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ABC News
Jo Higgins

Art Gallery of NSW Sydney Modern Project opens new gallery with underground Tank space and top-rating sustainable design

It's been 10 years and $344 million dollars in the making, but on Saturday December 3, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) will finally open the doors of its highly anticipated new building.

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo-based firm SANAA, the new building — the centrepiece of AGNSW's Sydney Modern Project — nearly doubles the gallery's architectural footprint and exhibition space.

Connected to the 19th-century neoclassical building by a Welcome Plaza and series of landscaped gardens, the new gallery consists of a series of sprawling, airy, glass-fronted and interlocking pavilions and stepped terraces that are embedded into the land bridge and existing infrastructure of The Domain parklands.

Inside, across four levels, there is a gallery showcasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art; a new 1,300 square-metre gallery space for major exhibitions; a gallery for 'new media' (e.g. video, VR); dedicated learning and participation studios; and a staggering 2,200sqm subterranean gallery that was once a World War II naval oil tank.

The name of this new art palace? While it's being dubbed "Sydney Modern" by many, the new building doesn't have an official title yet.

"With the development of a 'campus', we've been looking towards having an Indigenous name for both the new building and the existing building," AGNSW director Michael Brand told ABC News.

"But to do that appropriately, we are in consultation with the community — and we're still moving forward with that consultation so we can find the right time to do it, the right way to do it, and the right names."

Art Gallery of NSW opens new pavilions

'Most significant build since the Opera House'

At the media preview on Tuesday, the NSW Premier Dominic Perottet and the Arts Minister Ben Franklin, and gallery director Michael Brand, all spoke of the financial and cultural significance of the investment in the Sydney Modern Project (for which the NSW Government contributed $244 million, with private donations covering the other $100 million) as well as the social, economic and creative benefits it will offer to the state and visitors and artists alike.

"Make no mistake, this is the most significant cultural build since the [Sydney] Opera House [in 1973]," said Perottet.

Franklin added: "Over the next 25 years it will inject a billion dollars into the state's economy."

There was talk of an "architectural renaissance" and comparisons drawn to Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Whether or not these comparisons bear out, from a sustainability perspective the achievements are notable: this is the first public art museum in Australia to achieve a 6-star Green Star design rating.

The new building, which operates on 100 per cent renewable energy, features solar panels, rainwater capture and harvesting capabilities, and more than 8,000sqm of landscaped areas and green roof that have been planted with Australian natives.

But what of the art?

A multiplicity of stories

When the doors open on Saturday, there will be work by more than 900 Australian and international artists on display across the two-building AGNSW campus.

Brand described the new building as a "21st-century art museum" where the voices of artists are central.

"There are stories told [here] in a multiplicity of voices from a multitude of places, but they're all told across Sydney," he said.

"Our chief artistic possibility as a 21st-century Australian art museum derives from the coexistence here in Sydney and Australia of multiple cultural traditions: from those of our Indigenous Australians, which can be traced back 65,000 years, to those of a long series of subsequent arrivals over the past 250 years."

And while the director concedes that the core and strength of the Art Gallery of NSW's collection "will always be what might be loosely termed 'Australian' art, we recognise that this term has become increasingly less useful in an ever-more fluid and easily connected world," he said.

"Australian artists have always mediated the flow of ideas and forms in both directions. And this is why we are redoubling our efforts to find points of commonality with the art and artists beyond our shores."

New art for a new building

As part of the Sydney Modern Project, the gallery has undertaken the largest commissioning program in its 151-year history.

Speaking at the press conference, deputy director and director of collections Maud Page described this commissioning process "as one that has given breadth and ambition to artists to work with us and to tell us what they think an art museum leading into 2023 needs to be".

The gallery has commissioned nine new, large, site-specific works: by Australian artists Karla Dickens, Simryn Gill, Lorraine Connelly-Northey and Jonathan Jones; New Zealanders Lisa Reihana, Francis Upritchard and Richard Lewer; and international artists Yayoi Kusuma and Lee Mingwei. All are on display except for Jones's work, bíal gwiyúŋo (the fire is not yet lighted), which will be completed in mid-2023.

Elsewhere in the building, recent acquisitions and commissions pepper an exhibition titled Making Worlds, which presents the work of a number of Australian and international artists from AGNSW's collection in compelling conversation with each other.

Korean artist Kimsooja's gently monumental participatory work Archive of Mind (2017) is a highlight here, with visitors invited to sit and mindfully mould a handful of clay that is added to the galaxy of hand-shaped spheres on the enormous table in front of them.

Another exhibition, titled Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter, introduces Australian audiences to works by acclaimed international artists including Jeffrey Gibson, Simone Leigh and Samara Golden, alongside works by more familiar names including Tracey Moffatt and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

The underground Tank gallery

When construction began several years ago, the subterranean oil bunker that is now known as the Tank gallery could only be accessed through a manhole in the roof.

While remnants of the Tank's past industrial life still linger quite literally in the air (with the faint smell of oil), this cavernous, columned space will now hold the gallery's most ambitious work: a site-specific commission that will change every year.

For the opening, AGNSW commissioned a new work by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, who has previously created works for the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and for the 2015 Istanbul Biennial, at Büyükada Island.

Rojas's work for the Tank gallery, titled The End of Imagination, is composed of five suspended, monumental sculptural forms, which are animated by the shadows of sentient-seeming spotlights. The dark and atmospheric descent down a large spiral staircase into the Tank is a memorable first experience.

Elevating First Nations Art

A core part of the Sydney Modern Project has been the symbolic relocation of AGNSW's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space, its Yiribana Gallery, from lower level 3 in the old building to a much larger space at the entrance of the new one.

Artist and Girramay and Kuku Yalanji man Tony Albert is one of the gallery's artist trustees, and he spoke powerfully at the media preview about the significance of the relocation, but also of the opportunity and responsibility to elevate and empower Indigenous knowledge as the gallery looks to the future:

"Art has the ability to heal and to transcend culture, age and language to educate and to challenge. With the opening of Sydney Modern this art museum has the opportunity to engage many more people than ever before.

Our colonial history is complex; it cannot be extinguished. But if we cannot learn from our mistakes we are doomed to make them again in the future. We do not need to encourage alternative viewpoints, but implement and value Indigenous people, perspectives and knowledges. We do not need to tell the story of Indigenous people. We need to empower and open the front door to let Indigenous people tell their stories their ways.

The relocation of the Yiribana gallery to the entrance of this new building along with major commissions by Indigenous artists Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Karla Dickens and Jonathan Jones makes a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales a flagship opportunity for this engagement."

Looking forward

Meriam Mer artist and designer Grace Lillian Lee is one of the artists whose work is on display in the new Yiribana Gallery. Her series of intricately woven, wearable sculptural forms, Belonging, was also commissioned by the gallery.

Lee is excited to have her art shown in this context: "It's really shifted my thinking about how I see my work, what I'm creating, and why I'm creating it for myself," she tells ABC Arts.

She is the founder of First Nations Fashion + Design (FNFD), a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting and promoting Indigenous fashion through mentoring, skills development and curated fashion performances.

Her success as an artist and designer was key to establishing FNFD, and now, the opportunity to be shown in Yiribana has enabled Lee to focus on her independent practice.

She has also reflected on what her inclusion means for her mentor, artist Uncle Ken Thaiday, who taught her the weaving technique she employs across all of her work.

"He has been really supportive of my practice, and he's had an incredible career and wants to see that happen for me. So it's just been a really special opportunity to be part of the Yiribana space and to see it come to life," says Lee.

"For Yiribana to be here and for us to be here as a collective is quite powerful … I was really moved by Tony's speech because I do think [this moment] is an opportunity for [us as] artists. We do have an opportunity to hopefully shift where the future narrative and direction of our way of living could be.

"We have the oldest living and surviving culture in the world, but as a colonial country, we are so young. And so how are we going to evolve as artists? And what's going to be the shift in the narratives that are being spoken about and shared from our old knowledge into what the future looks like?"

They're questions to ask of everyone who visits the new gallery.

Art Gallery of New South Wales' new building opens on December 3.

From December 3-11 the gallery will host a special program of talks, performances and concerts to celebrate, and opening hours for the old and new buildings will be extended to 10pm each night during that period.

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