Exhibition review: Outside the Palace of Me

Outside the Palace of Me Exhibit at MMFA – Photo/Jiawei HONG

Shary Boyle’s exploration of the connection between society and the individual

This is a special show — the Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle has designed her exhibition on a stage setup at the Montreal Museum of Fine arts.

The moment visitors walk into the exhibition, they are standing in the middle of a huge stage. This implies that each individual not only observes society, but also participates in it. Shary Boyle’s artwork exposes a variety of phenomena in this society that we choose to ignore, which poses complex and sometimes paradoxical questions to visitors about our understanding of human nature.

The first sculpture visitors see is “The Potter”. It depicts an image of an artist’s process of making porcelain. However, the interesting thing is that this artist does not have a head, and there are six different porcelain pieces stacked up in front of them. Upon closer inspection, each piece has a different style that represents a different country. From the bottom up, they are China, Ghana, France, Greece, Peru, and Egypt.

Boyle is also very strict in the selection of materials: terracotta, porcelain, underglaze, china paint, luster, and brass rods were all used in her installation.

The headless artist of “The Potter” is captured making a gesture of lifting the porcelain as if they are trying to put these civilizations on their own head. This is a reflection of us being in a culturally diverse society. It also represents the ideology of each culture within society.

“Oasis,” another piece on display, is a woman sculpture that has both male and female sexual attributes. Although her face is covered by her hair, she is sitting sideways and presenting her sexuality in a confident pose. 

The idea of gender nonconformity created by this sculpture explores the people who break the gender norms that are expected for them. Her sexual organs look slicker than other parts of her body, because Shary Boyle uses luster as a representation of the gender stereotype, which is a beautiful and fragile material. This work poses the question to the viewer — why should the gender stereotypes in our minds be so solid?

Moving to the right side of the stage, visitors see a huge white statue sitting on the right side of the room, named “White Elephant”. Its whole body is painted and dressed in white. It is staring forward with no emotional expression on its face.

In a flash, its head suddenly turns around. Many viewers were shocked by this art installation, while others did not even notice its movement. According to Boyle, the title is inspired by the proverb “elephant in the room,” which refers to the phenomenon of people ignoring a very obvious fact. 

Shary Boyle sarcastically illustrates the whiteness of society, in which many politicians are aware of history of genocide, and the white privilege but choose to ignore it. The white elephant stands out in this dimly-lit exhibition room. According to my personal understanding, white has the ability to embrace any colour, just as this society can embrace any distinct being.

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