More Real than Reality

An Interview with Shary Boyle

In a 2007 ink and gouache drawing called All Retreat to the Cave in Permanence, we see a myriad collection of people and creatures climbing the top of a dark hill on their way to the entrance of a monumental seashell. Among them are pilgrims and cavemen, soldiers and children, a mermaid and a princess. They seem to be escaping a world being consumed by flames and the resoluteness of their gait, even those who are missing an arm or a leg, suggests that they regard the shell as a haven.

It is tempting to see this drawing as a promise and a prophecy, since this summer tens of thousands of people will be streaming into the seashell-shaped Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where they will encounter mountains, a cave, a mermaid and the utterly transformed world that Shary Boyle has made for them.

“World” may be too small a word for what she has in mind. Boyle is creating a space that moves from the top of the heavens to the deepest depths of the sea, and then beyond. It is more cosmos than planet; she describes it as “a one hundred percent immersive environment” in which every inch of the pavilion—floor, ceiling, walls, tree well and rooftop—has been re-covered and, in the process, recovered.

Boyle has always been a world apart. In an interview with Border Crossings in 2007 she articulated her “personal desire to deny and obliterate boundaries and distinctions between species, genders, territories and hierarchies,” and over the last two decades her multi-layered practice (one that includes painting, drawing, installation, performance and porcelain sculptures) has gone some distance in blurring and collapsing any of the boundaries she comes up against. Her art is littered with gorgeous and gruesome hybridities.

The Widow, 2013, porcelain, glaze, handwoven netting. Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

“Buttermint Equilux,” her recent installation in the entrance lobby of the Louis Vuitton Maison in Toronto, is a cased-in point. Inside an elegant vitrine, Boyle placed five exquisite porcelains, women wearing lace dresses and all falling back or bending forward in gestures that appear fetching and feminine. In Silver Buckle a woman in blue ties a filigreed ribbon to the ankle of her middle leg; in Little Green Bat the flying creature and another lace-laden young woman have both fallen near a tree stump; he has two wings, she displays five shapely legs, and no head. In Tumbleweed another headless woman falls backwards, adorned in blushing pink, her outstretched arms announcing an ecstasy in the manner of St. Theresa’s. In fact, she is not headless; that part of her anatomy is about to enter the world from between her own legs. Boyle’s explanation of what is happening is characteristically lucid and compelling. She says the piece is about “acknowledging that your sexuality is one hundred percent yourself. For me, it’s an absolute insistence on the full integration of the self.”

One of the consequences of that integral fullness is a tendency towards excess and exaggeration. A figure can be smothered in butterflies (Untitled, 2002) or in flowers (Snowball, 2006); a mother and father can sit comfortably by a fire stoked with a totemic log showing the heads of their five children (Family, 2010). When Boyle gives a woman multiple legs, her intention is not to represent something weird but to address the body’s physical irrepressibility. “Maybe I wanted to speak about excess,” she says, “about being more of yourself than you can contain.”

The recognition that we are more than our bodies can hold is everywhere apparent in her work. In a tiny Sculpey figure from 1998 (it is untitled, as are all her sculptures in this medium), she has fashioned a fetish object that embodies our ineffable passion. A young woman wearing only black stockings, her feet bound at the ankles, is captured in the throes of an orgasm; two of her many hands clasp her sex; another touches the place in her throat where the air has whooshed in and then out; and still another covers her mouth, like a mute on a cornet, to hold in her escaping moan of pleasure. In a 2005 pencil, ink and watercolour drawing called Untitled (Porcelain Fantasy Series), a similar young woman is turned into a living fountain. From her eyes, nose, mouth and sex, as well as from her stigmata and the incisions in her skin, a rainbow of water cascades up and out in every direction.

In her description of what she is doing in the Canadian pavilion, we were witness to a similar outpouring. The following interview is more a monologue than a conversation. Or put another way, it is a dream realized in words only two months before it would be realized in space. Shary guided us through her installation, section by section, figure by figure and image by image. It’s as if she had been held captive inside her own head and we were fortunate enough to be there when she broke out. The un-containment was a revelation. We met in Toronto on March 23, 2013.

Ophiodea(detail), 2013, bronze with black patina, human hair, coloured ribbon. Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Border Crossings: You are on record as saying you like the architecture of the Canadian pavilion in Venice. You might be in a minority on that one.

Shary Boyle: I love the architecture but I am changing the surfaces of everything. I wanted to enhance and feminize the space but I don’t mean that in any obvious way. The building is based on the nautilus shell so it has that beautiful spiral. In the last Biennale they were interested in bringing it back to its 1960s original iteration, which is very elegant and spare, with terrazzo floors. The pavilion was built by a Milanese architectural firm that had particular ideas about Canada, which explains the tipi form and the interior tree encapsulating nature. It was anti-Fascist and very humanist. So I love the scale of the place but the segmented walls, which hearken back to Peggy Guggenheim and the days when the Biennale was a painting exhibition, are very frustrating to work with. I wanted to take all that away and enhance the nautical sea thing because I find Venice’s Atlantis quality inspiring and beautiful.

You said this exhibition was an opportunity for you “to think big.” I want to get a sense of what you meant by that. It probably translates as monumental and that is not what I’m doing. I am essentially a figurative artist and I always judge scale by the human body, so I’m including oversized work and also very small work.

You have used a number of elements in your practice, including live performance, sculpture, painting and drawing. Does Venice incorporate that range? Pretty much, except for live performance, although there is a projection element that I’m excited about. Putting ideas aside, I am working with a range of materials, including plastic, bronze, plaster and porcelain. I’m also incorporating antiquated technology in these beautiful old vintage record turntables; I have 16-mm film and a film set. So there is a real diversity of mediums and scales and the whole thing is conceived to interact and connect. I imagine this installation as a composition. If you were a musician who wrote songs, or if you wrote an opera or a theatre score, how you would consider placing notes or phrases or motifs, small things coming in and recurring, and then a crescendo. I’ve been thinking about music a lot and so the essential idea behind what I’m doing is silence. The title of the work is “Music for Silence.”

So music is the governing shape rather than narrative? Is this more scored than told? That is absolutely true in that the deeper idea circulates around communicating through ways other than language. I was thinking about what it is essentially that I do; what does art mean to me; and what art can achieve. For many years contemporary art has swayed from a language of images and symbols that people can understand, to something that relies for its interpretation on didactic panels and statements. I’m not devaluing that but I want to offer an experience that goes beyond language in terms of cultural and class distinction and education. I want to talk about the politics of inclusion by making an accessible and inclusive show. So when I say silence it’s not about a written or spoken language; it is about who has a voice and who is silenced. The Venice Biennale is a huge international platform and over six months 300,000 people of all varieties come through, so I thought, what do I want to say, what do I want to offer, and how can I bring the people I love in my life, the artists who won’t get this chance, with me?

Is what you’re doing compensatory; are you providing things you didn’t get in earlier Biennales? Yes. You also wonder how can you reach an audience that is going to be incredibly over-stimulated? The spectacle is outrageous and that is not how my work operates. The theatre stuff I do has an element of spectacle but live performance isn’t what we’re talking about here. So in the end I want to provide something like a sanctuary, some kind of solace or welcoming and what I am asking in return is that people use their emotional intelligence and their powers of interpretation. My work is going to be foreign to most viewers because I don’t have an international reputation, so I want to communicate immediately without anything except what’s right there in the room. Kernels of these ideas have been circulating in your work for a long time. Is part of the bigness you are talking about the possibility the Biennale affords to bring them all together? I think so. It gave me an opportunity to consolidate threads that have been running through my mind for years but then to trumpet them in a larger way. I can speak to so many people on a political and an emotional level and reinvest in art as a powerful tool for communication. I don’t want this to sound disingenuous but I didn’t think about this as a career opportunity. I immediately thought, what are my essential politics and how can I use them to talk about what’s really important? So it is feminist and democratic to the point where I am very much about small entrepreneurs and trade and craftspeople. As a result, I’m redistributing the money that has come from fundraising across Canada and I’m getting to know everybody I’m working with. Whether anything comes out of it or not is of no interest to me. I’m 40 and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I was actually on my road to a sabbatical when I got the call for Venice. I had two days to decide and I went back and forth about whether I wanted to do this with my year and my life. When I decided yes, it was because I realized I’ve got something to say and instead of someone who only wants to promote their career, why don’t I do something that can be political and that can move people? I felt it was my duty. Also, it will be fun because as an artist I have all sorts of aesthetic and material ideas that I’ve never had the opportunity to see through. So all those things together made me decide yes. Then I’ve used every spare scrap of energy that a person could mine from the last of their cells to make it happen. Afterwards I will be happy to drop out.

Ophiodea, 2013, bronze with black patina, human hair, coloured ribbon. Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

You mentioned a cast bronze piece on the roof of the pavilion. It’s an outdoor piece which I’m very excited about. One thing that always stuck in my mind is that the pavilion needed something hunkering on top, like a gargoyle, or an introductory presence that was either inviting, or a menacing Sphinx-like character you’d have to contend with before you could get inside. Then this amazing thing happened in the middle of winter. The protocol for the grounds is very strict and you cannot do any landscaping. It’s a park and you can’t take down a tree. The Canadian pavilion has always had those crazy bushes and trees right in front that obscured the building. What happened was an act of nature; a wild winter windstorm ripped out the one tree in front. All of a sudden the whole pavilion, including the roof, was revealed. I immediately saw this massive concrete column that goes 25 feet up, the tallest point on the building, and it begged for something on top. It was one of my first ideas but it’s a mystery how quickly the whole show came together in my mind. I was in the pavilion for 10 days last June, thinking, sketching and writing, and I immediately came up with a short dedication text that expressed what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do it for. So I went back and started doing watercolour sketches and thinking about each individual component. Then I did full-colour watercolours and that was it. After that it was about researching how each of those things would be created and the steps to close it up.

How true to the watercolours will the final installation be? What’s crazy is it’s exact, which is very unusual. Usually ideas are one thing and in the making they become something different, but in this case it’s like these things made themselves. Everything I made was exactly what I imagined it would be. Last weekend I finished the last component of the piece, a 16-mm film.

What is this inviting or warning bronze creature on the top of the pavilion? What will we encounter inside that would make us either go in, or run in the other direction? I wanted to slow the pace. She is cautionary, not prohibitive, but she’s there naturally and you’ve startled her. It’s as if she’s asking, “Who are you? Think about why you’re coming in here for a minute.” I’ve given every consideration to the sensory experience of being in the space; I want there to be a little air-conditioning, so it’s cool but not cold. It’s very hot in Venice so this will be an inviting place with benches where you can rest your feet after so much walking. Inside, every part of the piece is encapsulating and every single inch has been dressed. It is one hundred percent immersive. Essentially, it is a recreation of a galaxy, a little chunk out of the universe. It’s like a deep, silent space experience. I’m covering the terrazzo in a black volcanic surface, like lava. It’s an environmentally reconstituted product that is trowelled on about half an inch thick and it muffles all sound. So we went from marble, with its click, click, click, to a quiet muffling sound. The wood ceiling originally would have been quite beautiful but through years of people drilling things into it and ripping things out, it has never been repaired, and at some point they put on a fire retardant, which stained the wood. It looks awful and I knew immediately it had to go. I’ve had made this beautiful crepe ceiling, rippled black fabric that fans across the ceiling lines like the inside of a seashell. Then there is a heavier pleated fabric on the walls, so it has a weight and a depth and a roundness. It lets the ceiling lift. Along the walls there is a rim of windows and there are skylights, so it is suffused with light. I knew I wanted to make projections in there but also to have the outside in; the silhouettes of trees and leaves are so beautiful and I also wanted to be able to look at the bronze figure from the inside. I realized in rounding the walls I can lift them higher, cover the windows, and by putting fabric on the ceiling I can get rid of all the busy light stuff. All of a sudden it is taller and higher and you feel like the ceiling lets you breathe.

The plaster guys have come in and done the drywalling, so there is this beautiful curve that takes the natural ending point and creates a niche about 15 feet deep. In a seashell that curve would go into its centre and that’s where I have the finale of the exhibit, which is this theatre set. This nice rounded space, which opened up the whole thing and made it so uncluttered and simple, is sensuous and womblike. That entire wall is painted black and affixed to it by hand are thousands of flat-backed Swarovski crystals in different sizes and arranged in astronomical patterns. We’ll use a projector so we’ll know where to place the crystals on the wall, which becomes the night sky.

Sketch for Bridge and Chorus, 2012, ink on paper. Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada.

So in your Venice sky you’ll see Venus? Venus will have a starring role. Then there is the tree well, this extraordinary feature in the middle of the building. I’ve used the type of vinyl that you put on car windows; it darkens everything but you can see all the silhouettes through it. In keeping with the theme of the galaxy, I’ve had custom fishing net made by this Nova Scotia deep sea fishing company, and the entire tree well will be covered with this beautiful heavy-duty black fishing net that is pulled and stretched to connect to different parts of the ceiling. Then thousands of vintage, faceted and multicoloured chandelier crystals I’ve been collecting, like prisms, will be hung singly and in clusters. They become the stars. I wanted the idea of a fisherman casting his net for stars, and as the stars go down in the fishing net towards the floor, they turn into shells, and then it becomes the kind of restaurant that has a lobster-decorated fishing net.

Throughout the space is the theme of the top of the sky that we imagine, which is the galaxy and the stars, running all the way to the very depths of the sea. The central character at the very end of this wall is a fountainhead/mermaid character. She embodies the underworld of the sea, the Atlantis feminine component. Then the skies have three porcelain works. As you come in, the perspective is things being quite small and far away. The porcelain pieces are from a series I created in Banff in November; there are three of them, they are very particular and they came out of a vision I had last summer. They’re almost architecturally impossible to make in porcelain because they are totally cantilevered and difficult to fire without collapsing. You can’t fire them together either, so I had to do them separately and figure out attachment strategies. They are very engineered. Each of the figures is supporting a planet on her back, so I’ve slip cast different-sized spheres with rustic ’70s glazes, which I’ve never done before. They are thicker, with amazing colours and things dripping off, and I’ve carved into them.

Sketch for The Widow, 2012, ink, gouache on paper.

Are these figures related to the woman in Burden I from 2009 who carries on her back that odd menagerie? The first porcelain figure you encounter when you enter the space is in a direct lineage from that piece. She has the largest sphere on her back and she is an ancient, naked woman who is entirely in black glaze, and her planet is in black glaze with gold star bars. I’ve worked with a local woman who does crochet and elegant doilies and I’ve had her make a custom snood, like a fishing net, that goes over this sphere and stretches over the woman’s face. She has a staff and is on a mountain. It’s hard to understand how these perfect spheres are floating in space, and these delicate figurines also look like they’re going to fall. Everything is very precarious. I didn’t want anything to look like a gallery. I was not interested in any of the conventions of a museum, so I wanted porcelains, but I didn’t want glass over them. I wanted things people could interact with intimately and I wanted the materials to be present. Also I decided to make the plinth sculptures, so they are now volcanoes made out of hand-carved and foamed black glitter. They look like they’re coming right out of the black volcanic material of the floor, as if the earth’s crust at the beginning of the world came up and made these forms. The lighting is going to be low and dramatic because you are moving towards projections on the other side. Then you move into the space and there are two other porcelain figures, both with planets and stars behind them. Each one is white and on a black plinth mountain. I wanted to incorporate the idea of music so I designed these porcelains to be part of the sculpture of these old turntables. The turntables have been gutted and a silent motor put inside that can handle the weight of a heavy porcelain sculpture. It took months to engineer how that was going to work.

Bridge and Chorus, 2012, porcelain, glace, lustre, vintage turntable, vinyl record, timer sequencer, 50 x 45 x 45 cm. Photography: Raphael Goldchain.

So the turntable is a shell for a much more sophisticated piece of technology that still looks like an old turntable? Exactly. The sculptures themselves are lovely as objects and are precariously balancing these planets. They’re moving very slowly, maybe at three rpm, so you can get a good look at them. They have that creaky look of old technology that is becoming gracefully obsolete. The next thing you see is the film, and it’s projected as a square but I’m going to cut off the corners. Everything in the show is rounded and circular.

Well, the womb has no hard edges. Exactly. It’s very kind. But the film is the central figure of the installation because it is a moving image. For me, it is the narrator of this experience. I’m working with a deaf woman who is not a performer but she is the head translator at the Canadian Hearing Society. I knew right away when I came up with the themes and ideas for the show that I wanted to incorporate American Sign Language. ASL is one of my favourite languages. It’s not text and it’s not written. It is the language of silence that deaf people live inside. It is very graceful and elegant and it asks people, whether they are hearing or whether they speak sign, to use their emotional intuition and intelligence to understand what is going on, because the grammar is all in the gesture and the expression. Emotions are a component in the language in a way that hearing people don’t have because we’re socialized to hide our emotions. But deaf language is all about showing the grammar through exaggerated expression. For one way of saying something you can use three different signs but its meaning depends on your expression. I’m interested in the emotional honesty of ASL; it’s very present, you can’t hide, and there’s not a lot of lying in that language. When I was in Winnipeg I studied it for two years. I always had the idea in the back of my mind that it could be an alternative career.

Silent Dedication, 2013, stills, black and white 16 mm film, silent, 2:45 min. Written. directed and art directed by Shary Boyle; translated and performed by Beth Hutchison; film processed by John Price; photographed by John Jones. Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada.

And now it has become the focal point of the film. Yes. I wanted to have the dedication text interpreted by a deaf person. The text is printed in the publication so people can read it but it is not part of the film. There are no subtitles; just a woman signing. But not a regular woman because she has full makeup and is costumed to look like a kind of god. I see her as a god of silence. There is a little evocation of the silent film era in her floating head and hands. It came out of a three minute-long Super 8 film I made 10 years ago where I used my hands as the main characters in the film. I had on white gloves and in acting out this sad love story you very quickly forget they are hands. I wanted to use her hands in the same way, but I wanted to use her face, too. She is an amazing signer; a magnificent, expressive communicator with beautiful gestures. So I cut three holes in a big black sheet for her hands and she wears a black turtleneck. She has white hands and a white face and I will accentuate her wrinkles and crow’s feet so that she is this gorgeous older woman with a braided white wig. It is the best thing I have ever made.

So who is the dedication for? It is for the people who are silenced and for the people who don’t speak and for the people who will never be here and for the ugly and for the people who can’t run that fast and for the things that we see in our dreams that we can’t even describe and the experiences in our life that we have no words for and the place where we go when we’re having an orgasm and the deepest parts of space and the deepest parts of the sea that I hope we never get to so that we don’t exploit them and it is for the people who have been cut down. I’m not saying I’m speaking for them; I’m just dedicating the show to them.

The Cave Painter, 2013, plaster, wood, foam, synthetic hair, sculpting epoxy, metal, paint, glitter, glass, three overhead projectors on custom-scultped plinth, photo-collage projection, acetates, timer sequencer. Photography: Rafael Goldchain.

You have an ink and gouache drawing called Our Private Apocalypse, where a couple watch a world swirl apart in front of them. While not apocalyptic, the way you’ve thought about this whole installation has that kind of world-altering ambition. This ideal world of silence you’ve imagined is a utopic vision. There is something essential about stripping everything down to the bare and most important elements of life; to some kind of cosmic birth and death and the silence of reckoning with yourself. I guess there is something utopic about it because in my mind it is very gentle and beautiful and exquisite. It gives people an opportunity to engage in those things in themselves. Then after you’ve seen the signing film, the final thing is a theatre set that incorporates a huge plaster sculpture. The three overhead projections trained on it are on a time-sequencer, so it’s going off and on.

It sounds like Virus, the life-sized woman made from plaster who changed depending on whether the overhead projector was on her or not. It has a relationship to that but now it’s a 15-foot-deep cave. I knew right away I wanted it to have a sense of being at the centre of the earth, of something under the ground or even under the sea. There would be a monumental figure, a kind of guardian of the afterlife or the underworld, like a fountainhead. But I also wanted to play on the mermaid character that has been in and out of my work for years. In this iteration, she is an ancient character who is 10 feet long and weighs 500 pounds. She is a colossus, reclining in her cave where she has gone into retreat. She also refers to the original Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid, which is quite a harrowing story. His mermaid falls in love with a prince and the only way she can live with him is by bartering with a sea witch. She had the most exquisite voice, which is how she lured men in their boats, so the witch says, “If you want to live on land we’ll cut out your tongue, so you’ll be mute for the rest of your life; and if you want legs, we’ll cut your tail in half. You’ll have beautiful legs but it will always feel as if you’re walking on knives.” So the mermaid agrees to this crazy deal. The original story is interesting in terms of the compromises she makes. Mermaids were immortal but if she becomes human she would be mortal, so the story is about accepting death and accepting your time on earth as finite. There is something beautiful about making compromises and giving things up for love. You can be mute and still have this incredible experience of love. But at other times people in the experience of love are quiet or are silenced. The quiet comes in moments like death, when you are really alone and you can’t share these essential experiences with anybody else. So I thought about this character at the end of her life in her cave, almost like a theatre set, with over 50 stalagmites and stalactites that are pieces of wood carved in jigsaw shapes. She is a three-dimensional classical sculpture but everything behind her is two-dimensional.

Is she clothed? She is naked and has these incredible legs, a mermaid fin that has been cut in half. So her legs curl around in a classical, fountain-like way but they have obviously been sliced in half. And she is combing her hair with a giant Venus shell that I hand-made because they don’t come that big in real life. She has five feet of pure white hair. Everything here is pure white; everything else in the installation is black. She is cradling and nursing a human infant which is not necessarily hers. It is some kind of continuation and she is harbouring this seed at the end of her life. There is a beautiful piece of local Murano glass like a pool in a cave and she is wrapped around this pond.

Then there are three projectors that go on at intervals in an insane cacophony of imagery and colour. It is a total photographic collage. For the first time I’m bringing in the real world because I have always interpreted things through the world of the imagination. But I wanted this to be anchored in what we see as reality. This is not just my imagining or my fantasy; these are images from the world that surround us, that anybody might be able to identify with or have some relationship with. There are references to people who have been very important for me in the development of these ideas but there is also 30,000-year-old cave art. I’ve been reading about the caves in Southern France and Spain, which are the origins of art. So the cave walls are covered in a montage of my favourite drawings from that era. Every stalagmite has been registered and has 55 images on it. On the stalactites there are ferns and seashells and all sorts of things that recreate spiral motifs in nature. They are my icons of silence; Charlie Chaplin and Helen Keller in her library and Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime. There are some of my favourite musicians, like Judee Sill, who died of addiction, in obscurity, in the ’60s; there are characters who maybe had this extraordinary voice, or who overcame not having a voice. So there are people who really exist. Then there are evocative images that seem to encapsulate ideas of liberation and euphoria and the freedom of being in solitude or in silence. And the mermaid’s body is a pastiche of hundreds of images.

So her body becomes a screen? The whole thing is a screen for a projected photo collage. There were months and months of photo research and cutting and scanning, because I did it on the computer for the first time. Usually I cut and paste and then photocopy onto acetate but this time the registration was so precise that I had to do it all online and in Photoshop, nudging things down by micromillimetres and trimming and getting things just so, and then getting that professionally printed on high quality film that has really sharp clarity and colour.

Venusblumen, 2009, porcelain, china paint, lustre. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto.

One of the things that attracted you about Venice was her mystery. You would go to the edge of the water and imagine the kind of underworld you’re talking about here today. But mystery brings with it a sense of not-knowing. What strikes me is the exact way in which you have both imagined this world and have set about to realize it. Does it sustain the original mystery? I thought about it so deeply and clearly and it came to me like a vision, which I think in itself is mysterious. Remember, this is all in my head. The show exists in my mind but I’ve never seen it. I have a lot of work to do to put this whole thing together. I feel it will be up to the individual to make connections, to make their own interpretations. There is this essential imagery within it that I hope anybody will be able to relate to, no matter what language they are speaking, what culture they’re from or how old they are. I mean, nothing pounds you over the head. Being an artist is all about editing, and if you’ve done it before, you know when something is too hammer-fisted, you know when to pull back and give the people walking through the respect and the freedom to have their own experience.

You talk about animating our own mythology. Is “Music for Silence” a version of that myth-making? You’ve recreated the world; you’re the creator in this cosmology. I don’t feel god-like in any way; I feel like a conduit. Something is just coming through me.

In your painting you have talked about wanting to “mar the beauty.” The porcelain figures that were on display at the Louis Vuitton Maison in Toronto didn’t mar, but enhanced the beauty in a stunning way. The porcelain is exquisite. Do the pieces in Venice in any way equal the fineness of the works in Toronto? No, they don’t. The porcelain is in the opposite direction this time. I wanted to make something that was almost like folk porcelain. I got to the point with the slip casting and the lace draping where the fragility would have made it impossible to get to Venice. I wanted it to have a rustic, earthy quality but still reference Meissen figurative work. Now it looks like it was made by someone older who is not so concerned with detail; it is more about the overall form. They are coarse and rugged and strong, like something that could have been excavated from some old culture.

Silver Buckle, 2010, porcelain, glazes, gilding, fabric. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto.

But when you look closely at your delicate porcelains they’re odd in an inexplicable way. I’m trying to figure out where you are in those pieces and what they’re telling us about everything from being a woman to the role of decoration in art. They are a very complicated, mysterious read. I like that they’re complicated. I also think it’s funny in the context of Louis Vuitton Maison, where most people will either veer right by them or, if they look at them at all, won’t have encountered anything like that, especially when they’re about to buy a luxury good that is about some kind of hyper-feminization. I really like what I’ve made in relation to what they’re about to do. There is a seduction. There has been so much grotesquerie in art, and I’ve been accused of that myself, but I never see what I make as an intentional reinforcement of anything violent or grotesque or weird for its own sake. It’s always been about seduction and getting you to consider something that seems unusual, or that is not right, or even inappropriate, but that is actually more honest. Sometimes things are more real than reality in a way; sometimes ideas have to be shown in ways that don’t look accurate or real. They’re implied through exaggeration or excess. I’ve developed a different kind of language, so to me three legs isn’t weird or funny. Maybe I wanted to speak about excess, about being more of yourself than you can contain. Or about something that is exquisite and beautiful and abhorrent. I remember when I was first doing the lace draping works I kept thinking about cancer, about multiplying cells that can’t stop. They are almost decorative in their excessiveness. If you have just enough, and if they are in the right balance, it is exactly what you need; but too much, and the body is out of control. On some level we all want to be out of control because we feel so contained. So we drink, we do drugs, we do wild things to break the cycle of conformity and repetition. I have always found in costuming in animals and birds and humans a beautiful excessiveness. We all respond to it. We love to look at Caribana and those extraordinary, evocative headdresses. I’m interested in why they are so evocative and what is the thing that we crave? And it’s not necessarily always critical; sometimes it is completely celebratory. Sometimes we are just too much to contain. We have only these little bodies and we wish we were more.

Tumbleweed(detail), 2010, porcelain, glazes, gilding. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto.

When the woman channels her own head between her legs in your porcelain figure called Tumbleweed, you work a delicate variation of the violent entrance depicted in Bloodie is Born, and Born Again from 2009. That drawing was based on a dream I had where an ancient wizard man cut my body down the front centre and I did an immediate flip and pushed my head through my own body cavity. It was one of those dreams you never forget because it is so beautiful and awful and weird. I also did a drawing about 10 years ago where a face appears between a pair of legs. For me it’s an absolute insistence on full integration of the self. There is no part of the body that isn’t the self and while I want to steer clear from overly obvious objectification, it is about acknowledging that your sexuality is one hundred percent yourself, and not something that can be divided and separated, and compartmentalized or sold, or used in a way that isn’t a reckoning with the individual. That is a reoccurring image of mine; wanting that covert place where you want to look or peek, and when that happens, what if you find you’re looking into someone’s eyes?

In the same way that Venusblumen looks the way it feels when a woman has an orgasm in oral sex. It embodies complete ecstasy and sensuality and, at the same time, a delicate vulnerability. Yes. It’s a totally shame-free thing and it takes away any sense that something should be hidden, or is evil. We think we’re sexually liberated and politically equal but negative attitudes still exist; they’re just working in other places. So I’m putting images out in the world to counteract those things. I’m a woman so I can make that image in a way no one else can, other than another woman. It’s me.

To order the Special Venice Issue #126, click here.

Volume 32, Number 2: Special Venice Issue

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #126, published May 2013.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.