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our first look at the art gallery of NSW's new Sydney Modern

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In 1972, when the Art Gallery of New South Wales opened its first modern building, it was rightly praised for its innovative design.

Architect Andrew Andersons incorporated the latest aspects of museum architecture. The egg crate ceilings have been designed to reduce noise from people walking on its marble floors. There were movable screens that looked like walls and adjustable light levels for fragile art.

But where the building faced Sydney Harbour, Andersons placed a giant window. The intrusion of reality into the art connected visitors to the outside world.

It was groundbreaking for its time, a marked contrast to the giant granite box at the National Gallery of Victoria, which opened in 1968. The Melbourne building had followed the standard museum design pattern of eliminating windows to maximize l suspended space.

Just over 50 years later, Sydney Modern’s expansion under architectural firm SANAA could be described as putting Andersons’ approach on steroids. It will open in December, but in recent weeks small groups of visitors have received preview tours, while installation crews put the finishing touches on.

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A native art gallery

Sydney Modern’s relationship to the old building echoes Andersons’ uncompromising but sympathetic connection between its 1972 construction and the original Grand Courts designed by Walter Liberty Vernon.

The new link between the two buildings includes an installation honoring the country’s history by artist Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi Jonathan Jones.

This new building is very aware of its physical and spiritual situation. It is dominated by light from its slender glass walls. The ground floor entrance gives the impression of entering a crystal.

As a nod to Andersons glorious first showcase, the Yiribana Indigenous Art Gallery has a window overlooking the harbor so visitors can see where the Gadigal ancestors first witnessed the arrival of the condemned in 1788.

Yiribana’s move from the basement of the old building is a physical manifestation of the significant change in Australia’s understanding of its culture.

Yiribana Gallery installation view with (left to right) Ronnie Tjampitjinpa ‘Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra’ 2008, Willy Tjungurrayi ‘Tingari story’ 1986, Yhonnie Scarce ‘Death zephyr’ 2017 (top), Rusty Peters ‘Waterbrain ‘ 2002 and Vernon Ah Kee ‘Unwritten #9’ 2008.
Photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Jenni Carter

In 1958, the gallery’s assistant director, Tony Tuckson, facilitated collector and surgeon Stuart Scougall’s donation of Tiwi Pukumani’s grave posts. For the first time, indigenous work was presented as art and not as an anthropological artifact.

In 1972, there was a temporary exhibition of Yirrkala bark paintings and figures, but it was soon replaced by another temporary exhibition.

In late 1973, funding from the arts programs associated with the opening of the Sydney Opera House enabled a permanent installation of Melanesian art, another gift from Scougall. It was accompanied by what the trustees thought was a temporary display of Aboriginal art.

Tuckson died during the installation of the exhibit, and she remained on view, in a small, dark space at the bottom of the gallery’s marble stairs, until around 1980.

In 1983 Djon Mundine organized a temporary exhibition of bark paintings and the following year was appointed part-time curator, but there was little formal interest in Aboriginal art from the gallery.

The big change came in 1991 when Hetti Perkins curated another temporary exhibition, this time of hitherto little-known Indigenous women artists.

Perkins’ achievement was particularly appreciated by Mollie Gowing, one of the volunteer guides.

Beginning in 1992, Gowing collaborated with Perkins to privately fund the gallery’s main collection of contemporary Aboriginal art.

In 1994, at the initiative of New South Wales Minister for the Arts, Peter Collins, the gallery opened Yiribana, its first permanent exhibition space dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

This basement was previously the offices and work area of ​​the Public Programs Department and was not a particularly art-friendly space. It took well over a decade before Indigenous art began to be incorporated into other Australian art exhibits.

Yiribana Gallery installation view with (left) Ned Grant, Fred Grant, Patju Presley, Lawrence Pennington and Simon Hogan ‘Wati Kutjara’ 2019 and (right) Richard Bell, Emory Douglas ‘We can be heroes’ 2014.
Photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Jenni Carter

Yiribana’s move to Sydney Modern can be seen as the gallery’s affirmation of the importance of Indigenous cultures to any understanding of what Australia can be.

Cultural exchange

In 1972, when the newly opened gallery wanted to show its best art to the world, the main gallery was dominated by art from the United States. All eyes were drawn to Morris Louis’ Ayin.

This same space now has works by Sol LeWitt in visual conversation with Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Tamerre Petyarre.

Sol LeWitt ‘Wall drawing #955, Loopy Doopy (red and purple)’ 2000 in the John Kaldor Family Hall at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, first drawn by Paolo Arao, Nicole Awai, Hidemi Nomura, Jean Shin, Frankie Woodruff at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 2000; current installation designed by Kit Bylett, Andrew Colbert, Troy Donaghy, Szymon Dorabialski, Gabriel Hurier, Rachel Levine, Owen Lewis, Nadia Odlum, Tim Silver, Alexis Wildman at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, August 2022.
© Estate of Sol LeWitt

The integration of Australian art with the art of the rest of the world is a reflection of a historical reality. The last century was a time of mass travel and cultural exchange, when many national barriers were crossed, especially in the arts.

The Sydney Modern, combined with the reconfiguration of 20th century exhibits in the old building, is a silent repudiation of that cultural grimace that persists in seeing Australian culture as a kind of backwater.

Although most of Sydney Modern is filled with light, its most surprising space is shrouded in darkness.

During World War II, when the navy fleet had to refuel at Garden Island, the Australian government secretly built a giant underground fuel storage tank, its true depth hidden below the waterline.

Now a spiral staircase leads the visitor to the Reservoir, a magical space of oil-stained columns and echoing sounds. At the moment it is empty, but in a few weeks the Argentinian-Peruvian artist Adrián Villar Rojas will start creating a new work, The End of Imagination.

The Tank space in the new Art Gallery of New South Wales building.
Photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Jenni Carter

There are two meanings to the title. One suggests that the imagination is now dead. However, by being placed at the heart of such a space of inspiration, it seems that Rojas suggests a culmination of the imagination, a questioning of what the imagination can be in these days of Anthropocene.

The work is not done yet. As with the rest of the art that will fill this magical space, we’ll have to wait and see.

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