Be it Auckland's motorways or Berlin's underground train network (the U-Bahn), artist and spatial designer Biljana Popovic sees promises and possibilities.

"A motorway was originally all about freedom, offering us the opportunity to live somewhere different from where we worked because we could drive between the two," says Popovic, who's long been interested in the relationship between art, architecture and politics.

"When I think about some of the historic U-Bahn stations, I get curious about the stories behind them, their design and building. What were the hopes for it?"

The 27-year-old Elam School of Fine Arts graduate isn't talking solely about the practical purposes of motorways or stations on a transport network; she's musing on their "poetic potential" and how they might work as a "living pulse" where machines, other people and surrounding buildings work together to affect each of us in different ways.


Now Popovic has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore that poetic potential and make art in response to it. She is the 2018/19 recipient of one of the most generous Creative New Zealand visual arts awards.

She leaves tomorrow to take up the Berlin Visual Arts Residency, which will see her working at the international cultural centre Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. It offers one of the largest residency programmes in Europe for artists and is dedicated to the advancement of contemporary visual arts.

The residency also includes an apartment in the heart of Berlin, a stipend of $40,000 to be used for travel, living and material costs and support for an exhibition. Popovic will give public talks, meet with Berlin-based artists, curators, writers and gallerists and attend arts events, including art fairs in Europe such as the Venice Biennale Arte 2019 and Art Basel.

Artist Biljana Popovic's Andromeda 2017 at Shout, Whisper, Wail! The 2017 Chartwell Show, Auckland Art Gallery.
Artist Biljana Popovic's Andromeda 2017 at Shout, Whisper, Wail! The 2017 Chartwell Show, Auckland Art Gallery.

CNZ says the residency is also a way to raise awareness of New Zealand's visual arts in Berlin; previous recipients include Oscar Enberg, Greg Semu, Alicia Frankovich, Sara Hughes and Michael Stevenson. Popovic's most recent exhibitions include Shout Whisper Wail! The 2017 Chartwell Show at Auckland Art Gallery and The Shadow of the Dome of Pleasure at Artspace.

She had to apply for the residency and submit plans for new work specific to Berlin.

"The thing that fascinated me most about Berlin was already Berlin specific: the U-Bahn," she says. "It's the kind of space we really don't have in Auckland. Arriving there, with a fresh set of eyes, I was like, 'what is this?'

"I'd seen the London underground but I think the U-Bahn is really specific; the stations tend to be a lot larger and a lot more colourful plus there are some really specific designs. You think, 'what's the story about why the station looks like this?' That's the first thing that caught my attention but the other thing is that that there are no barriers to get in."

Popovic says that leads to many more people, the homeless and buskers among them, congregating there and creating something that feels like indoor public space. As well as functioning as a transport centre, the site has long hosted art objects, monuments and performances. This complex relationship evokes many questions for me about the role of art today."

She's interested in finding out more about the U-Bahn as a space for making, displaying and thinking about art and how that might have changed during time. At one station, a sign on the wall indicated it had been built 100 years ago.

"I was thinking about what that station meant then and now."

While she's considering building some sort of autonomous machine, that could live and move between U-Bahn stations and spaces, or kenetic sculptures, Popovic says her favoured approach is to arrive and launch into research, sketching out ideas.

•Two NZ artists living in Germany, Oscar Enberg and Zac Langdon-Pole, were this month selected as two of the three winners (along with Austria's Anna-Sophie Berger) of the prestigious German arts prize ARS VIVA Prize.