On Friday night in Toronto, Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, announced that Toronto artist Shary Boyle would represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Six time zones away, in Kassel, Germany, Boyle allowed herself a smile. “I was really surprised,” she said. “There are so many artists who could do such a fantastic job with this opportunity. But I’m thrilled and up for the challenge.”
While the gallery did its best to keep its news quiet, Boyle had spent the week in Venice with National Gallery curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois, sussing out the Canadian pavilion, where her work would be installed the following May. She stopped in Kassel to see the Documenta exhibition before coming home to Toronto next week.
Being chosen for Venice is the highest honour a Canadian artist can achieve, but it’s also the highest pressure. Every two years, hundreds of artists from dozens of countries convene in the Giardini Publicci, the Biennale’s longtime home, to be seen — and judged — by a jury of their peers.
Venice can make careers, as it did with Canadian entries Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in 2001, or David Altmejd in 2007, who went on from major acclaim at Venice to skyrocketing international careers. It can also be the stage where indifference stings the most, of which Boyle is acutely aware.
“There are no future guarantees,” she says. “There are plenty of artists who have gone to Venice and it’s made no impact whatsoever. So there’s really no point in worrying about that too much. I decided I wouldn’t think about anything other than the task at hand and making the best work I possibly could.”
Mayer believes fully that Boyle, who’s 40, will make much of the opportunity. “The countries who use the Venice Biennale most intelligently show artists who deserve to be more widely known,” Mayer says. “The only reason Shary is seen, by some, as a local hero is because she hasn’t been seen enough abroad. In our view, she’s definitely someone with a huge international career ahead of her.”
Boyle, whose works runs the gamut of media, from painting to drawing to sculpture, installation, porcelain, projection and performance, quickly emerged in the selection process as the consensus choice. Under a new system implemented by the National Gallery, which took over stewardship of the Venice process from the Canada Council in 2010, the Venice choice is a one-day affair. A small group of museum curators and directors from across the country met in Ottawa, each with their own lists.
Mayer was present, as was Drouin-Brisebois and National Gallery deputy director Karen Colby-Stothart. In addition, Sarah Fillmore, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; Gaetane Verna, director of the Power Plant, and Timothy Long, head curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina.
“We just talked about who was right for 2013 and who was going to knock it out of the park,” Mayer said. “At one point, Shary emerged as the one to beat. It was unanimous. It just seemed so right.”
Boyle’s work uses traditional decorative forms and techniques, like porcelain casts and lace-draping, as an identifiable invitation to her macabre, often politically charged world. It’s “kind of timeless,” Mayer said. “In 20 years, you won’t be able to say when she emerged. You can’t find anyone who isn’t fascinated by her imagination and her skill.
“It’s strange in a political way; it’s strange in a surreal way. There are so many surprises.”
None greater, Boyle says, than the one she received being chosen. “It’s such a big deal,” she says. “You can say no and some artists have. It’s the weight of the opportunity, it’s too big to pass up. Ideas that might have seemed impossible or out of reach before are completely doable.
“All of a sudden, you can really dream. And that’s exciting.”