by Neometro

Curating Melbourne Now & Sydney Biennale: Juliana Engberg

Arts & Events - by Sophie Davies

Two of Australia’s most significant art events, Melbourne Now and the 19th Biennale of Sydney, are the largest contemporary art offerings each city will stage for years to come. Open Journal lined up Juliana Engberg, Artistic Director of the Sydney Biennale, and Max Delany, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, to pose a set of corresponding questions to get insights into programming two city-defining cultural events.

In this post, we speak to Juliana Engberg. For Max Delany, click here.

How does the show express the spirit of Sydney?

Sydney is kind of feral, wild and energetic. The town’s 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. Its older architecture is bulky and just pushes its way into the landscape, which is undulating yet determined to hold its own in sandstone – 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.

I’ve tried to pick up on this spirit of feral energy, particularly on Cockatoo Island, which is itself wind-swept, 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 – which for me represent philosophical, psychological and political narratives.

What values and qualities did you look for when selecting and commissioning work?

For me to be interested in an artwork I have to be able to find the psychological, perceptual and anthropological entwined. The work needs to know its own artistic history, to indicate something of the human history that makes it important at this moment and to deliver that in a compelling way, albeit if that is to be absent or invisible. It needs an intensity of spirit. I want to feel confident in its technical aspect, even if that is intentionally shabby or de-skilled.

Very rarely do you find it, but it is wonderful if you can see a rupture, a shift that disturbs the easy flow of ideas without breaking it – evolving it I suppose. That doesn’t happen often as most things work within a trajectory, so you hope to find the ones that have combined the other three elements successfully. I look for the metaphors of the 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 try to avoid the didactic.

Which new or emerging artists/designers are you excited about presenting? And any big-name coups?

I have quite a few younger artists that I am very pleased to introduce into a big international like the Biennale, including Emily Wardill, Corin Sworn, Henry Coombes, Maxime Rossi, Henna-Riikka Halonen, Emily Roysdon, Sara van der Heide, Augustin Rebetez, Aurélien Froment and Laurent Montaron. Sydney offers great opportunities for more emerging international people, to mix it up a bit, and that’s what I have tried to do.

For sure, though, I also have many iconic artists such as Pipilotti Rist, Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie and Roni Horn. I’m excited to present all the projects, as each holds great interest for me. As for designers, the Biennale is not cross-pollinating in that direction, but I have been super-pleased to work with Marita Leuver and Leuver Design on the show’s identity, catalogue and other collateral. Marita just gets my aesthetic. I asked her for a sensuous, liqueous, seductive, inter-seasonal vibe, and she got it.

John Stezaker, Mask CXLIX 2010


What reactions do you hope to evoke from viewers? 

Laughter, tears, joy, terror, exhaustion, contemplation, happiness, sadness, synaptic shifts… you name it, I want it!

What challenges have you faced in curating a show of this scale?

The general things – money, time and lack of perfect spaces sometimes for what you want to achieve. Each venue has its challenges, and Cockatoo Island is especially complex as we have to ship everything in by barge so it’s a massive logistical undertaking. Fortunately, I have a fabulous, experienced team so it’s not too dramatic, although we will be going to the wire. The other venues have great teams with whom we work and it has been a real pleasure problem-solving together. This has been a big transition year with the shift of dates and effectively we have pulled this together in just 13 months, so I’d say the major challenge was time.

What are you looking forward to seeing at Melbourne Now?

Anastasia Klose’s One-stop knock-off shop, selling playful artist-edition merchandise. I want the Anna Schwartz T-shirt, but I think it may have sold out.

19th Biennale of Sydney
21 March – 9 June 2014
Various sites, including Artspace, Cockatoo Island, Carriageworks, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales


By Sophie Davies

Images at top:
1) Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács, Mastering Bambi 2010
2) Eva Koch, I Am the River 2012
3) Yael Bartana, Inferno 2013
4) Juliana Engberg


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