Showcasing Canadian Art at the World’s Oldest Art Festival

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Shary Boyle, Burden I (2009). Porcelain, china paint, luster, 30 x 36 x 36 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Inc.

When Canadian artist Shary Boyle exhibits at the 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, she will stand among the most innovative and cutting edge contemporary artists in the world. 

Flanked by the pavilions of countries such as Germany, France, Britain and the United States, Shary Boyle’s work will be showcased alongside such international luminaries as Ai Weiwei, Anri Sala, Jeremy Deller, and Sarah Sze.

“The Venice Biennale is an amazing platform to discover or re-discover artists from every corner of the planet, including those who haven’t had an opportunity to be showcased on the international scene,” explains Josée Drouin-Brisebois the National Gallery’s Curator of Contemporary Art. “Each country presents their perspective on the art of the day, by focusing on one or a group of artists, hence engaging in a larger conversation about culture. It is also a great opportunity to meet with artists, curators and collectors from around the world and has fittingly become a mecca for trade and intellectual exchange.” 

Launched in 1895, the Venice Biennale includes what is not only considered by many to be the most prestigious arts festival in the world, but it is also seen as the oldest and most widely recognized cultural event in contemporary art. It is held every two years in a series of national pavilions in the Giardini di Castello, as well as in a number of other locations spread across the city. From June 1 to November 24, 2013, the Venice Biennale will once again bring together artists from more than 80 countries, along with museum directors, curators, collectors, gallery owners and journalists from across the globe.

In 2011, 84 countries participated in the 54th Biennale, which attracted more than 440,000 visitors. According to Biennale organizers, these numbers are expected to rise again in 2013, despite Europe’s rather gloomy economic outlook.

“Although Venice and the Biennale of Sydney are both major international exhibitions of contemporary art, they differ from one another, in that Venice has national representation, whereas Sydney selects Artistic Directors,” says Gerald McMaster, the Canadian Commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 1995, who was also one of the Artistic Directors of the 2012 Biennale of Sydney Both, however, are important in the art world, as they are among the oldest institutions of their kind.”

A case in point: although most countries use their pavilions to showcase their own artists, this year’s Biennale features a surprise or two. The most unusual of these is the decision by the German Pavilion’s curator to feature four artists—only one of whom is actually German. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, and German film director Romuald Karmakar were selected by Germany’s curator Susanne Gaenscheimer to represent “the universal language of art”. 

Canada Pavilion, Venice Biennale

In a statement made through the Museum of Modern Art Frankfurt, where she is Director, Gaenscheimer said, “Contemporary artistic production in Germany, as elsewhere, is characterized by multilayered forms of cooperation between artists from all over the world, and by international intellectual and cultural exchange.” As a result, “Germany will not be represented as a hermetic national unit, but as an active participant in a complex, worldwide constellation.”

Another interesting twist on the Biennale’s usual national focus is the recent rumour of a combined presentation between France and Germany. Susan Gaenscheimer and France’s curator Christine Macel have been in talks to explore possible cross-presentation between Germany’s four artists and France’s entry, video artist Anri Sala.

Although Canada is taking a more traditional approach with a single artist, Shary Boyle is anything but conventional. Considered one of Canada’s most innovative artists, Boyle produces work ranging from drawing and painting to sculpture and performance. Blending history, fantasy and the highly personal, she creates pieces that often features marginalized characters, while crossing the boundaries between animate and inanimate, life and death, tangible and intangible. 

Canada is one of only 30 countries with its own national pavilion in the prestigious Giardini di Castello. Although the pavilion itself did not open until 1958, Canada’s participation in the Biennale dates back to 1952, with a launch that included iconic Canadian artist Emily Carr.

From that year to this, Canada has hosted some of the best-known names in Canadian art—many of whom have gone on to international careers. David Milne, Alfred Pellan, Alex Colville, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Rodney Graham and  David Altmejd are just some of the Canadian artists who have become well-known names on the global art scene. 

The Venice Biennale remains an important site for the up-to-the-minute exchange of art news from all parts of the world,” says McMaster. “As such, it still carries considerable cachet.”

Lee-Ann Martin, Curator of Contemporary Aboriginal Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, agrees. “As the grand old dame of international art shows, the Biennale occupies an important position in the contemporary art world. The flip side is that it also places an enormous amount of pressure on the artists. In the run-up to the Biennale, artists are generally working so hard on their contributions for Venice—as well as fundraising, in many cases—that they have no time for anything else. Most of the time, you won’t see any new work displayed by a Biennale artist until well after the Biennale is over.”

Martin adds, “Sometimes, you get lucky, however, and the international art press—which has obviously all gathered at the Biennale—picks up on your work, and off you go. For that reason alone, people flock to the Venice Biennale, because it’s still the largest and most venerable showcase for the best in contemporary art.”


Canadian artist Shary Boyle will be representing Canada at the 2013 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the "Olympics of the art world". Here she talks about taking up the challenge of creating a work of art for a specific space: the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

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