Parting Shot: Shary Boyle in Venice

The Cave Painter: Shary Boyle: The Cave Painter (2013), installation at the 55th Venice Biennale. Images courtesy the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa and Jessica Bradley, Toronto. Photos: Rafael Goldchain.Shary Boyle: The Cave Painter (2013), installation at the 55th Venice Biennale. Images courtesy the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa and Jessica Bradley, Toronto. Photos: Rafael Goldchain.This spring, I was overwhelmed by an existential mood best described as an acute appreciation of everyday beauty coupled with a devastating sense of life’s brevity. Hugs became an exercise in sensory note-taking as the reality of mortality sunk deep into my psyche and I started looking at friends through the veil of projected nostalgia. My trip to the 55th Venice Biennale was meant to pull me together, not unravel me further. But then, when has Shary Boyle, Canada’s representative, stopped short of life’s universals?

Visitors to Boyle’s Music for Silence are prompted to wonder at our place in space and time. Greeting viewers are three spot-lit ceramic miniatures, each struggling to hold an onerous planetary orb as they rotate slowly on noiseless phonographs atop glittering, starry plinths. I projected my metaphysical mindset onto their worldly weights. As Boyle states in the exhibition catalogue: “When we are grieving, or making love, there can be a sense of our bodies containing an infinite galaxy …our skin cannot hold the vastness of this experience, nor can our minds understand.” That is to say, sometimes it’s just too much to carry alone.

The Cave Painter with projections.: Shary Boyle: The Cave Painter (2013) with projections.Shary Boyle: The Cave Painter (2013) with projections.Nearby is Silent Dedication, a black and white 35-mm film of an elderly woman with piled stark-white hair hand-signing Boyle’s dedication text: “for the silenced, the unspoken, what we watch, witness and can’t name”. Her glowing face and hands, isolated against a black ground, give her the appearance of the Man in the Moon in Georges Melies’ film Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Watching her spell Boyle's intention to reach toward “the deepest realms of the ocean, the furthest heights of the skies, and the outer limits of our hearts”, I was reminded of my favourite moment in Virginia Woolf’s The Years, in which an elderly Eleanor “held her hands hollowed; she felt that she wanted to enclose the present moment; to make it stay; to fill it fuller and fuller, with the past, the present and the future, until it shone, whole, bright, deep with understanding.” It was reassuring to imagine Boyle, the Moon, Eleanor and Woolf as a sisterhood of sages, transcending the bounds of space, time and even reality. I’ve since added others, like Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath in GIRLS, who admits to her own internal ether: “I’m feeling all of these big feelings and containing all this stuff for everyone else”.

I can imagine Boyle saying these same words, as she's constantly creating and working towards an abstract model of the human experience that will connect us all. Confronting infinity can feel lonely and trigger anxiety but Boyle's inclusive ethos reveals that we're all bound by boundlessness. Realizing this, we find new reason to hold on to one another and move forward, unafraid, grateful and full of hope. — Vanessa Nicholas