Controversy has reared its head at the upcoming Sydney Biennale, and not in a good way. The 19th Biennale, which runs from 21 March to 9 June, is one the most significant visual arts event in the country. But the focus has shifted to the fact that Transfield – it’s “founding partner” since 1973 – operates a giant business that includes running asylum seeker detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island. There have been calls for artists to boycott the event. Biennale director Juliana Engberg addresses these artists’ concerns below and argues it’s better for the event to provide a place for discussion of these issues rather than to withdraw in protest.
This is Engberg’s first time at the helm of the Sydney Biennale, which is surprising because she had held so many taste-making roles in her long career. These include her long running and ongoing artistic directorship of the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, running the Melbourne Festival visual arts program from 2000 to 2006, advising on Australia’s choice of representative at the the Venice Biennial in 2007, and curating the visual arts program at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009.
Like most biennales, her Sydney event has a make whatever you want of it theme attached to it. Engberg’s is “You Imagine What You Desire” which has given her the opportunity to refer to the sound bite friendly phrase “artistic libido” in most of her interviews, including this one.
Her Biennale includes many of the artists she has shown at ACCA over the years as well as some surprises.
Although the buzz around the 2014 event hasn’t been as loud as in previous years (and the Transfield issue hasn’t helped any), Engberg is not to be underestimated. Her 1999 Melbourne Biennale called “Signs of Life” was one of the most exciting contemporary arts events staged in Australia.
But a lot has changed since then. Art fairs and biennales are as common as they are competitive with each other around the world as they shout for attention. At the same time, and because of this, the wider public has become more curious about contemporary art as it shirks off its image of academic obscurity for accessibility – and even fun. As Engberg explains below even she – one of the country’s most powerful arts mavens – is not afraid of art as entertainment so long as it’s more than “art bling”.
Politics and art are always intertwined. What do you think of the growing disquiet among commentators and artists about Transfield’s sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney?
I think the off shore detention of asylum seekers is one of our most pressing social issues at this moment, globally, and I completely understand the concerns that people are raising.
Are their concerns and possible boycotts justified?
Their concern for people in off shore detention centres is, in my view, completely justified. I feel that the call for a boycott is placing very great pressure on artists and the Biennale and is perhaps the wrong target if you want to change the policy – sadly the government is probably pretty distant from the Biennale. I have now heard from a large number of artists, none of whom wish to disrupt their involvement in the event … I will continue to support those concerned artists and all the Biennale artists … my task at hand is to install the exhibition and allow the public to engage with a tremendous Biennale. I would hope we can provide a platform for discussion rather than see a call to limit the artist’s participation.
Is a controversy around an arts event ever beneficial to it?
Well I think it sends jitters through the sponsorship system and this can have very detrimental effects for the cash strapped culture sector – I remember very well the sponsor fall out over the so called “Bill Henson affair” … many scuttled off to music. I’m not sure I think it’s ever beneficial, to be honest, and often it is bewildering to those outside the art system. People start to go tangential and off topic pretty quickly. But controversies are part of a robust democracy. A society needs them to test their position from time to time.
Is the Biennale of Sydney for those already interested in contemporary art or are you hoping to attract the non-initiated? If so, how?
The Biennale has grown a huge audience over the past 40 years … now in the 100s of thousands and it really does seem to spread well beyond the cognoscenti of the contemporary art world. I hope to really attract a people to the event by producing something vivid, hyper visual and full of energy. The Biennale is very fortunate to have at its disposal a number of exciting venues, and especially the island where you can have a bit of fun, and where a lot of people hope to find projects that they can immerse themselves in … the scale is tremendous and I think people love the awe of that.
Not that long ago contemporary art was regarded by some if not many as either “difficult” or prompting “my three year old could do” responses. Have there been any key factors in the past 10 to 20 years that have helped shift those perceptions?
I think the emergence of works that have some connection again to pictorialism, human narratives, and have added sensation to the art experience have really opened up the territory – and the public has responded very well. There are still people who will say “I don’t get it” and that’s okay, but more recently I think we’ve been better (the profession) at helping the public realise that there is not necessarily one way, one right way to encounter a work and that if they trust the process a little more they may grow to get more from it … a lot of the work we do with kids, with education and public programs has added to this exchange of trust.
Has the increase in biennales and fairs as well as public galleries, led this change or have they responded to wider societal changes such as increased technology, education, wealth and globalisation?
Yes, all of that.
Once it might have been verboten to describe art as mere “entertainment” but now curators and gallery directors around the world including yourself – seem relaxed about this notion. Is contemporary trivialising, if not infantilising art?
I do not necessarily equate the spectacular with the dumb. Often this is a very sophisticated tactic to lure the audience to an idea. The sublime is also an ever constant aesthetic that pulls people towards it … but you know, I am not always a fan of the big for big sake or the empty spectacle … it has to have meaning for me to be super engaged with it otherwise it’s just art bling.
The success of the Turner Prize in the UK seems to have contributed to the profile of contemporary art around the world. Does that mean artists who get attention are those who strive for sensationalism?
No, and having seen about every Turner prize for the past 18 years or so I would say not all are sensational at all … not by a long stretch.
Has the popular success of MONA surprised you?
Not at all, and we were very involved in discussions with David, Nicole and Mark at early stages of planning … its fabulous. I’m so happy for Hobart! The architecture has a lot to do with the experience … It’s just a wonderful gift really … onya David!
Has its success affected the way other gallerists and curators approach showing art?
No I don’t think so … there has always been an interest in the cabinet of curiosities and wunderkammer … and of course the artist, Joseph Kosuth did a lot of this type of play of works first … and many followed.
Your Melbourne Biennale in 1999 was one of the most exciting contemporary arts events seen in Australia. Why was that?
It had a good vibe and was the first glimpse of a mega arts project managed Melbourne style … bit dyi, bit lane, bit urban and … well I think it was a pretty decent curatorial gathering too; memorable works, great building, nice to go up all the floors … it just felt super and people still stop me in the street and say: “Hey, never had the chance to tell you, but LOVED Signs of Life.”
How has public’s perception of art changed since then and does that make your job running the BOS more or less difficult?
Enormously. People now come to contemporary art in droves and contemporary art has found a way of communicating with the general public which they find exciting and engaging. For the Biennale this is there for building upon which I what I hope I’ve done. It’s looking very energetic so far as we are installing on the island. Also contemporary art uses the tactic of the spectacle pretty well; it lures people to it with a kind curious libido of dazzle, then hopefully it engages people with its deeper aesthetic and ideas.
Has the success of the NGV’s Melbourne Now been a good or bad thing for ACCA? Has it shone a light on our artists which is good for ACCA or has it made ACCA less relevant to those interested in contemporary art?
We were super happy to see so many ACCA alumni artists included in Melbourne Now, proving that ACCA really is an important part of the local career trajectory for artists. Contemporary art is a hungry beast, it always wants more of itself. On your other question, we think it caused a bit of art fatigue, but that might have been the weather. Anecdotally, some other spaces have felt a pinch at the turnstile. I guess many people will choose one cultural event to do and then go to Seaworld. We had a pretty normal season given the heatwave.
There is boom in the contemporary art market around the world. Why not here?
Smaller market, smaller wealth.
Why is Australia not a “hot spot” for contemporary art, the way, say Brazil, is perceived around the world?
Dare I say it’s a hang over from the search for the exotic other … and money flows there.
Do foreign curators and collectors ‘get’ Australian art?
Not always, but increasingly they have more opportunities to engage with the art and artists of Australia and things are shifting a little. There is a huge number of international curators and press travelling to the Biennale. It’s great exposure for our artists, and we have made sure they will see more than just the Biennale.
As more art is consumed online what are the challenges for public arts spaces such as ACCA and events such as BOC?
Funny really, it seems to be breeding a desire for actual engagement and tangible viewing, you can really only consume pixels online. For the body mind experience there’s nothing like the real thing. It’s another tool for communicating and it’s great really!