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At Venice’s Biennale, the unconscious reigns

A partial image of Dorothea Tanning’s The Truth About Comets.

In the grotto of the Canadian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale – for that is what the Toronto artist Shary Boyle has created, in the style of a turn-of-the-century travelling curiosity show – visitors will discover a sculpture both weird and wonderful. Modelled from clay and then fired to a glossy sheen, The Widow is a jet-black naked female figure, hunched over and carrying on her shoulders the weight of a world. The planet is mottled with gold, and seems to have been captured in a silver net, which also enshrouds the figure's head.

It's a mysterious burden; the task of its bearer is equally obscure. True to form, Boyle's character silently solicits our empathy even as we recoil a little from her grotesquerie. Damned to wander in oblivion, she seems like the denizen of a dream world, a porter of the unconscious, as are the two gleaming white planet-bearing figures that one encounters stepping deeper into Boyle's lair.

In this regard, Boyle's sculptures fit neatly within the overall theme of the Biennale, developed this year under the inspired curatorial directorship of Massimiliano Gioni – one of the most captivating Biennales in decades. In his sweeping survey exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace (in the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini and in the nearby Arsenale), Gioni places obvious primacy on the imagination, demonstrating startling curatorial ingenuity and diligence in his pursuit of lost treasures from recent art history – dredged to the surface in all their eccentric glory – and fresh takes on what's new. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Carl Jung's famous illuminated Red Book stands at the entrance to the show, a spectacular document of his visionary explorations following a transformative emotional breakdown and subsequent period of renewal.

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The rest of Gioni's show introduces us to a host of soulmates, many of them self-taught artists who eschewed formal training or were – for reasons either practical, temperamental or psychiatric – disengaged from the official channels of the art world. Among the discoveries are the anonymous tantric paintings from Rajasthan (ovoids fluorescing with cosmic washes of colour), the blackboard diagrams of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the fastidious and fanciful illustrations of Californian utopian cosmologist Achilles Rizzoli (an architectural draftsman by day turned visionary by night, he imagined a cathedral embodiment of his mother), and the mystical paintings of French miner Augustin Lesage (born 1876), who claimed to receiving art instruction from Leonardo da Vinci.

Contemporary figures, like Japan's Guo Fengyi (elaborate multi-coloured corporeal fantasies) or Los Angelean Matt Mullican (who makes his black and white ink drawings while in a hypnotic trance) carry on that outsider sensibility today, making works that reveal a deep plumbing of the unconscious depths and a predilection for fastidious and repetitive making that has been elevated to point of obsession.

In the upper reaches of Gioni's Encyclopedic Palace, two paintings by American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning cap off the tour. The first, from 1944, imagines the artist clad in her delicates and perched on a precipice that overlooks a steamy wasteland of crags and swamps – Tanning's metaphorical depiction of a world decimated by war. The second, titled The Truth About Comets, offers similar eerie enchantment, featuring two long-tailed mermaid-like creatures in a snowy landscape. (One has sprouted a horse's tail.) Bonneted and trimmed in their finery, these figures could have sprung straight from Boyle's imagination, their depiction delivering a kindred confection of delight and unease. "Much Madness is divinest Sense," wrote the American poet Emily Dickinson in 1890. This show is proof of that, diving at deeper truths through the mind's unguarded portals.

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