Shary Boyle: Music for Silence
Pavilion of Canada, Giardini, Venice
1 June - 24 November 2013
Review by Pandora Syperek
A strange, black figure perches on the roof of the Canada pavilion. Small but life-sized, with extended toes, a ruffled mask-like appendage and fingering brightly coloured streamers that trail down along the building’s central pillar, maypole-style, the dark nymph casts a frightened glare, more warning than welcome. The cast bronze sculpture offers a hint of the darkly themed installation artist Shary Boyle has created as Canada’s representative for the 55th International Art Exhibition’la Biennale di Venezia. Inside, the space is black. Amidst swathes of jewelled fabric, individual artworks emerge. These include three porcelain sculptures of nude figures bearing planets, a black-and-white film of a female oracle speaking in sign language and a large mixed media installation with overhead projectors forming a mermaid’s underwater grotto.
Multidisciplinarity is, evidently, fundamental to Boyle’s practice. Employing drawing, painting, porcelain and clay sculpture, installation and performance, she uses different media to explore themes of the body and its boundaries, in relation to gender, nature and social belonging, and frequently drawing on myth and folklore. Here, the delicacy of the porcelain statuettes atop spinning vintage turntables contrasts with the austere drama of the silent film and the craggy chaos of the colourful projection and sculpture. The artist relates these divergent elements to musical notes. Their placement within the curved space of the Canadian pavilion requires a particular movement of the viewer. Curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois emphasises how the installation responds closely to the combined geometry and organicism of the pavilion’s 1958 architecture, which loosely resembles a tepee.
The cosmos wrapped up in a nautilus shell is the resulting effect. Its perfect harmony with the theme behind curator Massimiliano Gioni’s international exhibition for the Biennale, The Encyclopaedic Palace, is a happy coincidence. Influenced in part by the city of Venice and its mythical and artistic past, the otherworldly figures, in particular the twin-tailed mermaid whose psychedelic cave forms an arresting climax, invoke metamorphic nature and universal experience. The exhibition title, Music for Silence, speaks to the sensory, and paradoxical nature of the theme. Silent turntable pedestals confuse media, while the siren crone breastfeeding a human infant crosses species. Such tensions reach their height in the pristine white sculpture intermittently illuminated by overhead projectors with what Boyle calls a cacophony of imagery. The projected photo collage includes various animals’ eyes and other body parts, cave paintings, lightning bolts, a nuclear explosion and individuals ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin.
These silent figures point towards the more humanistic concerns behind the work: Boyle speaks passionately about the empathy displayed by Chaplin, the mime Marcel Marceau and the Canadian aboriginal women’s activist CJ Julien. A text the artist has written to accompany the exhibition - and which forms the script for the film’s signing - highlights the plight of the marginalised and the voiceless, which Boyle holds in direct contrast with the extreme wealth and power demonstrated in the Biennale. ‘It’s our duty to feel bad’, she maintains. This political sentiment creates a slightly jarring contrast against the exhibition’s hallucinatory aesthetics, though it is this marriage of personal and mythic that characterises Boyle’s work. Nevertheless, it is difficult to reconcile the purported themes of ‘silence, isolation, and solitude’ with the cosmic space; the humanistic poignancy, somewhat sadly, brings the exhibition’s ethereality back down to earth. Like Atlas upholding the celestial sphere on his shoulders, Boyle’s androgynous figures bear the weight of the world, in spite of their lithe athleticism.