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Features / August 2, 2013

The Mermaid’s Cave: Shary Boyle’s Path to the Venice Biennale

On a frigid February morning in Toronto, the sidewalks are heaped with thick, unwieldy snow—last night, some 35 centimetres fell on the city, the most in five years—and the sticky-hot carnival chaos of the Venice Biennale couldn’t seem farther away.

For Shary Boyle, though, Venice is right where it has been for months: smack in front of her face. Inside her Wallace Avenue studio, Boyle is flanked by an assistant and a photography team from the National Gallery of Canada, sent to document the biggest, central and most remarkable component of the installation she’s created for the Canada Pavilion: The Cave Painter (2013), a wizened, limby mermaid, clutching a newborn to her breast with long, skeletal fingers.

“You know the image of the Victorian cart horse—the one where it collapses in the street, and the driver gets out and beats it until it finally gets up and keeps pulling?” she asks, with a rueful grin. “I’ve had a few of those moments the last while.”

Industriousness is a state of being for Boyle, who, at 41, has always been known for a steadfast, can-do commitment to her work. Even for her, this year has been a test. The mermaid rests in a cave that measures 4.5 square metres—all by itself, by far the largest, most ambitious work she’s ever made. But it’s just one of almost a dozen components Boyle has fashioned to transform the Canada Pavilion into both distant planetscape and deep subterranean grotto.

Like everything she does, these two poles are inextricably linked, and, like everything she does, they form a universe unto themselves. This time, though, it’s as close to a completist version as she’s ever come. That she’s put it together in the space of roughly six months is testament both to Boyle’s creative reserves and to her iron will.

In August, just as she was readying to transform drawings and ideas into physical form, she suffered a disc herniation, which made sculpting almost intolerably painful. After an anxious couple of weeks, a chiropractor loosened things up enough for her to work at near-full speed, and she’d need to: in December, just before Christmas, Boyle found out that her deadline for the central installation had been moved up a month, from March to February. Putting the mermaid and her cave on a boat, not a plane, would mean crucial cost savings for the National Gallery. Boyle, whose well was already near dry, dug that much deeper and found, as she always seems to, more.

When news of the schedule change came, Boyle was on her way to Winnipeg, to commune with close friends and collaborators and recharge. “We were worried, but not really,” says Christine Fellows, the Winnipeg musician with whom Boyle has worked to produce a string of remarkable theatrical productions that marry Fellows’s music with Boyle’s images in live performance. “When people work too hard, the wheels can come off. Sometimes, you can get tired and think, ‘Okay, good enough.’ But that never happens to her. The bar just gets set higher and higher.”

Within days of this February photo shoot, the entire cave will be crated up and shipped out, which makes today a first look at the Venice project’s living heart. “I’m thrilled,” Boyle says, as photographers set up one shot after another. “It’s work like I’ve never done before. I’m just lucky it’s been on my terms.”

In the calm of the studio’s cool fluorescent lights, Boyle carefully tweaks sheets of transparencies sitting on dark overhead projectors. In front of her, the mermaid is a peaceful presence in white plaster—a reclining nude more than two metres long, with an almost classical serenity. Her drape of silvery hair pools on the nubbly white floor of the cave in which she rests; in front of her, a small pond glitters with crystals of different colours. Above and behind are curvy forms—stalagmites and stalactites—protruding from the floor and ceiling.

Boyle flips a switch, and the quiet of the cave shifts in an instant to a screaming cacophony of image: illuminated by a bank of overhead projectors, the mermaid transforms, her white skin suddenly a snarl of entrails and viscera, as though freshly flayed alive. The gentle curl of her tail becomes the sinuous flex of a boa constrictor; the baby’s head, a Nautilus shell. Behind her, the cave’s various protrusions come alive with human images: the Herculean activist Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind; Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban last year while advocating for girls’ education; Marcel Marceau, the famous mime; and Charlie Chaplin, the silent-film star whose overt politics all but undid his enormous, widespread fame. On the back wall of the cave, deep inside, a grid of eyes stares out from the dark depths.

It’s an assault—a deliberate, confrontational foil to the serenity of moments before. In Venice, the installation will toggle back and forth, on and off: peaceful, at intervals, then mutely screaming.

It’s the crescendo of a work that Boyle, in full, calls Music for Silence. It also bundles up tightly a set of concerns on which Boyle has drawn throughout her career. She’s always represented women, whether in unblinkingly frank, visceral scenes—I remember a tiny porcelain sculpture of a barely post-natal moment, a mother cradling a newborn, umbilical cord still attached to both, and wrapped around the baby’s neck—or in nightmarish fantasies. Her early, lace-draped sculptures also come to mind: in them, she took ownership of an anachronistic, much-dismissed decorative form—Victorian porcelains were a decor flourish of proper ladies—and dispatched them to a brave new world with multiple eyes, or limbs, or carrying a bloody, severed head like a handbag.

Whether painting, drawing or sculpting, she veers into distortion, transformation, otherness. An early oil features a homely nymph, eyes bulging, hair draping around a bulbous head, lips pursed and clutching a flower. It’s jarring and grotesque, but also gentle and humane—a caring exultation of the body in its glaring imperfections. In short, it’s about liberty—from conventions of beauty, both social and in art itself. John Currin and Boyle, over a drink, would either have a riotously gleeful to and fro about their respective work, or a fist fight. Maybe both.

Boyle is petite and rangy, with a shaggy mop of brown hair and lively blue eyes that convey a sometimes disarming intensity. When talking about her work, she’s focused, eloquent and certain, but falls easily into engagingly goofy repartee (Fellows, with a laugh, calls her “deadly serious, in the most hilarious way”). Everything about her is so fully felt, even casual conversation has a depth of sincerity that feels almost intimate.

She describes herself as something of a throwback: in a world teeming with electronic imagery and manufactured stuff, she is an artist committed to tactile craft, the making of things. She’s a perfectionist, drafting and honing and doing and redoing, except when she’s not. When her porcelains became more complicated in recent years, shifting from single figures to scenes with multiple beings—human or otherwise—they’d inevitably emerge from the kiln cracked. Instead of junking them and starting over, Boyle would gild the tiny fissures both to seal them and to demonstrate the imperfection of the process—and maybe, simply, the fact of being human.

In a way, Music for Silence is about imperfection—exposing it and celebrating it. Silence, for Boyle, carries heavy freight. She remembers with profound exactitude the impact Werner Herzog’s documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) had on her. It captured the revelatory otherness of the universe inhabited by the deaf and blind, who make their ways in a world not built for them. “There’s something incredibly moving about the courage it would take to get up every day and walk through the world you couldn’t see or hear,” she says.

The sound in Music for Silence is minimal, and incidental—the gentle clack of a 16-mm film projector casting a silent film of the show’s narrator, a Deaf woman. In sign language, the woman relays a list of dedications—the first thing Boyle wrote when she began on her odyssey. But there are no subtitles, no text, no guidance of any kind—only motion, sight and the faintest rhythmic sound (though the text does appear in the accompanying catalogue). “It was very important to me that it was a Deaf voice up there, on its own,” Boyle says. “Deaf people created their own culture, with its own language and morals and ethics. And they’re very proud of that—very political.”

Boyle has always been upfront about her own politics, pushing back against the established order of things, giving voice to the voiceless and reclaiming female representation—from objectification, from dismissive tweeness and, more radically, from the sometimes ham-fisted gender politics of 20th-century feminism—with her fearless use of fantasy and imagination. In that way, Music for Silence clicks into place in the Boyle oeuvre.

“There’s a lot of ’70s politics around feminism that people got really sick of, you know?” she says. “I knew it wouldn’t be fashionable—those kinds of ideas, in contemporary art, definitely aren’t cool.”

Louise Déry, the director and curator of Galerie de l’UQAM in Montreal, has had a ringside seat for the Venice process—she has written an essay for the catalogue—and likes what she sees. “Of course, it’s very her—very authentic,” Déry says. “Other artists will say, ‘This is very à la mode, so I’ll do that.’ That is not Shary, in any way.”

Déry remains the curator who has given Boyle her largest survey to date—2010’s broad-ranging “Flesh and Blood,” which paired up Boyle’s signature small porcelains and paintings with her first-ever large-scale installation pieces.

In 2007, Déry curated the Montreal-born artist David Altmejd for the Canada Pavilion in Venice. His piece The Index added lustre to his already-blossoming international reputation. Déry sees the same opportunity for Boyle. “If I could choose any artist to do this, a second time, for me, it would be Shary,” she says. “She’s like David in that way—dealing with very strong ideas, with a very impressive materiality and technique.”

Strong ideas? That’s one way to put it. Boyle’s overriding passions reject convention almost to the point of self-sabotage in the circle of smug self-approval the art world sometimes seems to be. For Venice, Boyle is an out-of-the-box, almost radical pick. In recent years, the artist representing Canada in Venice, whether chosen by the Canada Council or the National Gallery, has had a string of international bona fides: dealers, collectors, representation in far-flung museum collections. Boyle has none of these.

She hates to be branded an outsider, and fair enough. It’s a tired label, tied more to the mythology of her grassroots-and-bootstraps evolution in the Toronto art scene than to any reality. In truth, Boyle is no naturalistic ingénue, or at least not entirely. She went to the Ontario College of Art & Design, like many artists in the city. She dropped out before finishing, favouring a hands-on approach to her artistic education over the warmed-over reading list of art school.

Boyle refused to suppress the epic pictorial narrative that seemed to churn constantly in her head, despite what the market or fashion dictated. Her work pushed back against the dry conceptualism of her peers in the 1990s: she drew and painted, and cross-fertilized, ignoring the art world’s seeming silo mentality: she would craft collaborative performances with musicians, creating hand-drawn fantasy narratives live and on-stage with her weapon of choice, the overhead transparency projector she still uses today.

That her priorities—the handmade, transformation, the visceral, the body, a full-blooded embrace of an almost embarrassingly sensual world—seem to have regained a position of prominence in the art world is a case either of radical coincidence or of intuitive prescience, both of which she quietly shrugs off. “You can’t think that way,” she says. “You just try to do what you do, the best you can.” And in Venice? “Same thing,” she says, then laughs. “Just bigger, and better, and more awesome.”

Boyle was offered the Venice gig last May, while the gamut of the Canadian art scene converged on MASS MoCA for the opening of “Oh, Canada,” the recent kitchen-sink survey of contemporary Canadian art, of which she was a part. She was told in secret, but anyone who knew her even a little could tell something was up. At times during the three days of convivialities that accompanied the opening, Boyle had a noticeably thunderstruck look, like a deer in headlights. At least once, I noticed her off to the side in an intense private huddle with her Toronto dealer, Jessica Bradley.

No one knew it at the time, but it was a crossroads in Boyle’s career. She could say no, and some artists have. Venice is an enormous undertaking, sometimes involving a cast of dozens, and a process full of teamwork, politics and inevitable compromise—none of which, it’s fair to say, is a hallmark of Boyle’s practice. Embracing a challenge, though, is.

“It’s so overwhelming—entering a new world, and not understanding how long it will take to do something,” Fellows says. “And even with realizing that it’s basically not feasible, and somehow still managing to get it done? That’s Shary.”

Good thing, too. With its compressed time schedule (Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery, which took over the administration of Canada’s Venice entry in 2011, told me last summer that one of the goals was to get the chosen artist working at least a year in advance, and Boyle had just a little more than half that), Venice is equal parts glowing opportunity and infernal artistic purgatory.

Fewer than two weeks after getting the news, Boyle was at the Canada Pavilion in Venice for a reckoning. “I wanted to be completely open to this experience, to challenge myself, to be receptive to the space and opportunity without compromise,” she says. “When I got there, I started to think, ‘What can I bring to this thing, that it could use?’ ‘Who needs a voice here?’ I always feel like I have this greater responsibility: ‘What can I do for humanity?’” she laughs.

By late summer, the idea was fully formed. She described it to Fellows on a trip to New Brunswick in August. “Some artists can’t talk about their work,” Fellows says. “Shary can fully see it before she makes it. It’s like someone telling you a story: It’s so detailed, and so narrative, and so surprising.”

In September, I stopped by Boyle’s house in West End Toronto. It’s exactly the mix of homey-macabre you might expect: vintage furniture, anthropomorphic ceramics, drawings everywhere. Boyle walked me, step by step, through her plans; the final product differs almost not at all. The herniated disc—the result of some over-exuberant tennis playing—was fresh, and she was in obvious pain. But she was committed, and possessed.

“The thing that made me say ‘yes’ was: I can do something that’s feminist; I can do something that’s humanist; I can do something that has love and welcomes, but insists on you thinking for yourself, that has a sanctity and a seriousness but also a joy.” She sighs. “Or at least I can try. There’s always that chance—that it’ll be totally underwhelming, and everyone is going to be disappointed: ‘Shary, you suck! You ruined Venice for Canada!’”

It’s all part of a scaling-up process that puts Boyle on the world stage for the first time. Within Canada, Boyle’s as much of an art star as anyone could be. In the world Out There, she’s all but unknown.

“There’s always been interest,” she says. “I’ve had curators come in and sniff around—and then they go away and never come back!” Boyle laughs. She shrugs. “Maybe I’m not the most compromising person,” she allows. “When a curator comes in looking to pick and choose, I just tell them: ‘You want me, you get the whole package.’”

This makes Venice, likely contemporary art’s biggest stage, her coming-out party, and a package more whole would be hard to imagine. Visitors to the Canada Pavilion enter a world of cool, silent darkness: the gently curved wall is painted black, the ceiling is covered in gathered black fabric, the floor on which you walk is roughly textured, glittery volcanic black. You encounter a porcelain sculpture of an ancient female character, all black, hoisting a planet on her back. Curling through the space, you pivot around the light well in the middle—a permanent, sometimes-grating feature of the building; it is draped in black fishing net adorned with shimmering crystals and seashells. Soon after, two more porcelains appear, rotating quietly on vintage turntables. One, a nude female figure, arches backward, a moon balanced precariously on her abdomen; the other, a male, cantilevered no less improbably, carries his own planetary burden on his chest.

Silence can be political—if the word makes you think of the oppressed, the marginalized, you’re not wrong—but for Boyle, it’s a deep, personal well from which she’s always drawn. “When I was asked, as an artist, to introduce myself to the international community, who has no idea who I am, I just thought I had to give thanks to silence,” she says. “I knew, from a very young age, that I had an ability to communicate in a way that’s more accurate and more beautiful and more specific than any written or spoken language I’m capable of. Art communicates through silence: right away, I knew it had to be something about that power.”

Silence has its implications, of course, in dizzying breadth. There’s the quietude of uncertainty, which Boyle makes explicit. “When you approach artwork, you always want to know what it means—you want it interpreted through language, with words. And I’m very much telling them: you can’t understand this through your language,” she says. “You have to use the tools most of us have let grow so rusty—so rusty!—which are emotional interpretation, intuition, allowing yourself to be open to revelation. The feelings are supposed to lead the ideas. The problem is we talk about emotionality as being divorced from intelligence. There’s such a thing as an emotional intelligence, which, to me, at least, is a holistic experience of the world.”

Boyle’s universe is one of beauty, of horror, but also of refuge. It’s a distant planet, far at the edge of the galaxy, a retreat from both the biennial itself and the constant assault of a churning image culture. In its depths, Boyle’s world is complete: a female figure, exulting in her own classical purity—both at peace, far from prying eyes and the objectification of spectacle, and then gruesomely transformed by the layers of perception of the contemporary world. Through it, all is quiet.

“Venice can be overwhelming,” she says. “You get hot; you get tired; you get overstimulated. There’s a lot of noise. What I’m saying is: ‘Come in, and listen.’ For revelation, you need quiet. If you can just slow down and open up for just a moment, maybe you can reconnect with what art meant to us as a civilization. Before film, before photography, before the Internet—there’s still that seed inside us. I know it.”

This is a feature article from the Summer 2013 issue of Canadian Art, which is on newsstands now and also available on the App Store and Zinio. For more coverage of the 2013 Venice Biennale, visit