Visual Arts

Juliana Engberg: why spectacular need not be dumb

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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!
[box]Featured image: Sasha Huber, Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz. Photograph by Calé[/box]

32 responses to “Juliana Engberg: why spectacular need not be dumb

  1. Speaking as an Australian artist of some repute, I think it is very unfortunate that Juliana Engberg continues to support the Sydney Biennale, knowing that behind it lies appalling human misery and grave human rights violation. So, she wants to present something “vivid, hyper visual and full of energy” – a far cry from the drab, horrific enclosures in the concentration camps off shore. She says that the Biennale has many venues, including “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” – a far cry from the little island where people are penned in like animals in disgusting conditions. This blase attitude to human torment and suffering is actually sickening. I’m not sure how many of the participating artists have been made aware of the human degradation that accompanies their involvement. I would hope that Engberg and her administration would surely have informed them of the situation. If not, even more calumny is on her head. By not insisting on another sponsor Engberg is tacitly approving the fact that there are men, women and children incarcerated behind razor wire on a mosquito-infested island. This is an appalling situation in which money seems once again to have trumped human dignity. Shame.

    1. Yes her responses were typically breezy as you expect from a recipient of tainted cash.
      “Oh let’s use this occasion to have a debate” I assume means videos and installations evoking incarceration, FP narratives on video and a conference to discuss tainted love and the politics of cruelty will all be featured and heavily promoted by the Biennale. Or perhaps we’ll use city scale artertainment as another opportunity to pleasantly dissolve mundane issues around moral provenance.

    2. For me the status Indigenous peoples and our treatment of children and destruction of families who are escaping the unimaginable is a core ethic. The remote island policy is also destroying the political stability and viability of any nation it touches. We will be picking up the pieces for a long time.
      However once you start childish simplistic witch hunts like that of Transfield you begin to realise that everyone is stained. We could all choose our own ruler to “out” some sector. However the Australian Federal Government is a key sponsor and they are the actual designer and implementer of this destructive policy.
      (This implementation of this whole argument reminds me of the self-destructive hospital riot scene in Werckmeister Harmonies).
      Your argument must surely be with the Australian people, without us giving the Federal Government a democratic mandate both major parties would not be falling over each other to come up with the meanest ways of dehumanising non Australians. “In the end, those who demean others only disrespect themselves.” We are indeed our own enemy. Maybe art is a good place to start our self-examination.
      I have seen at various Sydney Biennale’s art works that powerfully and uncomfortably challenge inequality vs reality such as Mark Boulos’s work in 2008. However with the loss of engaged sponsorships for the BOS its viability may make it less significant and it may soon wither away in the wind.

  2. Of course the artists should boycott the Biennale, grow some balls people!! I have begun my life as a Internet Troll as my protest against an art world so corrupt that I can no longer look at myself in the mirror. I mean it. Please other artists stop believing the hegemony of the likes of Ellwood, Radford, Engberg, McGregor and Kaldor and all the others. I assure you one thing: when those people are out of power then no one will mention them. Look at tired old Tony Bond, so powerful for so long and now where? Please just try and stand back and ask yourself one question: Does morality in art mean anything to you or are you just a willing to let the likes of Juliana Engberg and the whole bus load of ‘professional’ technocrats do what they like with the same artists yet again from the same galleries WITH public money?!!! Please just ask yourself.

  3. I would have liked Raymond Gill to ask some harder, more direct questions of Enberg e.g. would you still be prepared to curate the biennial if members of your own family were currently in detention? Can you outline your own position on the existence of detention centers? The questions and responses are insipid. If Juliana Enberg wants debate, then let’s have it.

  4. It’s good to see that this issue is producing open dialogue, rather than a rush to the barricades. And it’s a credit to Engberg that she is answering questions on this. The nub of the issue seems to be how art engages with the political. Should art be a space of ambiguity freed from the ideological fixtures of political causes?
    But even from this liberal perspective, art risks being valued as a form of cultural distinction, designed to exclude those whose active engagement in the world requires a solid ethical framework.
    In setting on an apolitical curatorial theme, the biennale is at risk of being re-framed by someone else’s, in this case that of refugee advocates. It’s up to Engberg now to articulate the ‘politics of being apolitical’, to re-gain the space that others have ambushed.

    1. I hardly think one could say that Engberg is “answering questions on this”. Her glib response, in which she attempts to defend the indefensible, did not address the issue in any constructive way. Her continuing support of this inhumanity will overshadow any positive contributions she has made to art in this country.

    2. I don’t see Enberg answering any questions, but she does talk about setting up a ‘platform for discussion’ – perhaps a public talk and forum with reps from Transfield, herself, artists, and reps from refugee advocacy? If they want discussion they should make room for discussion, otherwise it is sadly just lip service. The time for blithely looking the other way is over, the recent violence and death at Manus shows just how real and pertinent this is – its not just an ‘uncomfortable truth’. As Australians, and artists, and human beings.

      1. Well, I see there are two ways in which someone in Engberg’s position might go:
        A. Rally the art troops to defend the Biennale against the noisy rabble at the gates.
        B. Meet half-way and explain why it is important to keep open a space for free creative expression, even if it uses tainted money to do so.
        So far, she seems to be holding her position A.
        The next stage would be to invite her to a public discussion so she can try out B. Is anyone making that invitation?

        1. I’m interested in Kevin Murray’s phrase ‘politics of being apolitical’ and his fear of “barricades” and being “ambushed”. Kevin – are you saying that it becomes political only when people protest but that when a company uses its financial clout to buy a respectable face to cover for its abhorrent practices that that remains safely “apolitical”?
          Some might argue that such sponsorship deals are the real ambushing. Is not refusal to expose the practices of companies like this, and preparedness to ignore them for the sake of some other supposed benefit the most political position of all?

  5. In an industry controlled by arts professionals (not artists), we can naturally expect that some artists will comply no matter what the situation (the shift to ‘entertainment and fun’ mentioned in the article above, is indicative of this). Why artists today choose to be pawns in this curatorial game, is indeed baffling, but it is probably connected the notion of art as ‘career’.
    Regardless, many have lost their moral compass (if indeed they ever had one) and Engberg is not alone in choosing professional development over any sense of social justice or obligation.

  6. Isn’t the economic a category that is missing from this piece? Transfield attempt to buy cultural status by sponsoring the Biennale, and the Biennale artists object to their work being mobilised to improve Transfield’s standing in the community. Also, the wider public has not just ‘become curious about contemporary art as it shirks off its image of academic obscurity’. Rather, art is marketed to the people by cultural institutions who are backed by the financial sector and who have a vested interest in what and how things are said.

    1. I think these kinds of sponsorships are less to do with buying social licence for their companies operations in potentially (and now very real) controversial environments and more to do with the directors of these companies (who approve the sponsorships) maintaing their personal status within the elite social circles they move in. Never a harsh word from some full of herself gallery director behind your back if you are greasing his palm. You might want to apply for another directorship some place else that is even more high profile in the future and good personal PR in the upper reaches of our business and institutional sectors is what Biennale sponsorships bring. I’m not suggesting that’s the only reason powerful and wealthy people support the arts through their corporations for a minute but it’s a very real component.

  7. Engberg is hardly holding her position. She hasn’t articulated a position. She’s tried to wash her hands of the whole thing by saying that that her job is to install the show. People in the art community have legitimate concerns about Transfield’s involvement. The onus is on her and others involved with the biennale to attempt to address these concerns. This isn’t an issue that will simply blow over.

  8. i am so sick of apologists for corrupt subsidy saying “we’re providing a forum for discussion of the issue”. AS IF, had the Transfield sponsorship NOT been exposed publicly, Engberg would have said ANYTHING about asylum seekers. the point is, boycott is the ONLY effective method of change. a tiny little arts elite sitting around discussing the pros and cons of Transfield sponsorship will achieve NOTHING. a boycott which gets mainstream media coverage, however, has some hope of informing people. imagine if artists and sportspeople said “oh, i won’t boycott sth africa because if i go there we can all sit around and talk about the issue” (exactly the position some craven apologists for Israeli apartheid currently take about BDS – yeah, guys, you taking the cash to play in Tel Aviv is sure turning things around over there!). if artists followed Engberg’s line, we’d still have aparthied. boycott the bloody event. until people have the courage to take direct action, NOTHING will change (and for god’s sake, isn’t out current government living proof of that?).

    1. @ Nick Shimmin: I assure you that there are a great many artists who will boycott this Biennale. I would really like to know whether participating artists from overseas have been fully informed of the background. I have already contacted some of them, via their galleries, to make sure that they understand the gravity of this issue. I will continue to do this over the coming weeks.

  9. While you are at it, let me suggest you boycott the National and regional galleries, the contemporary art museums and all other Biennales and Art Festivals that in anyway receive money from the Australian Government. After all they are the ones who set the policies, employ companies such as Transfield and oversee the running of the offshore detention centres. Why beat about the bush with the employees, surely it is far more direct to go straight to the employer. What is happening is immensely sad, but I don’t get this focus on Transfield, they are but a cog in a wheel driven by the government.

    1. +1
      Ethical in whose eyes? It’s an Australian govt policy, and a policy supported by the majority of Australians.
      I realise it is deeply unpopular in some sections (especially the arts) but why just Transfield money? Should we look at the art collections of all the ‘bad’ companies?
      Also most people don’t seem to understand opportunity cost. Only ‘ethical’ sponsorship = less sponsorship. That new sponsor would have supported something else but now won’t. Those $$s are lost forever to the arts community.

    2. Targeting corporations involved in immoral practice prescribed by governments is a long standing strategy to build community pressure for favourable changes to the system. Or perhaps you have better suggestions for action?
      I feel a good deal more sympathy for participating artists than I do for Transfield who knowingly operate in a morally compromised space as do arms manufacturers, human slave traders, aboitoires etc etc

  10. The main theme that runs through the Daily Review interviews with Nick Mitzevich, Tony Ellwood and Juliana Engberg is one of audience access and numbers. Above Ellwood is savvy enough to attempt to divert such lazy PR to more classical areas of the work of Museums but we must remain skeptical of Ellwood as he has so overlooked the ‘bums on seats’ rhetoric that any crafty U turns seem hollow. Of course all these people love art and it’s meaning and are thinking human beings. It’s just that of late the one rationale of ‘diverse audiences’..blah blah blah… does truly seem like a cover for an intellectual lack. In my opinion the recent questioning of Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale because Transfield makes profit from providing refugee detention centre infrastructure to the Federal Government is a turning point in the the public’s perception that somehow ART is ‘above’ normal politics, the “unsecular” as Art & Language term it, meaning art as a quasi religion.
    There is no doubt that there have been momentous changes in what we loosely term Contemporary Art. Indeed Jonathan Watkins recently questioned whether art as we knew it is still possible. I believe we are in a post- contemporary art situation and that the big Government run institutions in Australia such as NGV are at the end of an epoch NOT at it’s beginning. It is well known that contemporary art both mimics international capital AND Australian governmental ‘please everyone but actually please no one and repress all’ blanket tolerance (see either Adorno or Boris Groys’s essay Equal Aesthetic Rights here). For a while we all thought the rise of the internet, Web 2, social media, 3D modelling, the move from the consumer to the producer through comments pages such as this and/ or easy access to sophisticated programs that made a photographer, publisher, film maker (artist) out of anyone was the revolutionary advances of our culture. Now however we are seeing a even more revolutionary development, the sharp decline in economic power of the Western Middle Class. Since Venice in the fourteenth century spread Arabian capitalism to the West we have seen the middle classes as the final driver of change (after the original vanguards) AND as the supposed monolith for the artistic avant gardes to LEVER against. Now we find audiences and markets growing for the very rich and the poor. This is across all areas of international finance and society. The logical equivalent in local art is the popularity of Melbourne Now which was free and air conditioned. This inviting art world microcosm was funded by Government and/ or private and corporate sponsorship and we know that to make the highest profit one needs to sell the cheapest to the most number of consumers. So an obvious correlation can be drawn to not only how the NGV gets it’s big audience figures BUT also how the insidious nature of contemporary art is actually a manipulation of the public and not in any way transparent. So a disconnect exists in contemporary art that is most probably unsustainable as the middle classes get mire and more disenfranchised. Of course the big cultural institutions are just like government and capital and are well able to morph anyway they need to survive and ‘prosper’.
    However the question should be why do we need art to prosper? Is art so important that it can sit above the world and just reflect? Do the asylum seekers matter or do the images of the dispossessed matter more. Are we more more attuned to the cry in the poem than the cry in the street. Classical questions yes but with the avalanche of banality served up to us by the likes of Ellwood, Mitzevich and Engberg not mention their lap dog artists should cause us to reflect.

    1. Well said, Scott. At this week’s meeting in Melbourne to discuss boycotting options I was very saddened to hear that the artists who were on the panel were going ahead with showing their works in the exhibition. They said that one of the options that they were considering was to “place printed disclaimers next to our works”. I asked whether there was any moment when they might have considered simply withdrawing completely from the show – which is exactly what I would have done – because, at the end of the day, this is JUST an art exhibition compared to real human lives? They became defensive: one of them claimed huffily that it would be ‘too hard’ to organise to take her work back. This was bad enough, but when they then all spoke of their support for ‘poor Juliana’, and about how hard this business was her, it just became nauseating. When I several times suggested that Engberg could bring an enormous amount of international attention to the issue by resigning the position and stating why she had resigned, the artists looked blank and the subject was changed. One of the artists claimed that he was going to give his Biennale appearance fee to a refugee advocate group, as if this could ever remove the taint of his participation. These artists are indeed revealed as Engberg’s lapdogs. It is instructive to see how they now attempt to justify putting their own careers ahead of human desperation. The only moral and ethical position is for artists’ total withdrawal. Let’s hope that their consciences are eased when they stick their pieces of paper next to their exhibits saying that people are in abject misery – but they went ahead anyway.

  11. I’m not sure you could call a corporation of multinational proportions a “cog”, I’m pretty certain that, while it seems like a government budget/power is large, it is peanuts compared to the pies Transfield has it’s fingers in, and is government is no competition for certain sized businesses (I’m thinking of the Murdoch press, big mining among other things). Both the government (by implication us taxpayers) and Transfield are complicit in non-transparent processes like those of incarcerating asylum seekers offshore. Recognising the status and moral value art has (which might trump or at least offset money) is a key step for artists to consider their options with regard to who they ethically and publically support.

  12. …”…and what purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort … and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world…”…

  13. Well well well
    If you have a look at the bottom of the biennale you see that its funded by the government. Transfield is a construction company that builds things…the government is the one that make the policy.
    If Juliana really things that the detention centers a wrong, which they may well be, then stop accepting funds from the Government until they are gone. She should say to the artist that the protests should continue as in her ‘‘I had to speak with a lot of people to help them actually even come to that decision. It was very difficult for them to do it.’’
    So stop all government funding also to the acca
    Read more:

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