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Shary Boyle's animist mythologies

The myth-obsessed Canadian on the magic of mixing art and music

There is a fairytale weirdness to Shary Boyle’s art – an entirely unique world inhabited by sex, spiders, mermaids and two-headed monsters – that is far more complex and less sweet than it first appears. Boyle is representing Canada at this year’s Venice Biennale (a role previously played by the likes of respected international artists Steven Shearer and David Altmejd) with an immersive pavilion showcasing the breadth of her work, which includes elements of shadow work, sculpture, ceramics, paintings, sound, bronze and performance. Her visual language is entirely personal, natural and refreshing – particularly in a sea of high-art conceptualism. Boyle spoke to Dazed during the intense six-week install in Venice about pre-historic art, representing femininity and reaching outsiders.

What fascinates you about mermaids and other otherworldly female characters?
It’s just a way to speak about aspects of being human that aren’t based on what the eye can see or what we identify as real. It’s a metaphor for alternate moments and experiences and feelings and truths. Reality can be so placed in time and culture and place, and it really narrows the margins of what there is to talk about. I’m interested in universal, larger, essential themes that transcend boundaries of time and even gender.

And why do you like to depict hair?
Maybe it’s about continuity, you know? Something that is eternal as well, and it just keeps growing. It’s this uncontrollable part of the body that keeps growing. In most countries it’s quite sexual – it’s about fertility and vitality but it also signifies the beast, right? So it’s this uncontrollable animalistic manifestation, that’s nice. I like hair in claws. (laughs)

What interests you about representing femininity?
I typically work from the internal and personal natural voice, that’s my female first voice. So it seems like the most honest narrative for me. But politically I also choose to make females the central characters in my work because it is crucial to have images about women’s experiences by women – especially considering art history or contemporary media. So many images of women are art directed or envisioned by men, and those are images that women end up identifying with. I want to make sure that I am making images of women who are a very complex alternative to the mainstream of what’s available in the world.

How have you found the experience of the Venice Biennale?
There are 88 countries participating - that’s a lot of people! We know art is an alternative form of education around really important contemporary events – news, politics, war, science, space, you name it. Artists are constantly disseminating ideas in new ways that are going to be alternate to the education system and the media, so it’s very important to have all these different cultures sharing ideas. There’s such an incredible sense of activity and striving towards goals that’s inspiring. I don’t have a lot of practising artists as friends so it’s fascinating to be among this group.

Is it true that you are attempting to create an alternative world in the Canadian pavilion?It is not about imagining something that is just mine, but condensing and concentrating something that is greater than all of us into a space that is manageable, so that we can share it. 

How has history and art history influenced your work?
Well, when you work with your hands as much as I do and you craft – I am not dealing with readymades and I don’t fabricate out – I guess that would be seen as a traditional or even historical approach. People just naturally respond to something made with great care by hand... I got pretty deep into thinking about the earliest known artforms that we have – you know, two-dimensional cave etchings and paintings in France or Spain. They’re some of the earliest existing artworks in the world, 35,000 years old. It became an important feature of this installation, to really consider visual art as a tool for communication and ritual and communal sharing, like a language. It’s so essential. It is such a huge part of our psychic anatomy, a silent language. Each culture around the world has evolved its own language, but there are remarkable similarities that can be found and universal pictorial images and mythologies – there are all of these connection points that are amazing.

Although you work with a variety of media, there is a playful stylistic relationship with everything you do that is very accessible...
My work isn’t designed to congratulate myself or help others congratulate themselves on something that is really complicated – it’s not referencing an exclusive realm of academics. But I’m not interested in dumbing anything down either. My work is flawed but I’m not intentionally, ironically, trying to make it flawed. I’m trying to make the most beautiful, most accomplished work that I can make in the human body, which is riddled with failure. There’s a ton of things going on - emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical. It’s a very holistic experience but I also want to give my audience the benefit of the doubt that they can feel and think and pick up different ideas. I have never been interested in speaking to only the art-initiated. I didn’t go to grad school or move to New York because I was always interested in working on the outside and speaking to a larger group of people.

You have worked with some notable Canadian musicians in the past, such as Peaches and Feist. How do your musical collaborations work?
I’ve been working almost exclusively with the Canadian musician Christine Fellows for the last five years. There’s just something that happens when you combine art with music. When it’s done properly, with great care, it can elevate both into something greater. I usually work with lyric-based music because I am interested in how musical composition influences words. I’m interested in the way that art influences words and art influences music. I have had musicians compose to my art, as well as me interpreting their music. There’s these kind of examinations of each other’s forms and elevating the norms between the obvious to this other place. 

Do you get different responses from those audiences?
I feel that consumers are often burned out by galleries and museums, especially sophisticated cultural consumers. You know, it’s really difficult to make people feel. I just want art to be powerful again. I want it to move people and be an important part of their daily lives, and there is no way that we will be able to make that happen as artists unless we shift our methods and intentions somehow, and maybe get out of the expected career trajectory and the venues that host it. Working with music and bringing my work into places without those sad expectations of the art viewer has been revelatory for everybody involved. It’s a real trip to go to those shows. The ones that have worked the best have been totally transcendent. People are weeping and stuff – it’s cathartic! You don’t have an art show where people collectively weep and sigh. It’s not about an ego thing. I want to be moved along with people. I want my life to mean something. Art is what I do with my life.

June 1–November 24, Venice Biennale, Italy.