The Biennial Questionnaire: Juliana Engberg

The curator of the 2014 Sydney Biennale talks to ArtReview about desire, imagination and protest

By Louise Darblay

Eglé Budvytytė, Choreography for the Running Male, 2012. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ieva Budzeikaite. Yael Bartana, Inferno (production still), 2013. Courtesy the artist; Petzel Gallery, New York; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv. Photo: Fabio Braga. Douglas Gordon, Phantom (video still), 2011, Courtesy lost but found; Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris; and Rufus Wainwright, ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu’ used courtesy Decca Label Group. Broersen & Lukács Mastering Bambi (video still), 2010. Courtesy the artists and AKINCI, Amsterdam.

ArtReview: There have been some protests, especially a letter of artists to the board of trustees of the Biennale and a movement to boycott the event because of its main sponsor, Transfield, a company which is a major contractor involved in running detention centres for asylum seekers. Will you respond to the controversy within the Biennale itself?

Juliana Engberg: Presciently many of the works I have commissioned or will show deal with issues of what constitutes a society, and how we make that society, how we construct beliefs and which beliefs have relevance to our times. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales for instance, a space I call Promethean, the beating heart of the Biennale, I have established works that engage with the politics of society in transformation and look at the individual and the collective.

I could not have known a few months ago that this would be brought up against the reality we have faced over these past few weeks … and yet, this is the time we live in. The issues of asylum seekers and refugees, the global quest for sanctuary has never been far from my mind as it has been a topic of great passion and despair here in Australia, as it is elsewhere too for many years.

In the art of the Biennale these issues appear metaphorically like in The Village by Randi & Katrine and equally in the tabula rasa alchemical spaces of Nathan Coley’s protest photos, or in the one-way transport of Callum Morton work.

This issue provides yet another layer of metaphor and reading for many of the works which already serve to provide deep layers of meaning.

For me though, as I have said, by implication in my title, You Imagine What You Desire,we must imagine a future, we must remain motivated, and this is the evolutionary impulse of being. I prefer poetics to didactics, and my quest is to bring people to art that has powerful resonance, or spirited encounters so they can renew their desiring and imagination.

In hard times it is sometimes easier to be didactic and even negative, but to me this is a capitulation to negativity, a kind of postmodern end. My quest is to open up potential again, and to not remain within the cycle of despair. We are in interesting and volatile times. In society we are seeking change and yet there is not evidence of improvements. There is neither zeitgeist, nor paradigm shift at the moment, so we must make what we can out of the multiplicity of histories and hope that they spark some awakening in people. This is the reason I use a number of elemental metaphors – as do the artists I have selected. These things live deep in human consciousness and activate us in a deep psychological and physical way.

AR: The narrative of this year’s edition is about celebrating artistic imagination and audience participation. Can you elaborate on this choice? What form will it take?

JE: For me the title bridges the gap between the art and its 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.

The biennale is an opening investigation, which takes us into a number of places and ideas married to spatial itineraries and contexts.

I wanted to somehow take account of the need to make art, and the need to come to art. To me imagination and desire conjoined establishes the connection between the possible (imagination) and the active pursuit of what is possible (desire). For me art is active philosophy. In the title exists the artists’ desiring, and the desiring and imagination of the audience also. I believe audiences come to art to be a part of this amorous procedure of active desiring put in motion by the artist. And art, like any suitor, tries to make itself alluring, compels the audience to come to it.

In some ways I wanted to acknowledge that excessive libido in art … not as a sexy thing (well sometimes) but as an excessive, sensational one. The biennale is an opening investigation, which takes us into a number of places and ideas married to spatial itineraries and contexts.

AR: The Biennale has a very wide range of venues all across the city, and on Cockatoo Island; how do you plan on engaging the visitor on such a scale?

JE: Sydney is kind of feral, wild and energetic. It’s a booster town. A bit rough around the edges and bolshie. For me it presents a robust, muscular character. Its trees are Jurassic and its birdlife arcane, primordial in ways. It’s older architecture is kind of bulky and just pushes its way into the landscape which is undulating yet determined to hold its own in sandstone … I find it to be a very sculptural landscape. People talk a lot about the harbour but it’s the rocks and rough cut stone that really impinge on me. I am from the flatter, more mannered lands of Melbourne! I find it a very atmospheric place – sultry.

Sydney is kind of feral, wild and energetic. It’s a booster town.

I’ve tried to pick up on this spirit of energy and feral-ness in works, particularly on the island, which is itself windswept, unruly and demanding as a site. There I have put many works of scale and interactivity … kinetic works … works with grunt … elsewhere I tap into various psyches, but in particular I have been led by aspects of the elemental – air, water, earth and fire have risen as aspects in what I have brought together and they represent for me philosophical, psychological and political narratives.

I have created a sense of spatial encounter. I have developed schemes based on the character of the particular venues and spaces I have available to me. I have been guided by the feeling of various spaces to curate some of these itineraries of encounter. With its rugged terrain and harbour location to which one travels over water, Cockatoo Island proposes to me the trope of the ‘island’ – an imaginary, anticipated place, as it has been in literature, philosophy, art and entertainment over centuries. The island is a destination, a fantasy location, a fun-park; a utopia perhaps, and with it, a dystopia: a relic – a land of strangeness.

I have been guided by the feeling of various spaces to curate some of these itineraries of encounter.

Out on the island I have commissioned and placed a variety of projects that play up these ideas: a fun-ride, ruins, a waterfall, village, a gizmo factory, and many other phantasmic sounds and spaces. Registering some of the layered history of Cockatoo Island – its facility as a power generator and shipbuilding yard, and sometime place of human incarcerations – I have also sought to create energy and kinetic movement through sculptural devices and a certain feral atmosphere. To me the island is a wild, desiring place where a happy anarchy can take hold to generate new histories.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, an air/water venue as I feel it, I situate the more liminal, libidinous, liqueous items, many of which use the psychological language and semiotics of surrealism, or the energetic movements of colour abstractions. Sometimes both conjoined. This is a space that moves from darkness to light, from movement to stillness. It holds invention in its taxonomies and amorousness in its metaphors.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for me an earth/fire space, a sense of collectivism and societal rupture, and a hoped-for encounter with change, is explored from the alchemical golden, tabula rasa images of protest, to Promethean fire plays, storytelling, emerging cultures and intimate human encounters. It is a place for the joyous celebration of the human as innocent, naked and stripped back, and reimagined through collective endeavours. Forgiveness becomes a powerful tool of self-determination for a future positive position.

Throughout the city centre and in various outdoor sites around Sydney, occasional apparitions appear to create moments of estrangement from normal operations.

At Carriageworks – previously used as a film studio, and incorporating the worlds of theatre and performance – artists investigate the languages of cinema and stage to find in them dream worlds and dream works that link to the psyche. Frozen moments, baroque folds, the bubble of the Hollywood musical and scenographies of the sublime are all encountered here.

The works at Artspace take joy in flights of fancy and allow freedom to find its way through the agency of migratory birds and chance unions, as well as strange encounters with time and ideological travel. Throughout the city centre and in various outdoor sites around Sydney, occasional apparitions appear to create moments of estrangement from normal operations. And at Pier 2/3 during closing weekend we come to THE END, an orchestral finale of epic proportions in honour of a humble, tiny creature, a metaphor for the self.

During the Biennale, illuminated words will light the entry points of a number of venues, shining out through the day and into the night: YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE – YOU WILL WHAT YOU IMAGINE – YOU CREATE WHAT YOU WILL. Borrowed from their author, George Bernard Shaw, and now set free in a commission by Nathan Coley as a set of floating evocations, they invite artists and audiences alike to activate their own desires.

AR: You are showing a lot of Scandinavian artists, like the Danish duo Randi & Katrine or Henrik Håkansson. Is it a conscious choice? Do you feel they are more connected to this idea of participative practice?

JE: When you make a Biennale you are very aware of the editions that have gone before you and you attempt to evolve beyond what has immediately preceded you. In the past few biennales in Sydney we have seen a strong focus on indigenous and collective cultures, a tilt towards Asian work, and a historical account of revolutionary tactics. I was interested to travel to some of the newly emerging countries in Eastern Europe and understand what new freedoms have created in these cultures that are re-finding and redefining themselves, sometimes with a tentative optimism, often with trepidation for those things that come with self-determinism or the open market. I went in search of human stories and for metaphors that still hold sway in our collective psyche.

I went in search of human stories and for metaphors that still hold sway in our collective psyche.

Being a half Dane I am also drawn to the Scandinavian mindset and I enjoy the myths, and modernity of those places which remain on the edge of the forest, on the edge of the arcane. There is for me a very particular humanity that comes from the Scandinavian artists … a sense of collectivity and a kind of social utopianism inherent in that collectivity that I find quite compelling.

AR: Performance will hold an important place in the biennale’s programme, with works like Choreography for the Running Male by Lithuanian artist Eglė Budvytytė taking over the streets of Sydney. Why did you decide to give it such a strong presence?

JE: Art performance and spirited urban situationism, seems to me to be very much a part of art reaching to a people beyond its own cloister … there has been a huge rise (again) in the performative gesture over the past few year … I feel for the corporate battery hens and cocks … I wanted to bring art to them so even in their 24/7 life they may encounter the unusual and uncanny in their midst …I hope they come out to the island and other venues too … but I’m realistic … the stock exchange never sleeps and they are on a treadmill of enterprise.

The 19th Sydney Biennale 2014: You Imagine What You Desire will take place 21 March – 9 June 2014.