On the eve of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, ARTIST PROFILE spoke to Artistic Director Juliana Engberg about her inspirations, ideas and what to expect from this year’s event.
Did you have any initial ideas for this event?
A Biennale lives within a place and time – it is responsive to its cultural moment. So I guess you start to think about what some of the other Biennales of late been looking at, what has been the fairly immediate history of this particular event, what are the venues that might be available. I think that’s one of the nice things about the Biennale for me, it is very much guarded by the artistic vision of a particular individual at a particular time. But having said that, there were several things that became important to me around that time, not the least of which was a certain negativity that had come into some of the international Biennales; Berlin and to some extent the earlier Istanbul Biennale. And just a general atmosphere of – not despondency exactly – but I suppose a doubt that art had power or meaning, or was even useful. I think I immediately wanted to establish a Biennale that reasserts excitement about art, puts art front and centre, and gives the audience something to connect to and work with.
What is your curatorial vision for this particular Biennale?
The title (You Imagine What You Desire) has naturally enlarged itself to include the audience, which is really what I wanted to do. The ‘desiring’ and ‘imagining’ is transferred from the artist to audience and vice versa, as I hope it would be generally. I think it is a quite buoyant Biennale, certainly hyper visual. It has a lot of ‘art’ art in it, it is a less documentary style Biennale, with not a lot of text reading, or deliberately didactic work. It is generous to an audience who come in search of that imagination and desiring, and leaves a way for them to enter on their own account. It has, I hope, a set of sophisticated layering.
Did you aim to put the focus on audience more so than other years? There is really the opportunity for the audience to be more involved?
I think the truth is that the Biennale of Sydney is a big audience event, and if you were to deny the audience, it would be insane really! Especially in a venue such as Cockatoo Island, where there are predominately families. They are out there, curious, and they want to be involved. They’re not necessarily the cognoscenti audience, which remains quite designated in certain respects. So for me it was extremely important to acknowledge the different sets of audiences who come to this. I have actually made quite a deliberate effort to include projects that are appealing for children and adults.
Your chosen theme is ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ – can you talk a little bit about how you came to settle on this concept, and what it means for you?
It isn’t a theme, so much as a title. It’s a title that does indicate my intent – to examine art that is full of imagination and creativity, and made as a consequence of this amorous procedure that artists are involved in – the fact that they are driven to do that and can’t do anything else in a way. They make things that don’t seem all that necessary or useful but are, ultimately, extremely useful for our sense of society and wellbeing, our own reignition, imagination and desire. I do think that the audience comes in search of that, and that something like the Biennale gives you, momentarily, an environment of desiring, of imagination, and I think the audience is very drawn to that. They can go in there and know it’s not real life, but for a period of time they can just go with it. In essence, that’s what I wanted to do, what the title indicates. I wanted to make an evocative Biennale, not a terse, defeatist, negative display. I wanted there to be something that people can grapple with.
Something that’s not ‘over curated’ per se?
It’s not a suffocating theme. With a Biennale of this scale and shape, if you have a theme and try to force it each time you will repeat yourself and dilute it, and won’t leave yourself open to the opportunities that are presented to you whilst you’re building your event. It is safer that way, but I think you can be a bit brave and bold. I think a theme is not necessarily the desirable thing for this scale. At the end of the day, you step back and say it’s the art that takes over and the people become excited about that. Rather than trying to see if it matches up to this terse statement that was made.
What has been involved in coordinating this Biennale conceptually across such a range of venues?
I used the fact of them being very different as the organising principle, you could say. Cockatoo Island for me is a feral, wild space with a history – of the production of energy, incarceration – and you can borrow back from this and redeliver to the place. I have tried to tap into that energetic, happy anarchy. But the Museum of Contemporary Art and Art Gallery of New South Wales are far more standardised venues, with very different temperaments. The MCA for me is a light, airy space and so there you can venture into psychological projects. The AGNSW on the other hand has an anthropological, poetic space, and is keenly interested in human narratives. Carriageworks, which has come online as a major venue this year, has had use as a cinematic film studio. We had seen on our journey quite a lot of works that seemed to be somehow speaking a theatrical or cinematic language – it struck me that this was a good use for Carriageworks. And then I wanted to bring Artspace back into the fold. I was, like many people, surprised that it was not part of the last one – it is where the constituency go, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I used each one of the venue’s own temperaments and characteristics to help me describe back to myself the kind of works I think would be appropriate there, and the kinds of itineraries that could be created. There are things that thread through those venues, and create a necklace of an event.
What was your process in selecting artists? I notice there is a particularly strong international presence in the line up so far.
I used the same methodology I always use. I wanted it to be genuine, authentic research, so I literally sat down with artists on the hour, sometimes over 12 a day, every day, whenever I was travelling. I put space and theme together quite quickly, so even when speaking to artists I knew exactly where they would fit.
I notice quite a few of Dutch artists?
The Dutch contingent is quite strong! And I must be truthful, there could have been more. It was an especially strong visitation in Holland. Something has happened lately in Amsterdam and Rotterdam that has meant that things are really quite healthy there in terms of art. It’s a good variety of practice as well, not just one thing that is coming through. There are quite a few Scandinavian artists as well, it is an area that the Biennale of Sydney has not looked strongly at for some time, and I’m half Danish, so I think its fair for me to look to the customs and cultures of that part of the world.
What sort of artistic responses should we expect from this concept?
For me, each project has this singularity that behind it, is built upon this whole history, even though it may seem fanciful or entertaining on first glance. This history can often take you down an interesting and quite serious path, of theoretical investigation or political, ethical investigation. All of these live behind that singular moment, and we then have a multiplicity of those moments that gather themselves in a kind of force of creativity, which I think is quite good.
‘The Village,’ by Danish artists Randi & Katrine is a very large-scale, spectacular, anthropomorphised village with buildings that look like churches and village houses. For me, it has a great deal of depth in terms of discussing the village as a fortress, which becomes an island of society, a sequestered space for one part of a community and not another. If you want you can travel backwards through that concept and arrive at things such as asylum seeking, etcetera. I hope that there is all of that there in each of these projects for people to find and unpack. I have borrowed from literature, history and popular culture to derive those sets of projects that I think activate that space.
19th Biennale of Sydney
You Imagine What You Desire
March 21 to June 9, 2014
Tags: ARTIST PROFILE, Biennale of Sydney, Jiliana Engberg