“Optimism is part of a revolutionary mindset”
An Interview with Biennale of Sydney Curator Juliana Engberg
Deutsche Bank-sponsored 19th Biennale of Sydney, the biggest art event
in the Asian-Pacific region, gets underway under the programmatic title
“You Imagine What You Desire.” Visitors can look forward to a
celebration of the artistic imagination, says director Juliana Engberg,
herself an all-round talent as curator, author, designer, and artistic
director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. In
an interview with ArtMag, Engberg explains why we should place our bets
on art’s revolutionary power—especially today.
||You emphasize that this will be a very optimistic biennial,
an “exploration of the world through metaphor and poesis.” When they
look at the state the world is in, a lot of people don’t think there’s
all that much reason for optimism, finding instead cause for anger,
depression, and frustration. At one time, art was one of the most
progressive forces in modernism—it was revolutionary. Today it has much
less impact on society than technology and science. How can art offer
us optimism today?
There’s a danger that if you continue to
look at the world and see only its problems, you will eventually
capitulate to a kind of paralyzing negativity. Lately, I think art has
been cast as a kind of mirror to despair, a mirror of woes … and worse,
often as a mere razzle dazzle in the art fair world of commodity and
spectacle. It’s seen as a placebo effect, like a momentary bubble of
entertainment. For me at this time, it was important to break out of
this cycle of negativity or “bling” and attempt to once again engage
with art that has energy, narrative, and metaphor and calls an audience
into its energy. For me, the title You Imagine What You Desire
gives license to both artist and audience to reignite their sense of
possibility and find the motivation to act upon it. Optimism is part of
a revolutionary mindset, and I wanted to push beyond the postmodern
endgame. To achieve this, I use all the tactics at my disposal: fun,
activity, participation, and artistic ingenuity—and invite the audience
to become involved.
There’s a great diversity among the artists
participating in the Biennale of Sydney. How did you select them? Did
you have certain themes or artistic practices in mind when you started?
Is there something the positions have in common?
look for several things. For me to be interested in an artwork, I have
to be able to find the psychological, the perceptual, and the
anthropological entwined. The work needs to know its own artistic
history; it needs to indicate something of the human history that makes
it important at this moment, and it needs to deliver that in a
compelling way. It needs a kind of intensity of spirit. I want to feel
confident in its technical aspect, even if that is intentionally shabby
or de-skilled. You very rarely find this, but of course it’s wonderful
if you can see a rupture, a shift of some kind that disturbs the easy
flow of ideas without breaking it … evolving it, I suppose. As I’ve
said, this happens rarely, because most things work within a
trajectory. So you hope to find the ones that have combined the other
three elements very successfully. I look for the metaphors of
collective consciousness, and I seek out the ways in which they
resurface or translate between cultures. I am not shy about the poetic,
sublime, and spectacular—and I tend to avoid the didactic.
this edition of Sydney, I’ve had a very short turnaround, as we’re
transitioning from a June launch to a March launch. Effectively, if you
take into account the northern hemisphere summer and the southern
hemisphere summer, this has meant a planning and delivery time of about
12–13 months. So I have worked very quickly and with a clear purpose in
Here in Sydney we have very idiosyncratic, iconic,
and deregulated venues at our disposal, and so I developed schemes
based on the character of those spaces. On Cockatoo Island: fantasy and feral, anarchistic energies; in the museum and gallery spaces: air, earth, water, and fire poetics; at Carriageworks: the dream factory of theatrical and cinematic languages; at Artspace: flights of fancy. And in the city: navigations and activations. I bring this all together under my title You Imagine What You Desire,
which for me bridges the art and audience to bring them together in the
active pursuit of possibilities and the amorous procedures which I
believe to be at the heart of the art enterprise.
Biennale of Sydney celebrates art and imagination for three months.
Once it’s over, what would you like to remain of the biennial?
hope to inspire younger generations to feel they have some power over
the way their environment is shaped ecologically, ideologically, and
collectively; that they can be forces for positive change and equal
participants in a society that is generous, openhearted, and
future-thinking. I hope the oldies will have had fun witnessing young
people engage with art, and will themselves have found uses for their
excess energies. Ultimately, I hope to have added some art memories for
the Biennale-going public who keep a trace of each edition in their
art-visiting DNA. The Biennale of Sydney is a great and generous
multiplicity of an event and I’m hopeful it will grow once more into
the hearts and minds of the public. And who knows … maybe one of your
wealth-creating clients will step up to buy Danish artist duo Randi & Katrine’s installation The Village!