Sydney Modern is spectacular, but will it hold our attention?

By John McDonald

Lights on! Sydney Modern opens its doors to the public on Saturday.Credit:Wolter Peeters

According to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, Sydney’s newest cultural attraction is set to be not only the greatest gallery in Australia but the greatest in the world. Forget about the Louvre, the Met or the Prado, here’s Sydney Modern. This opinion was largely echoed by the other speakers at the media preview. The new museum was consistently compared with Utzon’s Opera House, while the favourite adjectives were “wonderful”, extraordinary”, “incredible” and “profound”.

Sydney Modern may be an impressive building, but it will not make the Art Gallery of NSW the greatest gallery in the world, or even Australia. An art museum is judged primarily by its collection, not its architecture, and the Sydney collection is only the fourth largest in Australia, after Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra. It might also be argued that it is fourth in terms of scope and quality, but I’ll leave that for the time being. As for the AGNSW’s Aboriginal art collection, it may register even further down the honour board when one considers the quality of work in Brisbane, Darwin and Perth.

Forgetting all the hyperbole, on first impressions there’s a lot to like about this bright, spacious building for which we’ve been waiting so long. The architects have rejected the convention that once saw art museums as fortresses intended to keep the outside world at bay. The long-accepted global standard has been the “white cube” pioneered by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s, but SANAA has opened up the museum, allowing outside views and abundant natural light.

The high ceilings and massive glass windows project a feeling of lightness and transparency. The pale colours – white, beige and café latte – feel markedly more friendly and welcoming than the neoclassical exterior of the old AGNSW. It’s only upon further exploration that one realises most of the exhibition spaces are still closed boxes, with the much-vaunted basement gallery, the Tank, being positively gothic. There is a new philosophy of the museum to be found within this architecture, although not one that avoids controversy or inconsistency.

The puzzle begins with the so-called Welcome Plaza, in which we find the first of a series of special commissions: Here Comes Everybody, a trio of large, grotesque sculptures by New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard. There’s been a great deal of talk about these bronze figures, which look like monsters borrowed from a Peter Jackson fantasy film. They inevitably make a statement, but it’s not clear what that statement might be. The main idea seems to have been to avoid the soft option of using an abstract sculpture for a public space. But how are we to understand these Frankenstein creations that guard the entrance? Rather than extend a welcoming hand, they could be designed to scare visitors away.

Francis Upritchard’s towering figures at Sydney Modern.Credit:Nick Moir

The other unsettling aspect of the entrance court is the roof, which resembles the cheap, corrugated fiberglass one might find in a suburban backyard. Even on an overcast day, this wavy, plastic-looking canopy was allowing in a lot of heat. On a hot summer’s day, the courtyard will be a furnace. It’s a complaint that might be levelled at most of the gallery’s outside reception areas, which are exposed to the sun (and latterly, the rain) in a way that will discourage al fresco activities.

Matters improve as soon as one goes through the front door. The gallery interiors, with their thin tiles and rammed earth walls are exceptionally beautiful. This is the bit that will make visitors pause and go: “Oooh, ahhh!” It’s only gradually one realises the spacious feeling of the entrance level is partly due to the absence of works of art. It’s a pattern repeated throughout a building in which transitional spaces aspire to the spaciousness of public plazas. By way of compensation, the galleries themselves are crammed with paintings, sculptures, photos and installations.

In a curvy, translucent module on the left of the entrance we find the bookshop, on the right there is the Yiribana Gallery, transplanted from its ignominious basement location in the old building and given new prominence. This is entirely appropriate. Aboriginal art is one of the few truly original cultural expressions in this country, and the first thing most overseas visitors wish to see. Inside the Yiribana Gallery one finds a busy, packed display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work. It feels like a sampler of the collection, setting a pattern that will be repeated in gallery after gallery.

The Indigenous art gallery, Yiribana, has moved from the original building’s basement up to the entrance level of Sydney Modern. Credit:Zan Wimberley/AGNSW

Last week, when someone in Adelaide asked me what Sydney Modern had planned for its big opening exhibition, I realised there had been no announcement whatsoever along these lines. What we get instead is a potpourri of artworks, some familiar, many of them recent acquisitions. Pieces such as Lisa Reihana’s massive video, GROUNDLOOP, or Archive of Mind, a huge round table by Kim Soo-ja, where visitors can sit and play with balls of clay, have an overwhelming, instant impact. The potential problem is that even the most dazzling works tend to lose their allure after several viewings.

In an age of short attention spans, Sydney Modern has opted for a policy of novelty and variety. Aside from the Yiribana Gallery, there is no chronological or geographical logic to the hang. It’s pure entertainment. This may seem like a policy designed to appeal to a broad, popular audience, but a museum that neglects dedicated exhibitions risks invoking a law of diminishing returns when it comes to long-term visitation. The emphasis on installations from the collection and special commissions denotes a willingness to treat the gallery as a glorified trophy cabinet.

Although there is a huge amount of glass overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay, the views are surprisingly limited. A large cylindrical module that houses a café on level -1, blocks out a key glimpse of the harbour.

There is much less exhibition space than might be expected for such a vast building, and the giant proportions are not always conducive to the sympathetic display of works. Everybody who has ever hung an exhibition knows that a big painting is best viewed in a confined space, and the large pictures hung on the long, rammed earth wall on Levels -1 and -2 look like postage stamps. Aida Tomescu’s abstract triptych, Sewn onto stones in the sky (2019), tends to lose its power in such an arrangement, while Takashi Murakami’s Japan Supernatural – commissioned in 2019 for an as-yet-undisclosed, multimillion dollar sum – seems more frivolous than ever.

Sydney Modern’s Tank Gallery.Credit:Wolter Peeters

The display called Making Worlds on Level -1, is the proverbial dog’s morning repast, with the most diverse works jostling against each other in a way that defies logic. I couldn’t see what Cy Twombly’s Three studies from the Temeraire, had to do with a group of colourful woven ceremonial objects by Kimberley artist Roy Wiggan. I couldn’t see how Mikala Dwyer’s installation, The Divisions and Subtractions, related to anything else in a very crowded room. When obvious taxonomies are abandoned the only apparent reason for a work’s inclusion is that the curators liked it.

The closest approach to an actual exhibition is a display called Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter, put together by senior curator Justin Paton. The publicity release tells us what it’s about: “Artists reflect on ‘home’ from their own richly local perspectives, while also registering shared hopes and anxieties that are felt in many places at this time.”

The theme is broad enough to take in just about anything, but it’s characteristic that the show is about the concept of “home” rather than the actual city in which the work is being shown. One of the abiding policies of Sydney Modern seems to be that Australian and international art are to be promiscuously intermingled at every opportunity. This globalising principle extends to the kinds of art being shown, from tiny drawings by American outsider artist James Castle, to Guts, a vertiginous installation by another American artist Samara Golden, which uses mirrors to transform a single room into an infinite tower block. It’s an idiosyncratic selection, which is preferable to a procession of fashionable names.

Adrian Villar Rojas’s Tank gallery installation The End of Imagination.

I’ll save a more detailed discussion of the commissioned works for another occasion, but it’s impossible to overlook Adrián Villar Rojas’s installation The End of Imagination in the Tank – a 2,200 square-metre dungeon in which fuel was stored during World War Two. This forbidding space, still reeking of oil and rust, is now inhabited by five large sculptures that seem like remnants of some monumental catastrophe. Made from stone, metal, plastic, resin, and almost anything within the artist’s reach, they are ambiguous in form, with mechanical and organic elements imbued with a deathly presence. Lurking in the darkness, they are revealed in stages by a row of lights that track back and forth across the ceiling. It’s unashamedly theatrical, which will be a selling point for many viewers and a distinct turn-off for others.

The End of Imagination confirms Sydney Modern’s complete devotion to spectacle and its readiness to challenge the age-old conventions of the museum. It’s going to be fun – for a while – but eventually the gallery will have to recalibrate its priorities and devote more attention to an exhibition program that has been seriously neglected while Sydney Modern fundraising was pursued with the same single-mindedness Captain Ahab brought to his pursuit of the white whale.

The abiding fantasy of Sydney Modern has always been: “Build it and they will come.” Now that the building is up and running, curiosity-seekers should arrive in droves for the first six months or so, until the novelty wears off, and attendances return to present-day levels.

An aerial view of the Sydney Modern addition to the NSW Art Gallery.Credit:AGNSW

At this point, it will become apparent that to justify its existence the new venture will need to attract a much bigger local audience. This can only be done with exhibitions and public programs, but even this may not cover the running costs, which will require a massive injection of funds from the state government. If the government – be it Coalition or Labor – balks at the expense, the AGNSW will be obliged to continue the onerous cycle of private fundraising that has been its major preoccupation for years, a process that can have an alienating effect on friends and supporters who are constantly being tapped for a dollar.

Let’s enjoy the moment of celebration while we can because Sydney Modern is here to stay. Despite my reservations, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a thrill from my first view of this building, with its clean, elegant interiors, and multiple surprises. All new things have a special appeal, especially after such an extended dose of anticipation. Now that the architecture is in place it’s the policies that require attention. Sydney Modern may be a fait accompli, but the work has just begun.

Sydney Modern opens on Saturday.

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