No one's going to call Shary Boyle relaxed. Intense? Yes. Driven? Unfailingly articulate? For sure. Nevertheless, it was a rather – or should that be relatively? – relaxed Boyle I encountered the other evening in the large, high-ceilinged, white cinder-block studio in Toronto's Bloordale district that's been her artistic home for most of the last nine or 10 months.
Sipping a glass of Argentinian red wine, she acknowledged her life has been "pretty much crazy" since last May when she accepted the invitation from the National Gallery of Canada to represent the country at the 55th Venice Biennale. Easily the world's most prestigious visual-arts showcase, famous for its career-making capability and the fierceness of its competition, its 2013 edition opens to the public June 1 for an almost six-month run. Boyle, however, intends to be in Venice much earlier, by mid-April, in fact, "with a small but crucial team working like demons" to get her project, titled Music for Silence, installed for the Biennale's May 29 preview. Half of Music for Silence – "the heaviest stuff" – was put on a boat to Venice in late February while the other half – "the fragile stuff" – was removed from her studio mere hours before this interview and trucked in crates to the airport. Boyle also intends to create a "couple of major parts" for her presentation while in Venice; still, the end is definitely in sight. Perhaps it's even a kind of beginning.
The Biennale represents both apotheosis and opportunity for Boyle, who's 41 this spring. A graduate of OCAD (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University), she's been doggedly making her living as an artist for 20 years. However, it's only in the past five that her crafty, polymathic practice (painting, ink drawing, performance, installation, mosaic, sculpture and ceramics) has enjoyed substantial critical, commercial and institutional attention, especially here.
The artist admits that to date her work (she's probably best known for her porcelain figurines and tableaux whose content owes nothing and everything to your grandmother's Royal Doulton collection) has had some but "not a lot of international sanction." But there's a strong climate of belief that if any artist can "knock it out of the park" – the baseball metaphor National Gallery director Marc Mayer used last spring to characterize what he was looking for in Canada's 2013 biennialist – it's Boyle.
Boyle calls Venice "the ultimate discomfort" for an artist. Not only are you expected to produce a lot of high-quality work in a relatively short time, the 325,000 or so visitors to the Biennale guarantee an "unprecedented level of scrutiny and public judgment, and the challenge of measuring up to some the world's most extraordinary artists." But, she remarked with a smile and a shrug: "You live once, right? You have to embrace the things that you're terrified of ... The more you say no to what you fear, the closer you are to withering and retreating and just getting ready to die."
Mounting an exhibition in Venice is expensive, too – a daunting $1.2- to $1.5-million and rising – and in the face of minimal government support, it's not been uncommon for Canadian laureates to host art sales and fundraising parties and dinners to help get them and their art overseas. While Boyle's had to do some of this (including five appearances across the country between September last year and this past February, plus agreeing to produce, for big-dollar donors, two sets of multiples in limited editions of 30 to 50, medium still to be determined), the pressure on her has been "considerably lessened" by the National Gallery's decision to undertake the fundraising campaign through its Contemporary Arts Circle, says the gallery's deputy director of exhibitions and installations Karen Colby-Stothart. So far, the National Gallery has raised close to 90 per cent of Boyle's budget through donations from RBC Wealth Management, Aimia (formerly Groupe Aeroplan), the Canada Council for the Arts and various private-sector patrons. (A $250-per-person fundraiser, co-organized by the National Gallery, is set for April 30 at Toronto's Drake Hotel.)
In the meantime, 80-hour workweeks and 14-hour days have been Boyle's lot, befitting a practice that always has relied more on what her own hands can realize than what assistants can fabricate. That dedication – leavened by breaks to watch Charlie Chaplin movies on YouTube – has resulted in "a pretty ambitious and diverse body of work," she says. "Everything's brand new. I didn't re-purpose anything."
Boyle has visited previous Biennales, in 2007 and 2011, but as a spectator. Attending as your country's designated hitter is, of course, a whole other art game – a role and a challenge Boyle appeared to relish when, barely two weeks after agreeing to the commission, she was in the floating city with her curator, National Gallery contemporary art maven Josée Brisebois-Drouin, to spend almost 14 days sizing up the Canadian pavilion she would be adapting to her purposes, wandering the tree-covered Giardini di Castello exhibition site, "getting a feel of the city itself."
Boyle recently paid another visit to Venice, but talking to Drouin-Brisebois, it's clear that the scouting expedition of last June was the one that counted. "What's really amazing to me is ... how the vision of what Shary was seeing then and what we were discussing is really what we stuck to ... Certain things shifted along the way, certainly, but the sense of the pavilion and the city and just what she wanted to do with the work was definitely laid out [more than a year ago]."
Of course, just what constitutes that work will remain a very big secret until late May. Boyle will allow that devotees of her oeuvre, a blend of the peculiarly familiar and the anthropomorphically phantasmagoric, with folkloric-feminist/erotic-political resonances, will find it "absolutely recognizable" – but "pushed to a level I haven't been able to do before." At the same time, she promises "a real transformation" of and "holistic experiential dialogue with" the exhibition space, with "many, many components – yet all fitting in, like a Russian doll." Music, too, as the installation's title suggests, is another metaphor. "There are recurring notes, quiet parts, crescendos, little solos, choruses; it's almost like a composition."
While the Canadian Pavilion, shaped ostensibly like a nautilus shell with a sloping, tepee-like ceiling, has frustrated artists, curators and installers alike since its 1958 opening, Boyle last year claimed to have been "charmed" by it from the get-go and insists the spell has held. "I feel like I'm in such an intimate relationship with it because I've considered it so thoroughly," including using to-scale models of it in her studio. Even the tricky shell shape has proven "inspirational," says Drouin-Brisebois, "since that's been a recurring motif in Shary's work." The curator promised that "if you want something that's really quiet, you'll have that in the pavilion. And if you want something that will blow your mind, you'll have that, too."
Boyle knows the Biennale could be transformational. Or simply one more "meh" moment for the fickle international art scene. Neither scenario is being entertained right now because, "I have a lot of work to do and I can't afford to lose focus and so I have to stay in the heart of my ideas." Nevertheless, she confessed with a laugh, "I am ready not to have something so all-consuming in my life and my dreams. And surely my family and my partner and everyone else would love to have something else to talk about!"
Whatever Venice brings, it appears Boyle is gearing up for big changes. She's closing both the studio she rented for the Biennale project and another, smaller space she's used for the last five years. Then, after the Venice opening, which will be attended by her parents, she's going travelling with friends and "leaving everything quite open." One possibility is a move out of Toronto, destination unknown. Scarborough-born and raised, the youngest of five siblings in a family whose business was glass and screen repair, Boyle fled suburbia "as fast as [she] could" at 17 to live in downtown Toronto.
"I've always had a kind of ambivalent feeling toward the city," she said quietly. "I've done a lot of work here and developed a lot of my identity here and made a lot of great relationships. It's where my family is ... but it's never been the love of my heart, this place, y'know? I've lived in other places, six months here, two months there that I've definitely felt more connected to, and right now I'm definitely feeling more of a pull to nature than urban." She laughed. "I'll probably be contrarian like I always seem to be, and while everyone is moving to Berlin, I'm moving to somewhere in the bushes."