Deep Style: Artist Shary Boyle Talks About Her Process

Not just any art star gets asked to represent their country at the Venice Biennale. As this year's honouree Shary Boyle prepares for her voyage, Sheila Heti drops by to find out what it takes to be a hit at the most glamorous conceptual art fair in the world

One of "The Most Precious Things" Sheila Heti owns: Untitled, 2005, Edition of 5, Porcelain china and paint

One of “The Most Precious Things” Sheila Heti owns: Untitled, 2005, Edition of 5, Porcelain china and paint; Photo Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Bradley Inc.

This was the first piece of art I ever bought. I saw it at an art fair, shimmering vaguely there. It’s the size of a thumb. I knew I needed it for my life. I felt it had something to teach me about aging; a lesson I could get nowhere else. I was 25 then. I’m 36 now. It’s still one of the most precious things I own. I feel its resonance the way a nun might feel a cross’s above her bed.

Boyle with Virus (White Window) 2009; Photo by Steve Farmer

Boyle with Virus (White Window) 2009; Photo by Steve Farmer

I’m not the only one who has been transfixed by Shary Boyle’s work; feminist, haunted, mythological and queasy-beautiful. She was chosen to represent Canada at the 2013 Venice Biennale, the greatest art-honour the country can bestow. The call came the day before her 40th birthday. If she agreed, she would have to drop everything and spend the next year preparing tirelessly for an entirely new exhibition, to be nestled among 87 other pavilions from around the world, as part of the most prominent art extravaganza in the world. Three hundred thousand people visit it over six months. Boyle had two days to decide. She had been looking forward to taking a sabbatical year, exhausted after putting together a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an installation at the Bank of Montreal, an installation in the window of the Louis Vuitton store, and a theatrical collaboration at Harbourfront involving elaborate puppets, masks, sets and illustrated slides with her musician friend, Christine Fellows. She said yes. As of early March 2013, she had finally created enough material to complete the show, working in all her media—sculpture, painting, photography, projection and film. The installation, titled Music for Silence, was under embargo at the time this piece was going to press: images are being withheld from the media until June 1, the opening date of the Biennale. Boyle wasn’t permitted to speak in detail about the work, either, but described it as “an immersive experience” for which she darkened the windows of the 2,000-sq.-foot space, rounded the edges of the walls and crafted the viewer’s route through the space to resemble the inside of a shell.

Anyone familiar with the delicacy of Boyle’s porcelain figures, which echo and share the same fine, attentive detailing of Dresden dolls—including hand-made tulle petticoats—will understand the sheer physical labour that must have been involved. Despite having the help of two full-time studio assistants, she still worked 80-hour weeks.

I met her the morning after she had celebrated with her assistants. Their work was complete. Her large studio in Toronto was empty but for two huge red crates filled with her signature porcelains, which soon would be loaded onto a plane and sent off to Venice for her most mature production yet. She appeared slightly stunned, exhausted and manic, yet was as wry, and articulate, as ever.

The Process

When you’re invited to do something like this, it’s a huge pressure, right? There was the question: What if I just don’t get any ideas? I have a really limited time. The boat leaves in five, six months. Everything has to be done and packed on that boat. But you have to have some kind of faith, right?

The First Step

Going to Venice within two weeks of the invite was crucial, because you have to see the space. Seeing the pavilion, sitting in there for almost two weeks, by the end of the time there, every single thing I was going to do was sketched and written out.

What Happened in the Pavilion

I started to think, What can you give— that maybe you haven’t seen at Venice, or you’ve wanted or missed? It’s got this huge international audience, and people participating from Asia, Africa, the Middle East. I immediately started thinking: Who gets asked to these kind of things? Why am I asked? Why will some of my friends who make extraordinary art never get asked? I’m always going to be critical of the system in that way. Even if here I am, I’m the one that got chosen. But I still don’t trust it. So thinking about that honed what I wanted to do. It became about silence and the politics of inclusion and exclusion.

Self-Immolation, 2011 Ink and Gouache on Paper, 72.4 x 51.4 cm; Photo Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Bradley Inc.

Self-Immolation, 2011 Ink and Gouache on Paper, 72.4 x 51.4 cm; Photo Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Bradley Inc.

God of Silence

Getting to communicate over months with Beth [Hutchison, a deaf woman who performed in the film component of Boyle’s Biennale exhibit], getting her to translate this poetry I wrote— was amazing. Deaf culture is…not integrated [in Italy]. They’re another people who have their own language, like, “Oh, we come from this island,” right? But hearing people are so uncomfortable with it. We don’t understand its sounds or its silences. Everybody feels like it’s a simplified language, even though it’s absolutely complicated.

How much has the government spent on Venice?

Nearly everything has to be privately fundraised by The National Gallery. The Harper government does not have a policy for culture outside of Canada. They’re like, “Ideally, we’d like to sell that pavilion. If you want to do something in Canada, fine, but we don’t believe in the worth of putting Canadian culture into the world.” They don’t understand that that’s an export that brings money and interest back into our country.

How Her Art Economy Works

I want things to be made by hand, and it’s important for me to have a personal relationship with everyone I work with. So all the [Venice] money has been redistributed into the community of craftspeople, artisans and small business in Canada. There’s this East Coast place that makes custom fishing nets… It’s like, oh my god, I just got to give them a significant amount of money, when it’s off-season, in an industry that’s always struggling… and they get an order from an artist on a fishing net. It feels great.

Why She Likes Working Small

There’s an environmental impact to the materials you use. If it’s not stored or bought, where the fuck is that stuff going to go? Big installations end up just being a lot of garbage, a lot of toxic  materials. I like to keep my production to a minimum. and what’s small is intimate, it’s a gift from one person to another.

Why It’s Bizarre to Sell Art

I might make something that is incredibly emotionally vulnerable to me and has a really profound politic, and it’s going to be traded for money, possibly a lot of money. maybe the person wants to buy it because some part of them is resonating with the work. But maybe it’s because they’ve been told to or it’s an investment. then you have to deal with, my art is now sitting in someone’s home, and I hope to god that it’s not being desecrated by just being seen as an object of status.

How She Handles Her Money

Both my parents came out of a lot of poverty, so I’m really careful about it. But I’m not precious about it. I love to give the money out. It’s good. You don’t want to hoard. It’s a bad psychic thing. It’s like a block.

How She Shops

A lot of the times I’m wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for a long time. These ugly awful kicks [Looks down at her runners] I’ve been wearing for four months because they’re so comfortable and I walk a lot. I went into a second-hand place in Banff wearing my other, awful kicks that were like $20. I’d worn the shit out of them. I honestly put these on, they fit, and I just threw the other ones in the garbage.

Why She Can’t Buy Those Beautiful Shoes That Cost 500 Euros That She Saw in Venice

’Cause I hate waste! Sometimes I’ll buy a beautiful thing, because I have the aesthetics, and I’m like, I’m going to buy this as a precious treat. and I fucking never wear it! I’m afraid to wreck it, so I never wear it, and then it never becomes comfortable, and I like things that are comfortable. So I was like, I’m just going to take pictures of these shoes. and sometimes I’ll look at the pictures and it’s like, that totally worked out!

Her Boyfriend is Similar

I can only be with men who have the same material values as me. It’s almost a deal-breaker, in a way. I’ve never been with a guy that’s really interested in computers or gear. I can’t imagine dating an urban guy who did his hair nice and had stuff, or watched TV. I wouldn’t know what to do! I’d just sit there, like… [Dopey, smiley, confused face]

About the Other Artists Who’ll Be at Venice

It feels like an allegiance. The artists have taken over this city, and all of a sudden the language is art, you know? That’s super exciting. I feel more and more that artists are now the ones teaching about history, they’re the ones teaching about politics and gender and war, poverty. Artists are actually the ones laying it on the table.

What’s After Venice?

Me and Amanda and Alyssa [her art assistants] and Steve [her boyfriend, who worked on the show] will go to Tuscany for a week. We’re just going to retreat and process. Venice is mayhem—I’m just going to be wrung dry, then spit out the other side. I’m going to need those people for four or five days, to kind of be like, What was that? Is everybody OK? Then Steve and I are going to the Canary Islands for three weeks. Somebody we know has a place there. that’s a complete retreat. No internet, no nothing.

Looking Back

When you make something, it’s usually a completely different animal than what you intended. But I knew exactly what to do and it was perfect. It’s so bizarre! The hands made the thing. I feel like a bit of a monster in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish. In a good way. [Laughs] But it’s also a bit inhuman. No one should be asked to do that.

See Music for Silence at the Canada Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, June 1–Nov. 24.