Sydney Morning Herald Column

Sydney Modern Revisited

Published December 13, 2022
Sydney Modern without the crowds, but unfortunately with large Murakami

“Campus” is word of the week. It seems to be a particular favourite of Art Gallery of NSW Director, Michael Brand, who kept using the term during the Sydney Modern launch. “My vision,” he writes in the book associated with the new gallery, “has been for the Sydney Modern Project to transform the Art Gallery of NSW into an art museum campus with seamless connections between art, architecture and landscape.”

“My vision” sounds suitably grand, a bit like Martin Luther King telling us he has a dream, but “campus” is harder to track. It’s Latin for “field” but almost always associated with a university. The only references I’ve been able to find for a “museum campus” are Chicago, where three science museums are clustered in a park alongside Lake Michigan; and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. where there has been a concerted effort to connect the art museum with the landscape.

Lorraine Connelly-Northey, inside-outside

Apparently, Sydney now has its own “campus” comprising three compartments of the same institution. The third element is Jonathan Jones’s “art garden”, which won’t be ready until mid-way through next year.

The “campus” idea is clearly borrowed, just as the name “Sydney Modern” is borrowed from Tate Modern. What’s the benefit of this bit of jargon? According to Michael Brand, it means: “Around our central focus on the work of art we can now spin a sense of the movement of both people and ideas through buildings and landscape.”

I don’t know exactly what this sentence means, but the idea of ‘spinning’ anything is worrisome. It’s a revealing choice of verb in an essay that reads like a prospectus for a new residential and retail development. The pervasive use of “we” is probably meant to be inclusive, but it comes across as smug and conspiratorial. Then we decided to go to Tokyo again…

Sydney Modern may be a permanent fixture on the city’s physical and cultural landscape, but in some ways it feels as insubstantial as a Hollywood set. We’ve been assured that the $344 million SANAA building is perfectly integrated into the landscape, but over the past week I’ve read or heard comments by five architectural experts who would argue the opposite. These criticisms should at least be aired and refuted, if possible, but there has been such a fanfare that dissenting voices are not welcomed.

The best bit! Irresistible new AGNSW library

At this stage piecemeal complaints may be of little value, but the only part of the project that is completely praiseworthy is the revamped AGNSW library, which is the best of its kind anywhere in Australia.

The greater museum’s future is pure fantasy, so rather than continue to speculate about success or failure, it might be better to look at some other aspects of the project, such as the new works the AGNSW has commissioned from nine artists. Of the pieces yet to be discussed the least interesting is probably Yayoi Kusama’s large flower on a site overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay. This is hardly more than a cheerful decoration by an artist whose public sculptures may be seen all over the world nowadays.


Among the local commissions Lorraine Connelly-Northey has shown on previous occasions she is capable of working on a large scale, and her wall sculpture, Narrbong-galang (many bags), makes good use of an awkward space. Ten yellow-stained slabs of metal hung in a corridor on the entrance level of the building seem to be arranged for the benefit of passers-by, who can view them from outside through a long window. If this succeeds, it’s because these schematic metal “bags” sit flat to the wall. Together they feel like memorials to the vanished hunter-gatherers who once roamed these shores.

Richard Lewer, ‘Onsite, construction of Sydney Modern which resides on the lands of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation’, Snappy title, Richard!

A suite of paintings by Richard Lewer, recording the people who helped build Sydney Modern, will seem less relevant as the museum ages, but for the time being they have an appealing freshness, showing us some of the lesser-known faces behind the project. Bringing his work in front of the Trustees in this way can only help Lewer’s chances in future Archibald Prizes.

Some serenity at last, Lee Mingwei’s ‘Spirit House’

The two most engaging commissions, in their different ways, are Lisa Reihana’s GROUNDLOOP, and Lee Mingwei’s Spirit House. Reihana came to worldwide attention when her video installation, In Pursuit of Venus, was one of the hits of the 2017 Venice Biennale, and GROUNDLOOP, a fantasia of the Pacific, is an excellent sequel.

If Reihana’s piece is information-heavy, Lee Mingwei’s Spirit House is little more than an earthen chamber tucked away by the side of the building, in which we encounter a seated Buddha. There’s a great serenity about this installation, which seems to transcend the hubbub of styles on display, inviting viewers to pause for a moment of introspection. Visitors are invited to take a stone from the Buddha’s palm, carry it home, load it up with their anxieties, then bring it back. I’m looking at one right now, although it’s going to take some time before I’m through with it.

To view the other two commissions, Simryn Gill’s Clearing and Karla Dickens’s To See or Not to See, visitors will have to tear themselves away from Sydney Modern and return to the old building. As part of the “Sydney Modern Project” the orginal AGNSW has been completely rehung in a rather startling manner, but more of that later.


Like Richard Lewer, Gill has applied herself to the actual building of Sydney Modern, looking at a single palm tree that was uprooted to make way for the new museum. It’s a reminder that when something is gained, something else is lost. The building’s critics will tell you that a precious area of greenery and part of the Botanic Garden has been obliterated. Gill ventures a more general observation that the objects of the natural world have their own distinctive history and there’s a pathos in the fall of an elderly tree. From this simple idea she has produced a 26-metre rubbing and a series of supporting works that take up a space large enough to accommodate an entire plantation.

Simryn Gill’s ‘Clearing’. Much ado about one palm tree

Karla Dickens has made her reputation in recent years with bold, irreverent sculptural installations on a grand scale. This didn’t make her an obvious choice to create a discreet piece to sit above the entrance to the old building. She has come up with an eight-metre steel and glass panel featuring six hooded faces. The reference is to the hoods used on boys in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, but they could easily be taken for terrorists.

Dickens says her work is for the “invisible people”, for her Indigenous ancestors, “for queers, and for forgotten artists that do not fit the status quo.” It’s a provocative gesture for a piece on the front of a major public institution because it actively bites the hand that feeds. The AGNSW has been as guilty as any museum when it comes to rendering people “invisible”, so Dickens’s work is presumably meant to symbolise a new openness.

This is right in line with the globalising philosophy of the “Sydney Modern Project”. The old building continues the strategy of mingling Australian with international art, juxtaposing the historical and the contemporary, and placing Indigenous items in every room. It’s an attempt to break down conventional categories and disavow the institutional preference for works in an established western tradition.

Karla Dickens’s welcoming party for the revamped AGNSW

One may appreciate this impulse to a certain extent, but when a museum decides to abandon the idea of a canon of artists that define a style and an era, the hang becomes so democratic that any one thing seems as good as the next. Rather than opening up the way we view art, it enshrines the subjective choices of the curators as a new canon. There are just as many “forgotten artists” as ever, while those who make the cut are familiar favourites. I’ll refrain from providing a list, but it’s easy to see who I mean. For every artist included I could name another dozen who would do just as well.

Thea Proctor, ‘The bathers’
(circa 1925)

There’s still much to enjoy in the new hang, such as the placement of Thea Proctor’s The Bathers (c.1925), alongside Tsuruta Gorō’s Contemporary women divers at rest (1935). It was also an eye-opener to see Sidney Nolan’s Self-portrait (1943), in relation to Head of a man (1957), by British artist, Cecil Collins. There’s no tangible connection between any of these works, but the visual affinities are remarkable. It’s a trick repeated many times, as the curators have enjoyed themselves finding these unusual relationships.

On the other hand, there is such a quantity of work by Frank and Margel Hinder that an overseas visitor would imagine the couple were the most important modern artists in Australia. And did we need quite so many pictures by Jenny Watson? One would have been more than sufficent. I did, however, enjoy seeing a painting by Kerry Gregan hung alongside Tony Tuckson and Aida Tomescu. There’s a genuinely forgotten artist who deserves another look.

Tsuruta Gorō, ‘Contemporary women divers at rest’ (1935)

I could go on citing good and bad examples, but a periodic shake-up of the hang is a valuable exercise that allows us to rethink the way we relate to art and artists that have grown too familiar. It’s more problematic when such hangs become the only thing the gallery has to offer – a kaleidoscopic display that becomes tedious without a firm sense of place and chronology. Those associated with the Sydney Modern Project seem to believe audiences will keep returning simply to look at the fun things they’ve done with the collection. They won’t.

Nothing in either building dents my conviction that dedicated exhibitions are the most important requirements for a successful museum. To treat the permanent hang as a quasi-exhibition is not a viable option.

For those of us who still believe in the quaint, old-fashioned idea that one of the pleasures of the museum is the quiet contemplation of works of art, Sydney Modern’s new, entertainment-plus approach presents a few challenges. With major art institutions today, the balancing act is to be dignified but not boring, popular but not vulgar. The Sydney Modern project, for all its instant popularity, is already walking this tightrope. A little spin might help the spectacle, but it also adds to the degree of difficulty.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December, 2022