The NGA gives itself a birthday present

Published September 27, 2021
A saucer has landed at the NGA! Artist's impression

Lest we forget, the price paid for Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, was $1.3 million in 1973. A world record at the time, it was viewed as one of the keynote extravagances of the Whitlam government. Nevertheless, when the National Gallery of Australia opened in 1982 the painting was a major drawcard. It has since become a local icon with an estimated value in the hundreds of millions.

Forty years later the NGA has decided to celebrate its birthday by forking out more than it has ever previously expended on a work of art. For $14 milion the gallery is acquiring Ouroboros, a public sculpture by Lindy Lee (b.1954), an Australian artist of Chinese heritage, who was recently the subject of a well-received survey at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Lee has come to sculpture late in her career, enjoying remarkable success with a series of shiny, stainless steel pieces punctuated by tiny holes. These works reflect light during the day but emit light when darkness falls. The effect is cosmic, making viewers feel they are looking at a map of the stars.

In 2018, when Nick Mitzevich, the current director of the NGA was leaving his previous job as director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, the gallery installed a six-metre-high Lindy Lee sculpture on North Terrace as a “farewell present”. The Life of Stars, a shiny, ovoid shape, was intended as a tribute to the departing leader. The cost was $550,000.

It seems Nick took the tribute to heart because he is repeating the dose in Canberra at a considerably larger price tag. While it’s not unusual for directors to revisit a winning idea in one job after another (we’ve already had a second look at the Patricia Piccinini Skywhale), the escalation in cost is breathtaking, considering the financial struggles the NGA has endured of late, first with the bushfires, then the pandemic. Visitation and revenue have collapsed, with the only respite coming from better-than-expected attendance figures for the travelling exhibition, Botticelli to Van Gogh.

As the director is often heard lamenting he has no money it was a shock to learn last year that he had spent more than $6.8 million on an animatronic gizmo by American bad boy, Jordan Wolfson (which we’ve yet to see). It’s an even bigger surprise to find $14 million being spent on a Lindy Lee sculpture that may be bigger than any of her previous efforts, but does not appear to be a remarkable advance.

Ouroboros, the inside story

As it’s unfair to judge a work of art until it can be seen with the naked eye it’s possible the proposed sculpture will be a masterpiece for the ages. But one anticipates another version of a successful formula, with a bit of razzle-dazzle after dark. The work is based on the age-old motif of a snake swallowing its tail, but in the preliminary artist’s impressions it resembles a very large sliced bagel, with poppy seeds.

I’m not entirely sure what it means for a sculpture to be “sustainable”, which is one of the selling points for this work. The sculpture is being manufactured from recycled steel but this still entails a range of industrial processes. The result will be a big hunk of metal requiring regular care and maintenance.

For $14 million the NGA could acquire enough existing Australian sculptures to plug some significant gaps in its collection. If they insisted on a brand new work there were quite a few sculptors who might have been considered before Lee. I expect the sculptors will be even more outraged by this commission than the bean-counters.

One saving grace is that Mitzevich, in emulation of Gough Whitlam with Blue Poles, has been quick to disclose the price. A public gallery should always be transparent in the way it spends money – a consideration lost on the Art Gallery of NSW, which has yet to tell us how much it paid for a large and hideous Takashi Murakami painting in 2019, coyly said to be “a seven figure sum”.

So the gallery gets full marks for transparency but there are serious concerns about every other aspect of this project, from cost to choice of artwork, to timing. It’s no secret that contemporary art has become wildly expensive over the past two decades, but $14 million is a hefty sum to spend on a shiny object by an artist enjoying a moment of popularity that may or may not stand the test of time. It’s a lot of cash to be handing over when the entire economy is reeling from the impact of successive lockdowns and the NGA itself is supposed to be broke.

When Nick Mitzevich arrived in Canberra he promised to act like a new broom, sweeping away the detritus of an ancien régime that had left the institution in a financial pickle. This expensive new birthday present makes him look less like a revolutionary and more like Marie Antoinette. “What’s that? The plebs are crying out for bread? – Let them eat sculpture.”



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September, 2021