The sky above Sydney Modern is so light blue it hurts the eyes. On a summer Wednesday afternoon, visitors queue outside to visit the port city’s newest museum. People also wear sunglasses indoors. Because the building, designed by the renowned Japanese architectural firm SANAA, breathes light.
It’s quite a contrast to the stately 150-year-old neoclassical building of the Art Gallery New South Wales next door, of which Sydney Modern is a part. The two structures are connected by a sculpture garden, which will not be completed until mid-2023.
The 344 million Australian dollars (more than 220 million euros) project has had quite a foot in the ground. In 2013, director Michael Brand presented his plan for the expansion of the museum, construction started in 2019. The state government paid most of the bill, the remaining 100 million Australian dollars (64 million euros) came from philanthropists. Despite setbacks such as clouds of smoke from the 2019 forest fires, shutdowns during the corona pandemic and the storms of recent months, the museum was completed on time and within budget.
Dominic Perrottet, the premier of the state of New South Wales, calls the museum “the most important cultural building since the Sydney Opera House”. The State Minister for Culture expects the museum to generate one billion Australian dollars for the local economy over the next 25 years.
With a flag in front of the museum it said ‘Art for all’. Admission to Sydney Modern is free, although visitors are advised to book a time for some exhibitions. In the first few days after the opening, there were already more than twenty thousand visitors.
The first thing that catches your eye are the three sculptures by New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard, titled Here comes everyone, in the square in front of the entrance. The metre-high, lanky figures are weighed down by the corrugated glass roof.
At the entrance, it is the space and the light that impress. There are tall windows on all sides so that Sydney Harbor appears to be part of the exhibition. Winding stairs connect the floors. There are only a few works of art in the bright halls, the majority are hidden in separate rooms each with its own theme.
The place of honor is for the Yiribana Gallery of Aboriginal art. These works used to hang in the basement of the old building, now they have been given a larger and more prominent place near the entrance. With a history of at least 60,000 years, the indigenous people of Australia are the oldest living civilization in the world. There are traditional works such as woven mats and large hypnotic canvases with the characteristic repeating dots and lines. There are also works by Aboriginal artists using modern materials such as corrugated iron and iron. Like Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s giant ‘bags’, made from rusted and bent metal, which she found in remote areas of the outback.
Aboriginal art is not limited to this space but is reflected throughout the museum. Like the art of New Zealand’s original inhabitants, the Maori. What would life be like if the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand were not colonized? The enormous video work Ground loop by Maori artist Lisa Reihana attempts to depict that world. Maoris can be seen in a waka, a canoe, heading across the sea, acting as a ‘superhighway’, towards the Australian Aborigines. The work feels both futuristic and ancient.
In order to use the available space as efficiently as possible, the underground oil storage room from the Second World War has also been converted into an exhibition space of 2,200 square meters. In the room that is now called ‘the tank’, work is done The end of fantasy by Argentine sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas. The high room is dark, echoing and supported by more than a hundred thick pillars. Rojas placed sculptures of mysterious fantasy creatures there. Only sporadic flickering lights reveal the works depicting a dystopian future.
On the terrace stands the gigantic sculpture Flowers that bloom in the cosmos by Yayoi Kusama to shine in the sun. The cartoon-like flowers in bright colors that she made for the museum can be seen from the boulevard on the other side of the harbor.
A separate room is for the Korean artist Kimsooja. Visitors are invited to sit at a table to form a ball of clay and leave it behind, thereby contributing to the creation of the work of art. “This is the first time I’ve been in such contact with art that I can contribute to it,” says visitor Evan Diego. “It’s a good idea, working with the clay is also very calming.”
In recent years, there has been much criticism of museum director Michael Band, who came up with this ambitious plan just a year after taking office. Sydney wouldn’t need another museum, it would take up valuable space from the surrounding botanic gardens. But since the opening there has been a jubilant atmosphere. The focus on Australian art, the participatory nature of the works and the use of the natural beauty of the environment make this museum a must-see in Australia.
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