A Vision For The Visual: Auckland Art Gallery’s Senior Curator Takes Us Through Her Latest Exhibition
All That Is Solid Melts is currently closed, but will reopen once Auckland comes out of lockdown.
Juliana Engberg is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed artistic director, curator, cultural and event producer, and writer. She has a reputation for creating groundbreaking, compelling and engaging multi-form festivals, visual arts projects, commissions, events and public engagement programmes, and she is currently engaged as Senior Curator Global Contemporary at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Before commencing this role, she was Programme Director of the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017 and was also recently the Curator for the Australian presentation at the Biennale di Venezia 2019: Angelica Mesiti: ASSEMBLY. Juliana has built a career out of an authentic engagement and approach with artists, organisations, governments and corporations. Her work is valued for its understanding of site, context, history and the legacies that are produced from bringing these opportunities into play with art and events that captivate and inspire a public.
We spoke to Juliana about the role of art in a world of Covid-19, her curatorial process and her current exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, All That Was Solid Melts.
How would you describe your curatorial process?
People seem to understand the idea of being a ‘curator’ as generic. But of course, it is very varied as an approach and process and it depends on the type of project you are making. If I am working with an artist on, say, a commission, then the process is very much a conversation and consultation one to one. I like to hope I provide a sounding board for ideas, offer advice of a practical nature – about the space, context and audience’s experience for instance – and I liaise between the various producing teams who will inevitably assist the artist’s vision into being.
If I’m creating an exhibition, it will depend greatly on the kind of exhibition it is – you will work very differently to put together a monographic survey, as compared to a say a Biennale, theme organised exhibition or, as is the case with my current work at Auckland Art Gallery – All That Was Solid Melts and aspects of Romancing the Collection which are curatorially driven to create spaces of play, cross pollination and produce responses and conversations. In both instances, I have used my approach of the transhistorical to produce high visual impacts and aesthetic synergies.
How important is art in the world today, for the people? How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted this relationship?
One of the clear things that emerged out of our time in lockdowns was the desire for people to feel creative…to summon their generative instincts. By being creative, people felt they were attaching to something positive in their existence. Not just time filling, but mindfully seeking to extract from the moment of uncertainty and sudden rupture a thing they could claim and grow from. So the first thing to say is that art, or creativity if you prefer, is in all of us in a variety of ways and it helps us find meaning in our life.
But in a bigger sense, ‘art’ has over the past 40 years become more meaningful, more alluring for audiences. Across the world, galleries have never been busier. This has something to do with the way art has intuitively moved into a space carved out by the rise of the internet and the virtual experience. The more reliant we have become on the online life, the greater is our craving for an actual, tactile and collective experience.
Art, especially contemporary art that has expanded its activity to encompass installation, performance, multi-dimensional behaviours, is providing an experiential moment for audiences to collect together – to tap into a collective consciousness if you like. Art is a great metaphoric companion on our journey through the forest of experience, it helps greatly, providing signposts for the things we feel from time to time.
How would you describe the exhibition, All That Was Solid Melts? What themes are highlighted in the exhibition?
All That Was Solid Melts is a journey just like that. It provides companionship to an audience reemerging from the COVID lockdowns – apprehensive, anxious, fearful, unsettled – and takes them on a journey in which they learn from the metaphors artists have used over centuries to discover solace, resilience, and joy, and to witness the perpetual collapse and rise of things as humanity scrambles though the cultural rubble of time.
It’s a curatorial narrative that winds ever back on itself while pushing forward, like the hardy nature that presses through ruinous cracks, to grow and regrow despite set backs, calamities and catastrophes and social upheavals.
I hope it’s an optimistic exhibition, but with a reasonable gravity and elegance to help soothe the path of discovery.
What aspects did you consider when curating All That Was Solid Melts?
I wanted to bring to light emotion, aesthetics, and interweave these things through a mixture of periods and materials which would help to expose some of the wonders of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s collection brought together with contemporary works selected from some of the great artists currently working.
I wanted the exhibition to have an international flavour while being legible and imbedded here, so it was important to combine the international with the local and, in particular, make clear reference to the recent events of earthquakes and volcanic activity New Zealand has also experience in the past few years. It’s been a pretty volatile time since I arrived here!
I also wanted the audience to move through different feelings – from dark to light back to dark again, but with a sense of having travelled to mysterious places, to weirdness, to out of space and out of time.
And I wanted to make information accessible. So, I produced a newspaper with much commentary, and it’s been a great pleasure to see people reading through the paper up in the cafe and then see them going back into the exhibition to relook and rethink.
How did it feel to be able to exhibit leading contemporary artists in All That Was Solid Melts, in a world with many galleries and museums still closed?
We are, thanks to the collective will and strong leadership here in New Zealand, in the amazing position of being free and able to get on with life. Not so my colleagues and many artists overseas who are still in lockdowns, working through the daily struggle of emerging from crippling stasis.
So it was a privilege to be working and providing opportunities for artists to show their works. Many have found it very difficult, even some of the most prolific and productive. They too have taken solace from the title of the show, All That Was Solid Melts, knowing that things regenerate from transformation and the alchemical change that art provides.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Get some rest.
Auckland Art Gallery’s All That Was Solid Melts is showing from now until 10th October.
Top image: All That Was Solid Melts, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021