Lyme disease, heart surgery and a pick-up truck: This art project nearly killed Christopher Boyne

The first time Christopher Boyne attempted his art project 'stepside,' it was a total failure. In fact, it nearly ended up killing him.

'stepside' gets a happy ending...six years after it began

Christopher Boyne. Stepside, 2011. (Courtesy of the artist)

The first time Christopher Boyne attempted the art project, it was a total failure.

In fact, it nearly killed him.

The project in question is called stepside, and you can see it at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre to December 22 as one of the shows included in its current collection of exhibitions, Stories We Tell. stepside tells a harrowing chapter in Boyne's life story — a tale that involves a beat-up truck (a stepside, specifically), Lyme disease and emergency heart surgery.

Halifax artist Christopher Boyne. (Pablo Aravena)

But when he began, he couldn't have imagined how the plot would unfold. It all started in 2010, when he was a grad student at Concordia University.

At the time, Boyne explains, the project was going to be his Master's thesis. The idea, practically speaking, was this: he'd find an old truck and re-build it from scratch while living and working off the grid. When it was finished, he would mark the event by driving it back to Montreal, where the truck itself would become the body of work. There'd be no other content produced: no documentation, no photographs, no video, no audio. Just the truck.

Everything was going quite smoothly — and that's when everything fell apart. I just started to get sick.- Christopher Boyne, artist

In school, Boyne was researching the idea of "task in visual art." At the same time, he was fascinated by the notion that you could take an ordinary, everyday object and redefine it as art.

"I was looking at ways to position my work closer to life," he explains.

"A lot of work is conceptually weighty, and it's difficult for somebody to find an access point, I think. A lot of people can't respond to visual work because they can't relate to it. In a sense, it was that simple."

"So even though the project was really conceptual, the basis of the project, and the end result — a truck — was something that all people could understand," he says. "And I also liked that it's something that any person could do."

Boyne himself has worked on cars as a hobby since he was a kid. "Many people could perform the task of my project," he says, "and I could call it art. I had the liberty, as an artist, to say that."

So Boyne sought out his artist's auto-body shop, eventually settling on an old, abandoned boatyard in a Halifax suburb. The location, it turns out, was just down the street from his childhood home. 

From Stepside, by Christopher Boyne. The exhibition is at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre to December 22. (Courtesy of the artist)

"It was basically a junkyard, just boats piled on top of boats and old tractors, old trucks — just a total mess," he says. "It was fluke-ishly ideal, because it was so rustic. There was no running water." 

He got a truck, and he got to work.

"I basically tore the whole thing apart," says Boyne. "Everything was going quite smoothly — and that's when everything fell apart. I just started to get sick."

Boyne says it's hard to describe how, exactly, he felt at the time. "I had these flu-type symptoms, I suppose. I just felt very off."

He was exhausted, inexplicably so. Repairing the truck became too difficult, and when he realized he couldn't continue, he sold the truck — or all the pieces of it, really — to a guy from Prince Edward Island. Sick, but still needing to finish his program, Boyne tried to put the project behind him.

Even though the project was really conceptual, the end result — a truck — was something that all people could understand.- Christopher Boyne, artist

In the meantime, his health continued to deteriorate.Sometimes, he'd suffer from fever. Other times, hives. "It was something I'd never felt before in my life," he says. "It was terrible."

And then, days after proposing to his girlfriend, he experienced something stranger still.

"We were going to sleep, and she had her head on my chest, and she said, 'Your heart is beating so slowly. What's going on?'" Boyne checked his pulse, and puzzled over it for a day before eventually seeking medical help.

"My heart was beating 30-35 beats per minute and at one point in the night it went down to 22 or 23 beats per minute, which is freakishly slow. Like, if you're paying attention to your pulse, it's very uncomfortable."

Within 30 minutes of arriving at the hospital, doctors told him he needed a pacemaker. He had a "heart block." The electrical signal that keeps his heart beating was being impeded, and he needed surgery. The ailment, it turned out, was caused by Lyme disease.

Christopher Boyne. Irving, 2011. (Courtesy of the artist)

Boyne has no doubt in his mind that he got the illness while clearing out the boatyard.  The area, he says, "is a known spot for ticks."

"It's pretty stupid in hindsight, but I was so focused on the task. I knew that to get the truck in the garage I had to clear this brush, so that's what I was going to do and that was the end of it," he says. He would have been working away in the overgrowth for hours, several days in a row.

Ultimately, though, his story's a happy one.

"It's weird. I had surgery and a pacemaker and it all sounds so crazy," he says. "Even though they were really, really dramatic symptoms and it's quite a story, I kind of came out of it very lucky."

"At this point, I have no Lyme disease," says Boyne. An intense round of antibiotics did their work. "The pacemaker is actually turned off. It doesn't work anymore because it doesn't need to," he explains.

And yet, he didn't feel like the journey was over. That's where stepside picks up.

Boyne describes the images and sculptures now on display at Harbourfront as "remnants, the ashes of the project — all the left-over little bits."

It includes practical diagrams and photo documentation — large-scale images of the work-in-progress, photos he never intended to show when he took them six years ago. In a glass case, alongside a small sculpture of a garage, Boyne's presented the "strange" tools and whats-its that came with his busted truck when he bought it: a keychain, a pry bar used as a make-shift shifter.

Christopher Boyne. Prybar, 2011. (Courtesy of the artist)

When the truck was sold, he says, the project itself seemed kaput. "It was kind of out of sight, out of mind. It just disappeared."

But its story wasn't over. It still isn't — not really.

"The truck is still out there somewhere. Somebody is working on it. They are kind of finishing the project for me, in a sense, but they're not aware of that," he says.

Boyne himself says he wants to continue the work on stepside. He purchased a few scrap parts off the man who originally bought the truck — parts he intends to use in new, sculptural pieces.

The truck is still out there somewhere. Somebody is working on it. They are kind of finishing the project for me, in a sense.-Christopher Boyne, artist

The show, Boyne explains, has been a way to correct a past failure.

"To finally have this exhibition? Well, it's a nice opportunity to turn the project into something. I mean, I still feel really connected to this work because it really changed my life in a big way. I can't really get over it or get past it. It's not something I think about every day, but it's still really part of my life and part of my practice, so it's exciting to be able to show it."

And like all "failures," it's taught him a life lesson.

"I don't think I would start a project now that has such a finite end," he says. "Now, one of my biggest pet peeves is when [an artist] puts something in motion where they know the outcome before it even happens."

"I think I was working that way for a long time, and now I feel much more open to the kinds of bumps that come along — and letting those direct how things look and how things come together. I think that's the lasting result of all this."

stepside. Christopher Boyne. To December 22 at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto.


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