The Rooms: September 25, 2021 – January 9, 2022
Outside the Palace of Me is an exhibition organized by the Gardiner Museum, Toronto.
On the extraordinarily rare instances lately where I’ve found myself at a party either with or without my usual coterie of miscreants and drug-addicts, I’ll jokingly (?) remark how my not-so-long-ago, near-lethal, descent into madness and alcoholism can be traced to my study with renowned and sadly departed theatre artist Ian Wallace of Pochinko Clown Through Mask.
Clown School, as I’ve come to call it, attempted the complete de- and re-construction of one’s identity through a prolonged battery of exploratory mask-making in an effort to mine one’s personal trauma for the articulation of creative work (in whatever form) and, aside from being highly problematic and appropriative in some respects, and further, aside from playing no small part in my mental collapse, has led to the relatively stable, sober, thoughtful, and habitually unemployed art critic who stands before you today.
This personal journey was quite front of mind upon experiencing Shary Boyle’s phenomenally disquieting exhibition, Outside the Palace of Me, commissioned and circulated by the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, curated by Sequoia Miller, and on view at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s until January 9, 2022.
Outside the Palace of Me, according to the Rooms’ website, is a “multi-sensory installation including drawings, ceramic sculpture, life-sized automatons, two-way mirrors, coin-operated sculpture and an interactive score. Reimagining the museum as a collective performance space, the artist is working closely with a scenic designer, robotics engineer, amusement park innovator and costume artist to joyfully envision a set for humanity and imagination.” While the above description is no way inaccurate, Boyle’s installation offers the gallery-goer one of those profoundly rare experiences—namely that the exhibition’s components seem to add up to more than its constituent parts.
The feeling of being shaken, thrilled, bemused, befuddled, scared, and awestruck has become so outrageously rare in the life of the jaded gallery-goer that Boyle’s installation serves as a reminder of why we all fell in love with art in the first place: an experience which confronts the viewer with a way of seeing, of being and thinking and feeling, that is shockingly and delightfully new, that alters the ways in which we view ourselves, how we view art itself, and how we view the world.
Borrowing from the tropes of theatre, the circus, carnivals, amusement parks, and traveling side-shows, “the exhibition unfolds across a series of scenes, delving into the myriad influences that help shape us,” while “critically interrogating colonialism, misogyny, racism, and other societal pressures, the works also underscore beauty, longing, a commitment to hope, and the human capacity for empathy.1
Entering the gallery space through a darkened passageway, viewers encounter The Dressing Room, a demi lune two-way mirror behind which three ceramic faces confront us. Already, the roles of observer/observed, the actual and the illusory, are blurred, doubled, and refracted. Looking into the unsettling visage of Pupils, for example—a white porcelain face whose two pupils, upon inspection, show themselves to be dark stoneware humanoid creatures that gaze out at us from its eyes—we see, overlaid on the glass in front of the piece, our own face darkly reflected.
Up the stairs and through a curtain, a sleek black stage thrusts into the main exhibition space—we are not just passive observers in society, we are participants; we perform. Beneath glass domes, ten beautifully rendered figurative ceramic sculptures line the edges of the stage, each evoking “the social factors that shape us: the lottery of cultural affiliation, global environmental crisis, gender non-conformity, rituals of attraction, and pleasure-seeking excess.”2 Scarborough, a terracotta and porcelain sculpture derived from Celtic myth and kitsch statuary, references Boyle’s hometown and own upbringing in a working-class home: a super-cute, spritely traveler with a bindle over their shoulder seems to set out on a journey into the world, and as the rest of the exhibition would seem to suggest, into themselves.
Somehow towering and lurking over the rest of the exhibition simultaneously, the motorized sculpture White Elephant haunts and dominates the room. An acknowledgment of the outsized privilege and legacies of violence intrinsic to whiteness, the head of this immense figurative sculpture spins sporadically in a manner not dissimilar to Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist. Ever watchful, ever present, ever on the verge seemingly of violent action, the work creates the affect of unease and foreboding in the viewer as the lineage of white supremacist colonialism permeates the exhibition space.
This review merely scratches the surface of this exhibition. I left the gallery thrilled, exhausted, terrified, giddy. It is a must-see.