Sydney Modern, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Reopened December 2022
Sydney Modern, which opened in December 2022, has been billed as the largest cultural project in Sydney since the Sydney Opera House opened half a century ago. A major extension and transformation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the project was conceived as furnishing the first and most populous Australian city with a new space for art worthy of its global aspirations.
The building itself, designed by Japanese masters SANAA, is composed as a loose aggregation of volumes lightly stepping down the natural harbourfront topography while negotiating remnant infrastructures, including skipping over a buried expressway tunnel and repurposing a wartime navy fuel tank as a unique exhibition space. Three squarish ‘gallery pavilions,’ substantially opaque but variously oriented to controlled harbour views, are the principal accommodation for exhibitions. The rest of the building consists principally of a deep and transparent interstitial realm weaving fluidly across interior and exterior spaces, devoted to circulation, gathering and, inevitably, glittering gala fundraisers on an unprecedented scale.
For some anxious critics, the new building – with its escalators, video screens and perches for social spectacle – embodies the profanation of the public art institution’s edifying mission. More consequentially, the project crystallises in architectural form an audacious reorientation of the cultural compass of contemporary Australia. Indigenous art has been given pride of place, with the Yiribana Gallery, devoted to works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, set at the entrance facing the glazed welcome canopy. In counterpoint to the original gallery’s transplanted echo of a remote European homeland, the new structure seems to cascade outwards to the Pacific’s vast oceanic expanse connecting Asia, the Americas and the archipelago of Pasifika cultures.
This recast cultural geography suffuses form and content, from SANAA’s Japanese-inflected reading of Sydney’s landscape as a set of stepping platforms, to the curatorial decisions shaping the opening commissions. Major inaugural works include Korean artist Kimsooja’s participatory Archive of Mind; Maori artist Lisa Reihana’s videowork Groundloop; Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei’s spatial insertion Spirit House; and Argentinian-Peruvian artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s astonishing monumental installation The End of Imagination, installed in the Stygian depths of the Tank.
The Sydney Opera House remains the acme of the architectural icon. Sydney Modern is its inverse: an anti-icon, loose and plural, with landscape as its guiding principle. Critics, fear not: here the art is the heart.