At MOCCA’s summer exhibition opening, Friday evening, there were two artworld figures that heralded an announcement of significant repute. National Gallery of Canada director, Marc Mayer, and NGC curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois, made the surprise announcement that evening that celebrated Toronto artist, Shary Boyle, will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Across the pond in Kassel, Germany, that same night, Boyle admitted of the selection that she “was really surprised. There are so many artists who could do such a fantastic job with this opportunity. But I’m thrilled and up for the challenge.”
This latest laurel marks the porcelain figurine sculptor and all-around media maverick’s escalation to the status of an international artist. After several European exhibitions and residencies, a recent exhibition at the ICA Philidelphia (with Canadian artist Emily Duke), and representation at the current MASS MOCA survey, “Oh, Canada,” Boyle has become known for her fantastical and sexualized explorations of the figure through the delicate and classical media of porcelain, as well as multidisciplinary performances and installations involving magic-lantern projection, storytelling, and music. From sculpture to performance, the artist interprets her personal observations of sexuality, death, and human vulnerability through a darkly feminist lens.
But Boyle, who's earned a reputation for being a savante among the Canadian artworld's mid-career artist community (see the ARTINFO Canada interview for all evidence of this), knows “there are no future guarantees.” Boyle admitted, responding to Toronto Star critic, Murray Whyte, “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.” The Canadian artists who have been canonized, in recent history, for knocking Venice out of the park (and as a result, their own careers), include entries like Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, in 2001, and David Altmejd, in 2007.
When the news hit, Boyle had been quietly visiting the Venice pavilion with the National Gallery curator, Drouin-Brisebois. She stopped in Kassel, as well, to see the Documenta exhibition before returning to Toronto next week.
Mayer believes that Boyle, who’s 40, is overdue for this kind of 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.”
The National Gallery took over the Venice selection process from the Canada Council in 2010, and it is a "one-day affair," reports Murray. 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.”
The process for this selection, and then, moreover, the year that follows, is fraught and much-criticized by the Canadian art community. As Kate Taylor reported for the Globe and Mail, “the building, which has neither a washroom nor any storage, is in need of renovation, but it’s not entirely clear who owns it, let alone who might pay for necessary improvements. And now, even the selection process for this burdensome honour is controversial. Before the National Gallery of Canada officially announced Boyle’s name Friday, curators, gallerists and critics were already hotly debating whether the Ottawa institution was rescuing the Biennale award – or hijacking it.”
For the second Biennale in a row, NGC’s Drouin-Brisebois will curate the exhibit. Previously, institutions across the country would put forward proposals for peer review by the Canada Council, and the Biennale would spotlight not only the chosen Canadian artist, but also an institution and its curator. The Justina M. Barnicke’s Barbara Fischer was the last of these curators to bring an artist to Venice, presenting Mark Lewis in 2009. “I don’t think the curatorial community is very happy with that,” says Fischer, regarding the NGC’s stronghold on the process. “It’s a hugely important event for an artist, but it is also for the curators to make connections in that world. And it energizes the cultural institutions of Canada.”
Taylor reports that the NGC will switch over to guest curators for future years and that this new selection process is merely a temporary solution that was assembled when the federal Department of Foreign Affairs pulled out of the Biennale after 2007. However, the situation “isn’t changing fast enough for a skeptical art community,” writes Taylor.
Most other major countries in the Biennale use a single institution – often their national arts council – to drive the whole project, but Valentine Moreno, a curator at Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts and the author of an academic paper about the Venetian exhibition, says the system of putting forward a different art gallery or museum each time sent a strong message about Canadian values at an important international gathering.
“The idea of having other institutions involved is unique to Canada,” she says. “It shows that nothing but diversity can represent Canada.”
Of Boyle, Drouin-Brisebois comments, “Things are moving and people are interested. She’s at a good moment in her career.”
Boyle herself is reportedly looking forward to the challenge of the notorious Canadian pavilion, which she scouted this week. “The Canadian pavilion has a long reputation of causing frustration to artists and curators alike,” she says, citing its small size, its spiral shape, its windows and its “cottage-like vibe.” She remarks, "It is a tricky space for many types of work. I, however, love it. There is a feeling of sanctity within its walls and natural brightness that is sure to influence my project ideas. There's chemistry.”
But Taylor asks, “who is going to foot the bills, not only for the art show but for the upkeep of the aging pavilion? That’s at the heart of the Canadian debate over the Biennale.” She reports that Foreign Affairs reviewed its funding and pulled out before the 2009 Biennale; simultaneously, the NGC also pulled its smaller contribution to signal that the current arrangement was no longer working. The NGC is generally regarded as the owner of the pavilion and had been paying for upkeep, but had not programmed the space after 1988, when the system of a national competition for projects was put in place.
“We were basically maintaining a patch-and-paint role for the pavilion for a program which we weren’t running,” says NGC deputy director Colby-Stothart.
"The former system wasn’t great for other galleries either," Taylor writes. "If they won, they were suddenly burdened with running a complex project in Italy without any support on the ground. (The Canada Council continues to provide as much as $250,000 toward the project, but it usually costs more than $1-million to mount an exhibition in Venice.) And the uncertainty over where the rest of the budget might come from and the difficulties of the site were discouraging artists from putting their names forward."
“Often, recognized senior Canadian artists have declined because it isn’t the site they want or there isn’t funding,” says Vancouver art dealer Catriona Jeffries.
Paradoxically, although the NGC pulled out its own funding in 2009, it stepped up to administer the 2011 and 2013 Biennales so that the project would not founder. That initiative is controversial, so all sides agree a permanent solution is needed and most talk about creating a foundation with an endowment that would cover the annual costs.
“If somebody has better ideas – great. We are ready to have the conversation,” Colby-Stothart says.