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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

Sydney Modern

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

I really like Sydney Modern, Australia's latest addition to its cultural institutions. Of course, as with any major outlay of public and philanthropic money, Sydney Modern has attracted a huge amount of criticism and accolades.

Sydney Modern isn’t ‘look at me’ in the manner of architecture of some art galleries; think the Louvre(s), Paris and Abu Dhabi; the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; the Denver Art Museum; and others too numerous to mention. Rather, Sydney Modern works with the area on which it sits and the building, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) which it neighbours and extends. Much of it is subterranean, adding to its sense of minimal disruption. Floors are ‘-1’, ‘-2’, '-3', etc. It is a hidden structure for art works with some wall surfaces that open to wonderful views and/or sculpture gardens … like an angle of the building that is a glassed steppe construction looking out from the side of a hill with fabulous external views and sculpture.

(The relationship of Sydney Modern to its neighbour and very close relation, AGNSW, actually reminds me of the approach to the extension of the Mint, Macquarie Street, completed in 2004. Rather than trying to mimic what was already there ‒ the Mint being the oldest building in Sydney (built at a cost 45,000 gallons of rum!) ‒ the Mint extension juxtaposes the modern; complementing the Mint’s proportions and geometric alignments using glass, stone and other harmonising materials with existing sandstone… It worked and still works beautifully.)

Sydney Modern is a similar architectural feat. Alongside the enclosed sandstone magnificence of the AGNSW, it is a place of transparency, of ‘see-through’ spaces, a studied use of views to enhance the feeling of openness. Fabulous giant elongated sculptures (Francis Upritchard’s ‘Here Comes Everybody’) give a distorted humanoid welcome at its entrance that will make you smile, particularly when you compare this greeting with the proportional, oversized equestrian sculpture that flanks the entrance of AGNSW.

image: Francis Upritchard’s ‘Here Comes Everybody’ (one sculpture from the set)

And on the inside? Of all the remarkable areas offered by Sydney Modern, the most interesting sections are ‘The Tank’ (a renovated subterranean WW11 legacy), and a kaleidoscopic area/artwork (Samara Golden's 'Guts') that runs through the core of the building.

image: Adrián Villar Rojas' ‘The End of Imagination’ (one small portion of Rojas' installation)

‘The Tank’ is an area that adds an interesting history, always a bonus for any public building. Two large oil tanks were built into the eastern side of the Domain in Woolloomooloo to provide fuel for the naval fleet at Garden Island. Disused and remaining hidden for decades, they are now a dimly lit area that emits a whiff of oil in the air, and one that is capable of displaying huge art works and/or large cast performance pieces. Presently the work of Adrián Villar Rojas, ‘The End of Imagination’ is enclosed. Huge, insect-like monsters that remind me of discarded shells of lifeforms and make me wonder where their contents are wandering and what they eat (Fiona see far too many science-fiction movies:)

Do visit Sydney Modern

There is a lot to love, and I have only scratched the surface of Australia’s newest cultural institution.

Adrián Villar Rojas

The End of Imagination

3 December 2022 – mid 2023

Art Gallery of New South Wales

North Building

Lower level 4, The Tank

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