The Sydney Modern project is finally open. Has the Art Gallery of NSW’s $344m expansion paid off?

Crowd-pleasing exhibitions and large-scale works abound at the city’s most significant arts venue since the Opera House. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t have a name

Much is expected from Sydney’s most costly and long-awaited newborn.

Widely referred to as Sydney Modern (it still doesn’t have a name; more on that later), the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ $344m expansion opened to the public on Saturday after a 10-year gestation. More than 15,000 people have already registered to file through the glass atrium, and descend into the highly praised Sanaa-designed new building over its first two days.

There has already been a series of baptisms. At one of them – held for several hundred media types on Tuesday – the NSW arts minister, Ben Franklin, spoke directly to his new bundle of joy: “you will bring in an extra two million visitors to the Art Gallery of New South Wales every year,” he proclaimed. “Over the next 25 years, you will inject $1bn into the state’s economy.”

Large metal sculpture of a monster standing on a wooden deck overlooking green space in an urban setting
New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard’s Here Comes Everybody outside the new exhibition space of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Christopher Snee/Art Gallery of New South Wales

The “impact” of Sydney Modern’s opening was “absolutely significant and profound” the minister said, boldly comparing it to London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Guggenheim.

Some $244m in public funding came from the NSW government, with the remainder from private philanthropy. The vibe at the media preview – and at a series of parties staged to toast the building last week – was that the investment has paid off.

Here comes everybody: a look at the art on show

The expansion almost doubles the AGNSW’s exhibition space, to 16,000 sq metres. Among its opening exhibitions and nine major commissions are a variety of crowd-pleasers – from New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard’s giant blue-tinged bronze humanoids, titled Here Comes Everybody, which are crouched under the gallery’s outdoor canopy in a Cloverfield-like menacing scale, to the installations of Argentinian artist Adrian Villar Rojas in the building’s bowels.

Alien-esque art installation in a darkened gallery room
Adrian Villar Rojas’s the End of Imagination. Photograph: Jörg Baumann/Adrián Villar Rojas

The Tank – a former second world war oil storage facility that a speaker on Tuesday compared to the Tate’s Turbine Hall (although the ceiling feels much lower) – is one of five gallery spaces in what AGNSW maps refer to as “North Building” (the classic Victorian pile next door is now known as “South Building”).

In the Tank’s inaugural site-specific exhibition, The End of Imagination, Rojas has built five Alien-esque works that anyone less intrepid than Lt Ellen Ripley would not dare trifle with, with roving spotlights adding extra moodiness in the dark bunker, showing the creatures – and their shadows – from all angles.

Kimsooja’s Archive of Mind, the centrepiece of the Making Worlds exhibition in a gallery above, is a participatory installation that will delight all ages, with the artist inviting visitors to create their own clay spheres on an expansive table occupying its own spacious glass-walled room.

Walk-through art installation featuring mirrors
The vertigo-inducing Guts installation by Samara Golden. Photograph: Iwan Baan/Samara Golden

US artist Samara Golden’s Guts is an intimidating vertigo-inducing installation that serves as one of the centrepieces for Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter, a whimsical exhibition that begins with Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s madcap upside down city constructed from cardboard, and features work from Tracey Moffatt, Simone Leigh and Michael Parekōwha.

Jeffrey Gibson’s gaudy installation The Stars are our Ancestors invites visitors to take a seat on his throne-like “queered kissing chair”, and the raucous celebratory flavour continues with a full wall dedicated to the new age ceramic idols of Sri Lankan-born Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

Art installation of cardboard shaped like an upside down skyline in a gallery
‘There is a penchant for the large scale’: From this place (2022) by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan. Photograph: Felicity Jenkins/Art Gallery of New South Wales
Colourful art installation featuring lime green chair
The ‘queered kissing chair’ by Jeffrey Gibson. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

There is clearly a penchant for the large scale at Sydney Modern – and when it comes to video, a medium too often overlooked by museum visitors – it’s hard not to be mesmerised by Howie Tsui’s monumental and at times graphic 27-metre-long animated video scroll, Retainers of Anarchy – part of the Outlaws exhibition.

Equally riveting is New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s Groundloop: a new commission that feels both ancient and futuristic in its imagining of a ocean-going canoe voyage across the Tasman by Māori, to pay respects and party with an Indigenous delegation at Sydney Cove.

Part of the AGNSW’s largest commissioning program in its 151 year history, Groundloop plays on an enormous five-metre by 20-metre LED screen suspended above the building’s central atrium.

“It’s such a cool spot to be,” Reihana said.

Video installation showing in an atrium of a white-walled building with windows
‘It’s such a cool spot to be’: Lisa Reihana’s Groundloop plays on a five-metre by 20-metre LED screen above the central atrium. Photograph: Jenni Carter/Art Gallery of New South Wales

“My brother in law lives over there,” she said, gesturing excitedly to the distant skyline where the high rise apartments of Sydney’s eastern suburbs can be seen from the museum’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

“He’s been watching it every night. I mean all those people over there, straight out there, they can see it. It’s pretty neat really.”

First Nations art in the spotlight

The new building brings First Nations art to the fore, relocating the Yiribana Gallery from the basement of the AGNSW’s southern building to spacious rooms in the northern one – a fitting home, finally, for one of the world’s largest collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

The reborn Yiribana Gallery will be the very first space visitors encounter upon entering Sydney Modern (if you don’t count the gift shop), and at Tuesday’s preview, First Nations artists flown in from some of Australia’s most remote communities were on hand to discuss their work.

Interior room of gallery featuring suspended artwork from ceiling and on walls
Installation view of Yiribana Gallery featuring Yhonnie Scarce’s Death Zephyr at front. Photograph: Zan Wemberley

Renown septuagenarian Pitjantjatjara artist Iluwanti Ken’s large-scale intricate ink works hang in virtually all of Australia’s major public art galleries and museums. She said her work Walawuru ngunytju kukaku ananyi (Mother eagles going hunting) – part of a series that won her the 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art award for works on paper – represented the care for children in her community.

The Anangu women of the APY Lands in the far north-west of South Australia look to the female eagles for their mothercraft knowledge, the artist said through an interpreter.

Black and white painting on canvas featuring eagles
Walawulu ngunytji kukaku ananyi (2022) by Iluwanti Ken. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Five of the Wik & Kugu Arts Centre artists from Aurukun on the west coast of Queensland’s Cape York peninsula oversaw the installation of Pack of Ku, a collective work of wood-carved ceremonial dogs revered as the keepers of ancestral beings.

Works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Richard Bell, Yhonnie Scarce, Rover Thomas and Reko Rennie also feature in the gallery, in an exhibition inspired by the Eora word burbangana, meaning “take hold of my hand and help me up”.

The southern building has undergone a rehang of its 20th-century galleries too, and there’s a new work installed above its sandstone entrance: Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’s To See or Not to See, a reflective jade green work featuring six hooded figures.

Artwork featuring six green hooded figures hung outside an historic building with columns
To See Or Not To See by Karla Dickens, outside the southern building of the AGNSW. Photograph: Diana Panuccio/Art Gallery of New South Wales

The piece, Dickens said in an artist statement, is “about women and invisibility … the legacy of Aboriginal women today”.

A missing work – and a missing name

On Tuesday, both the NSW arts minister, Ben Franklin, and the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, praised Sydney Modern for being delivered on budget and on time – but there is unfinished business that was mentioned by neither.

Although work began on an ambitious $14m commission of a Jonathan Jones living sculpture at the beginning of the year, its outdoor location remains a construction site.

Titled bíal gwiyúŋo (the fire is not yet lighted), the major installation by the Wiradyuri and Kamilaroi artist was to serve as a link – both physically and metaphorically – between otherwise disparate old and new buildings, with Jones’s work known for its exploration of bridge-building between cultures. It is now scheduled to open in mid-2023.

Video artwork displayed in a dark gallery room on a long landscape-orientated space
Howie Tsui’s Retainers of Anarchy (2017). Photograph: Zan Wimberley/Art Gallery of New South Wales
Colourful sculpture artworks of figures displayed on pink shelving
Works by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in the Dreamhome exhibition. Photograph: Zan Wimberley/Art Gallery of New South Wales

The other unfinished business is, of course, the name: it’s unusual for a major institution to open without one. In a statement to the Guardian, an AGNSW spokesperson said it was “undertaking community consultation” on potential names.

“The timing of any announcement in connection to building names will be determined by the completion of community consultation,” the statement said, suggesting the possibility both buildings could in the future be known collectively under the one new name, such as Qagoma (Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art) in Brisbane. There is speculation that new name will be drawn from a First Nations language, but the gallery would not confirm which communities it is consulting with.

Whether Sydney has the long-term capacity for two major public galleries of modern art remains to be seen. In past interviews, the AGNSW director, Michael Brand, has dismissed suggestions of competition with the Museum of Contemporary Art – the 30-year-old institution housed at The Rocks, whose remit is to exhibit the work of living artists; likewise the MCA’s director, Suzanne Cotter, has described Sydney Modern as “a beautiful complement” to her museum.

For years the gallery and its trustees have argued that the AGNSW’s dwindling number of visitors is due to chronic underinvestment by successive state governments. Only time will tell if the $344m injection will breathe life back into a 151-year-old institution.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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