An interview with Juliana Engberg, artistic director of this year’s edition of the Sydney Biennale (March 21 – June 9, 2014).
LR: The title is taken from a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will".
JE: I think this is the fundamental basis of art. Artists imagine what they desire. Depending on the kind of artist, they will either imagine a social principle or idea, or a world they want to see, or they might go to an imaginary place. I don’t believe art should be dry; even something more politically shaped can have elements of poetry in it, elements of seduction. I think when people come across art they actually want to feel something — that something has physically changed in your body.
LR: You have said you are a spatial curator. Tell me about your treatment of the venues.
JE: I think of art and space in simultaneous movement. It’s not about going to find art that you like and then retrofitting it to the space. Each of the venues will have a character: the AGNSW is a hunkered down, low and dark space — I feel it has an earth/fire element to it. I am using works that speak more to social politics, an interrelationship between culture as a history and culture as a future. The MCA is a lighter space near the water; especially with the new renovations it now has cleaner lines. It is an air/water space. It goes more to the psychological, surreal, luminal qualities — flightiness and an evocative character that is a little bit intangible.
LR: And what about Cockatoo Island?
JE: I want it to be like a happy anarchy. Being a former shipyard, it has this history of labor and hardship. It will be boisterous. It’s so huge that it requires quite a bit of art for it to make sense and for it to be enough of an experience for the audience. But there is only so much you can do — you can’t put precious museum works out there. It’s raw, rough, and the scale can be daunting. I want people to have a real adventure, going out on boat, and to give some narrative around the context of an island — which can be a utopia or a dystopia. I want to use those ready metaphors.
LR: How does your knowledge of the Australian art scene work for you?
JE: I don’t know if it’s detrimental or not but it does mean it’s slightly easier for me to activate something quickly, especially considering the biennale is now set for March instead of June 2014. I have an intimate knowledge of the venues, partners and sponsors. When curators come from overseas they tend be captivated by the place and want the opportunity to travel to the center and come to grips with indigenous artists, and that’s good, but I think it has been to the detriment of other local contemporary practices in urban areas. It’s a bit sad that some generations of Australian contemporary artists haven’t been present.
LR: Is there a curator or biennale model that speaks to you?
JE: It would be Harald Szeemann’s Venice Biennales in 1999 and 2001. I think he was a very generous curator who loved artists and people. He was a romantic at heart, even though some of the work he admired during his career was more conceptual. I think Harald’s approach is similar to my own.
Juliana Engberg is a curator, writer, publisher and designer, and is currently the Artistic Director of ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne).
Juliana has been travelling the world researching and meeting with artists. You can read her blog about the experience here
The Biennale of Sydney runs from 21 March - 19 June, 2014 at the following locations: