Shary Boyle steps onto world stage at Venice Biennale

With her multimedia installation Music for Silence, Canada's official entry to the Venice Biennale, Toronto artist Shary Boyle is trying to get people to slow down and experience silence.

Toronto artist creates mysterious grotto in Music for Silence

Shary Boyle's The Cave Painter is in a central 'grotto' in the Canada pavilion. The white plaster deity is lit up by a photo collage projected from three overhead projectors. (Rafael Goldchain/Shary Boyle/Jessica Bradley Gallery)

With her multimedia installation Music for Silence, Canada’s official entry to the Venice Biennale, Toronto artist Shary Boyle is trying to get people to slow down and experience silence.

Music for Silence opened Wednesday to the international press, in a crazy rush that saw 30,000 people pass through the Canada pavilion in a single day. The Venice Biennale, the world’s most significant art fair, showcases artists from 90 countries and there is a great deal to see. 

Boyle is conscious of the international audience who will see her work and reached deep inside for something universal in her exhibit that everyone could understand without reading text.

"Every person knows the stars of the night sky — we all know the feeling of what it’s like to accrue experience, and the young person, the child in the centre of that, and being an old person and having endurance and strength to carry all of that experience and keep going — these are experiences that any person could have," Boyle said in an interview with CBC News.

"I thought long and hard about subjects that do not require written explanation, no shared language. That’s how it involves music, because in a way I created something more like a score, like a film. We all know how to respond to music. People don’t need to be told what it means — they just respond with their intuition and their fear and their body – you trust yourself in that response."

Porcelain figures and projections

The exhibit combines many of the disciplines and elements that have made Boyle a sensation at home. There are her colourful projections, which she has used to enliven concerts by artists such as Christine Fellows; her ceramic figures, which often reflect mythological themes; old technologies such as record players and 16-mm film, with images in sign language for the deaf that evoke something old-fashioned and slow-paced.

Boyle was chosen to represent Canada in Venice last May by the National Gallery of Canada, which curated her work and helped raise some of the $1.2 million needed to mount the exhibit. It is the first time she has had such resources put behind her art or devoted a full year to a single project. But she admits she found the year gruelling.

A past winner of the prestigious Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which gave her solo shows in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in 2010, Boyle said she knew from the beginning that she wanted to say. 

"It’s about silence — the ongoing theme of the exhibition is silence. It’s about listening differently, it’s about silence and it’s about defiance," she says.

Sentry above the door

Atop the Canada pavilion is a bronze-coloured child with three arms, colourful ribbons from her hands woven down onto the "somewhat phallic" columns of the Canada pavilion, in the tradition of the Maypole. Boyle and a few friends put those ribbons in place with a traditional dance, part of a fertility ritual that predates Christianity.

The child on the roof is a sentry, Boyle said. "She’s watching these hordes of people and hopefully slowing them down."

Visitors enter a dark, silent space and encounter more of Boyle’s porcelain figures, including Onus Opus and Bridge and Chorus, which are bearing heavy burdens like planets.

"It’s a dark space, an intimate universe. It’s quiet — only the slight whir of the 16-mm film and there’s a little bit of antiquated technology. They see people struggling with the burdens of their individual planets that represent the experience of being alive and the massiveness of the world," she said.

The Canada pavilion and Venice itself helped shape her work. Boyle said she loved the pavilion, a small cottage-like space surrounded by trees flanked by the massive buildings devoted to the art of France and Britain. She found the nautilus shell spiral shape inside to be evocative and loved its human scale.

"I liked the water theme. It feels very mythological and female to me in a certain way," she said. "When you start thinking of Venice, it’s a city of water. It’s ancient and it has this feeling of Atlantis — of some kind of sinking underworld quality."

Underwater grotto

At the centre of her installation is a sea deity — more than three metres long and made of plaster — in an all-white cave that is lit up with colourful projections. Her wizened face is ancient, yet she conjures the Hans Christian Anderson version of The Little Mermaid, who traded her beautiful voice to attain mortality. It feels like an underwater grotto.

"It’s also about the precipice of the known and the unknown world, very much dealing with the idea of morbidity. She’s in this underground place that is maybe the final place that you’d go before you would enter the underworld. She’s a guardian of the next world," Boyle said.

The projections refer to characters who have been inspirations for Boyle and who embody the spirit of defiance or battling against silence. There is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who fights for girls’ education, silent film star Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, folk singer Judee Sill and various artists Boyle admires, all in a collage of universal images.

Struggle for universal experience

"I’ve given it a lot of love and prayer and thought and I think if people if they have that [slow approach], they will feel that and I also hope that this is work that will resonate with people of many different cultures and ages, educational situations," she said.

"I did not want to make work that was sophisticated contemporary art. I wanted to address locals — people who stumble in who know nothing about art — it should be a meaningful experience for any person."

Boyle welcomes the chance to showcase her work on an international stage and to rub shoulders with other artists who have worked as hard as she has. She greeted guests Wednesday with a concert by Fellows and by all-girl band Vag Halen of Toronto, who delighted visitors with cover renditions of rock classics.  

The Venice Biennale opens to the public June 1 and runs until Nov. 24.