-Brisebois—promises to be quite a spectacle (in contrast with the quiet mood of Steven Shearer’s display two years ago). Boyle is a keen show-woman, and she has collaborated with several musicians — including Peaches and Feist — and developed a unique take on live drawing and shadow theatre using quaintly charming overhead projectors. During a quick visit to London, the artist sat down with ARTINFO UK to discuss her commitment to the handmade, interdisciplinary collaborations, and the trappings of national identity.
Looking at your work, which can be almost phantasmagoric, I was wondering how you relate to the city of Venice.
It’s a no-brainer. I think when I was selected the jury was feeling that the history, the mythology, the ambience of Venice was really a natural fit with my work. Outcasts persecuted from other areas of Europe went there trying to hide in the lagoons, and they became this very powerful merchant class. That history is interesting to me: the idea of a group of strugglers, bound together to create this strong identity and Venetian pride. I’m also very interested in how they always put art before religion there. But the place is haunted, you know; the first time I saw it, I was just mesmerized by the idea of that water lapping up the staircases. It’s like the city of Atlantis, you have a vertigo or you want to descend into the water — it calls you. And there are so many ancient buildings: a mix of Eastern Islamic, Roman, gothic, and classical architecture that’s extraordinary. It’s really a place where I feel the Other can exist.
Which is obviously a theme that has been running through your work in many different ways.
Absolutely, and I also really respond to the classical material. I’m somewhat of a figurative artist, and I’m working in plaster, porcelain, organic kind of traditional materials: bronze, casting, things that have a long tradition and heart in Italy.
What initially attracted you to porcelain?
I’m generally interested in some form of invented essentialism. I like to look to the root causes of things. I’m an artist who is inspired by life as opposed to art. So it goes the same with my materials. I make my own work and that’s a little bit rare in today’s larger contemporary art scene. Because of that, I’m not interested with the derivative. I like the base things, the things that come from the soil or that have been around for a long time.
Is the handmade, the gesture, important?
Absolutely. If my hands are shaping every single element of a piece, no one can recreate it. It’s not as if my idea could be translated by any hand: the hand and the idea are absolutely integrated in my work, and that’s where the power comes out of it. Every piece of work of mine that you see is me.
And yet you are very open to collaborations. You’ve famously worked with musicians, for example.
Yes, that’s the performance part of my practice. There’s a real division between the private studio world and this other part of my personality that’s very performative, social, and particularly inspired by music. I’ve had a long history with music myself. It was a natural move from me to go into the arts but I always had this second love.
So how do the two fit together?
Well, music is a huge part of my studio practice. I’m in there listening to music all the time and I’m deeply involved with a culture of musicians: very dear friends, partners or whatever are musicians so that world is influential just in the feeling, the euphoria, and the inspiration of the music itself.
But in terms of the performance, it’s a very straightforward, analogue relationship I have with early animations and magic shadow stuff. In the late 1990s, I did a short film with a woman, and for the first time ever I had my drawings filmed, so I got to see a rush of my hand drawing. Looking at that, I realized the suspense and the performative potential of watching a drawing being made. I immediately rented an overhead projector and started experimenting with a musician. We began putting together shows, where I was just live drawing behind her as she was singing. And then they became very complex and more and more integrated with the narrative of the performance until it was a truly an audio-visual spectacle. That has just developed to the point where now I’ve been doing full live theatre shows, with up to three overhead projectors. People are like: can’t you just do this on digital? I don’t even bother explaining, it really has to be the overhead projector.
Can you see this kind of collaboration informing your presentation in Venice?
Absolutely. I’ve been bringing the projector into the gallery and actually collaborating with myself, with projections onto my more studio-based practice, which involves sculptures, and two-dimensional, three-dimensional installations.
You’ve said that the Canadian pavilion was “a tricky space.”
Yes, it’s kind of a greenhouse, it’s based on a nautilus shell design, there’s the tipi-like element of a sloping ceiling, it’s very unusual. I find it really charming and eccentric. The scale is amazing politically, in terms of where it’s positioned between these two colonial behemoths. There’s the U.K., Germany, and then there’s this tiny garden shed hidden in the bush, Canada. The space is great, I like it. But I do recognize that it has to be seduced. It can’t be worked against. So luckily, I had chemistry with it right away.
You’ve discussed Toronto’s “cultural inferiority complex” in relation to cities such as New York or London. Do you see this changing?
I would like to be a part of that changing. I’ve been one of the rare artists who stayed in Canada. That has been a little bit of a liability, because it’s meant that my work is not as known outside the country as my contemporaries’. I hope that some interest [generated by the pavilion] comes back to Toronto, and the plethora of artists working there so exceptionally. But when you are in a country like Canada, removed enough from the central forces of cultural economy, it also allows you the freedom and liberation to do things in a really inventive way — and because of that, I think there is a crazy amount of innovation.
There are clearly references to Canadian folklore in your work – but you’ve also got a very ironic take on the Canadian identity. I’m thinking, for example, of your piece “Canadian artist,” which was a response to you being described as such.
That’s right, no one knows what that means or what it is at all. Identity, cultural identity is an invented term that is about gathering as many examples of people that you feel the proudest about and claiming them as your ancestors. [For this piece] I just did three or four generations of an invented family tree for an invented self. There are a least 55 people involved, and I traced their bloodline with ribbons through the appropriate progenitors back to the individual that was “the artist.” It was extraordinary just to imagine the amount of genetics. We tend to claim one ancestor, but we are just all universal hobos, and we have to claim all of it.
With concerns such as these in mind, how do you feel about the somewhat outmoded model of national representation in Venice?
It’s definitely outmoded, and it’s very bizarre. For people who aren’t in art culture, the closest comparison is the Olympics and the idea of a national competition, which is so uninteresting to me. To bring it back to Canada, we are a place where people have always come. The French and the English were invaders of a place where people had been for thousands of years. And as the years come by all sorts of people come. So there’s no way that I can represent Canada. But what I can do is think of the diversity of people that are going to be at the Venice Biennale, from so many different cultures. If I look at it like that, I think: what do I want to say to this scope of humanity? Luckily, I’m someone who is very interested in talking about core, universal subjects so in that way, there’s a translation possibility that hopefully will affect everybody.
Shary Boyle at the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Canadian Pavilion, Giardini di Castello, June 1 – November 24, 2013.