Nobody in Australia is more experienced in the ways of gallery building than Andrew Andersons, the chief architect of the new wing at the National Gallery of Australia. Although he is a super professional, Andersons has often been criticised by other architects who find his buildings prosaic, deficient in detail and artistry. To be fair, this may be a function of the budgets he has had to negotiate, especially in relation to the previous NGA extension of 1997 which became hardly more than a large box – adequate for temporary exhibitions but unlikely to win any beauty contests.
With the long-awaited new wing Andersons, who took over the project at the end of 2004, has been given considerably more leeway. The gallery says the final cost of the extension is $107 million, but I suspect this is an underestimation. If one goes back to the first plans, laid in the late 1990s, there has been a constant flow of cash down the drain.
I can’t put a realistic figure on the ultimate cost of the NGA’s new wing, but it provides a striking rebuke to the austerity drive that characterised the recent election campaign, as both sides competed to see who could promise to spend less money. “Austerity” is not a word that exists in the vocabulary of current NGA director, Ron Radford. Since he took up the reins of power in 2005, Radford has spent money like the proverbial drunken mariner. He has demonstrated an exceptional ability to raise funds, but has never shown much interest in anything so humdrum as a budget.
There are a few extravagant touches with the new wing, such as the gold leaf applied to the doors of Gandel Hall, a spacious new reception area named after a billionaire donor. Not only is this expensive, it has a suggestion of camp – a kind of tawdry glamour more suited to a casino than a museum function room.
As for the building itself, even though the NGA’s original architect, Col Madigan, has pronounced that it’s still a mess, and various experts have been uncomplimentary, it feels much more sympathetic and seamless than most museum extensions. Anders0ns has taken account of the original Brutalist style of the building but created something far less imposing. This is largely through the use of natural light which floods into the entrance area, and also into the upstairs galleries through a diffusion system in the ceiling.
The long-awaited entrance is relatively small and discrete, almost an anti-climax after all these years. The Aboriginal Bicentennial Memorial of 200 ceremonial poles has been relocated to the right of the door, but the installation is so neat and tidy, set beneath a huge circular light, that it resembles a corporate foyer. Few visitors appear to walk up to the poles or even notice them. The blandness of this setting requires a rethink.
The eleven upstairs galleries, devoted to a monumental display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, gives rise to very mixed feelings. The lighting was excellent, even on a dull day, but the walls lack a little height.
Ron Radford boasts that the NGA has the largest collection of Australian indigenous art in the world. With his usual penchant for hyperbole, he claims that this art is “as alive and dynamic today as it was 60,000 years ago.” One hopes it is considerably more dynamic, as the continent would have been virtually uninhabited in those days.
There is a good case for the prominence afforded the NGA’s indigenous art holdings. This is the most uniquely Australian part of the collection, and the area that attracts the greatest interest from overseas visitors. The explosion of creativity that has taken place in Aboriginal art over the past thirty years is astonishing, and many of the greatest works by the most celebrated artists have ended up in the NGA collection. For a concentrated overview of indigenous art in all its variety the eleven new galleries are unbeatable.
The first thing one sees is a gigantic open-frame iron sculpture suspended from the ceiling. This piece was commissioned from the Urban Art Foundry in Brisbane, and based on a traditional fish trap from Maningrida. It provides a striking illustration of the sculptural power of these artefacts, and shows how easily Aboriginal forms may be integrated into the world of contemporary art.
Next there is an extensive display of small boards painted in the earliest days of the Papunya Tula movement, at the beginning of the 1970s. Each individual piece is of minor significance, but they add up to a very important collection. It is a time capsule of the birth of Central and Western Desert painting – an entirely new genre of art based on stories and traditions that date back many thousands of years. It is this unlikely combination of extreme age and newness that has allowed Aboriginal art to capture the imagination of audiences all round the world. Next month, a new survey of Australian indigenous art will be hosted by the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.
The new wing has rooms devoted to early and late Desert painting; barks before and after 1980; works by Albert Namatjira and other Hermansburg artists; prints and drawings; textiles; works from the Kimberley, from the Tiwi and Torres Strait Islands; and a lively selection of Urban art. The selection includes iconic pieces by figures such as Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum, Ginger Riley, John Mawurndjul, and almost everybody else who has played a role in the growth of a movement that has had an immeasurable social impact, quite aside from the changes it has wrought on Australian art.
The NGA selection ranges from small, crude bark paintings of the early twentieth century, to large bronze sculptures by Dennis Nona – one of the most startling and ambitious new undertakings we have seen from this talented Torres Strait Island artist. In traversing these two points in time we get a strong impression of the complex nature of indigenous art and recognise that it is still evolving.
And yet it may be possible to have too much of a good thing. There is such a quantity of work crammed into these rooms that it becomes claustrophobic. The problem with such a busy hang is that it is difficult to concentrate on individual pieces, with the result that some of the most important works are thrown away, simply blending in with the crowd. It is a futile strategy, because even with such a superabundance there are still many important works that did not make it into this inaugural selection.
The director’s heavy hand is much in evidence, as Radford used the same tactic when he was director of the much smaller Art Gallery of South Australia. It is the antithesis of the spacious hangs favoured by James Mollison, the NGA’s first director.
It is disturbing that this over-the-top approach, which makes the museum look like Margaret Olley’s lounge room, has been extended to the entire NGA. Even though the gallery now has purportedly forty percent more space it has never felt more congested. Major paintings such as Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife, Nolan’s Head of a Soldier, Tucker’s Victory Girls, and several other pictures, are all crammed into a corner within a metre of each other. Without specialised knowledge of Australian art no-one would ever realise the significance of these works.
By the time I got to Robyn Maxwell’s excellent show Life, death and magic: 2,000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art (until 31 October), I felt I could barely absorb any more information.
There is no right or wrong way to hang a gallery, only ways that show the art to its best advantage. The chic, minimal approach that places one small work on a white wall generates a sense of visual starvation, but too many works create indigestion. Perhaps the answer is to go sit in James Turrell’s impressive installation, Within without, to the side of the new wing. Here one may contemplate the sky and listen to rippling water with nothing encroaching on one’s peripheral vision.
The only place in the gallery that doesn’t suffer from overcrowding is the shop, where there is plenty of room for more books and knick-knacks. One of the most peculiar items for sale is a tea towel or tote bag emblazoned with the sentence: “’The answer is no’ – Ron Radford, Director.” This must be what the director said when asked: “Can we please leave something out?” I think I preferred Obama’s “Yes we can.”
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 23, 2010