Art, Reviews //

First look: Sydney Modern

A new addition to the Art Gallery of NSW, filled with an array of stunning artworks, will be available to the public this Saturday.

The Art Gallery of NSW will open a new building to the public on Saturday 3 December, expanding the gallery to form a new art museum campus and marking the completion of a decade-long expansion project. Honi explored the new Sydney Modern to see how the gallery’s next era is shaping up. 

The space

Sydney Modern was designed by Kazuyo Sejma and Ryue Nishizawa of the Tokyo-based architecture firm SANAA. The Pritzker Prize-winning pair have designed notable art spaces around the world, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa and the New Museum of Contemporary art in New York.

Interior view of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new SANAA-designed building, 2022, photo © Iwan Baan.
Exterior view of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new SANAA-designed building, photo © Iwan Baan.

The building and its surrounds were designed with their position on Sydney’s coastline in mind: “we aimed to design an art museum building that is harmonious with its surroundings, one that breathes with the city, the park and the harbour,” the architects said.

The building is constructed out of a series of expansive glass pavilions set into the landscape, creating spaces of impressive scale with unsurprisingly stately views. The grand scale is rendered accessible with a series of clever design moves, and a sense of Sydney’s warmth is one of the key attributes reflected by the building, according to AGNSW director Michael Brand. 

This warmth is conveyed by the use of rammed earth throughout, its imperfect texture and honey colour tethering the structure to the hillside. Moving between levels can occur via escalator or lift, but it is more satisfying to take the narrow spiral staircase that pulls you downwards and brings you close to the almost sweet smell of the surface. A sense of domesticity, proximity, and playfulness is also introduced by window-like gaps in the walls between exhibits, inviting passers-by to glimpse and peer between spaces.

The building process is memorialised in a nine-panel series of paintings depicting the site as it progressed and the people who worked on it by Richard Lewer, entitled Onsite, construction of Sydney Modern which resides on the lands of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. The figures are rendered in Lewer’s characteristically expressive, naïve portraiture style, which prioritises capturing the subjects’ relationships to their surroundings over producing an exact likeness.


Engaging with Indigenous perspectives is a central aim of the expansion, with works from Aboriginal artists to be found on every level.

Indigenous artist and AGNSW trustee Tony Albert said, “The perspectives and presentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art remained a principled core of all stages of the Sydney Modern project.”

Albert continued: “Art has changed my life. This place, this space, this gallery demonstrate how powerful art can be.”

“We do not need to tell the story of Indigenous people, we need to empower and open the front door, let Indigenous people tell their stories, their ways,” he said.

The Yiribana gallery is described as placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art front and centre. The current exhibition, ‘Burbangana’, intends to act as an invitation into Indigenous philosophies and lived experiences.

The first artwork a viewer encounters upon entering the gallery is Genevieve Grieves’ Picturing the old people (2005). Five digital panels display photographs of Indigenous families in the style of colonial portraits. The images move — sometimes subtly in the form of minor gestures, and other times more dramatically — acting as a reflection on the flattening and obscuring of First Nations realities through colonial framing.

Some of the works in this gallery are long-standing pieces in AGNSW’s Aboriginal art collection. One of such is Lin Onus’ sculpture Fruit bats (1991), which features 100 polychromed fibreglass fruit bats, true-to-size, hanging from a Hills Hoist washing line. The sheer number of fruit bats (and the small painted circles representing droppings beneath them) subverts the mundane suburban symbol of the Hills Hoist, functioning as a reclamation.

Yhonnie Scarce’s Death zephyr (2017) is a striking inclusion in the space, with 2000 clear and black glass yams hanging in a swarming cloud overhead. The work recalls the nuclear fallout, or puyu, unleashed at Maralinga by British and Australian nuclear testing between 1953 and 1963. The positioning of the piece in a central part of the gallery allows its presence to be felt as you walk between artworks, the delicate glass a reminder of the menace that radiation poisoning inflicted on Indigenous people through the testing at Maralinga. 

Installation view of the Yiribana Gallery featuring (from left) Yukultji Napangati Untitled 2005, Doreen Reid Nakamarra Untitled 2007, Bobby West Tjupurrula Tingari sites around Kiwirrkura 2015 and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra 2008, and (top) Yhonnie Scarce Death zephyr 2017, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Zan Wimberley.

Other artworks have been created specifically for the gallery. A series of ceramic pots by the Hermannsburg Potters depict memories and experiences tied to outstations throughout their homelands. For over 30 years, the Hermannsburg Potters have depicted Arrernte life and stories through handmade and hand-painted ceramics. The memories are captured in vivid paint and sculpting, encapsulating the landscape and family life.

Aurukun artists from the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre have created a series of 26 hand-carved sculptures of ku’, or camp dogs, for the gallery. The Pack of ku’ communicates the individual personalities of the dogs and reflects the cultural significance of ku’ for the artists. 

Making Worlds

The exhibition entitled ‘Making Worlds’ in the Isaac Wakil gallery hopes to explore the navigation and conceptualisation of time and place. The strength of this collection lies in the diversity of geographical origins it binds together through its theme.

A highlight is Gail Mabo’s Tagai, which forms the Tagai constellation using 3D-printed stars on interlocking bamboo. The constellation is significant for people within the Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait), guiding navigation and everyday rhythms like harvesting. A star in the formation, Koiki, was named after the artist’s father, Eddie Koiki Mabo, in 2015. The artwork visually evokes themes of interconnectedness, with the unique materiality of the 3D-printed stars recalling the ‘star stand’ found in the channel between Mer and Dauar Islands. 

The curators have not been afraid to let the exhibits here be expansive: two reflections on place and space are given whole walls, encouraging the viewer to stand back and let the work impact them.

Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven chronicle uses electrical cabling to weave a metres-long world map, which is positioned with the southern hemisphere at the top. The piece is vibrant and visually engaging thanks to its subversion of the typical north-up world map, yet the electrical wires are made to look like barbed wires, inviting the observer to question how people are both contained and connected in a globalising world. The choice of material invites reflection on the global role of electricity, from communications to e-waste.

Installation view of the Making Worlds exhibition in the new building at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring Reena Saini Kallat Woven chronicle 2018 © Reena Saini Kallat, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Zan Wimberley.

Where Kallat’s artwork is global, the immense painting hung on the opposite wall is intensely local. Ben Quilty’s Fairy Bower Rorschach, which is roughly two by five metres in size, reflects on the Fairy Bower Falls at Bundanoon on the NSW Southern Highlands. At face value, the scene seems idyllic, the abstraction and mirror reflection of the falls forces the viewer to reconsider this — the location is also the site of a massacre of Indigenous people in the early 19th century. The longer you sit looking at the painting, the more chilling the expanse of canvas becomes, each shadow, distortion, or dissimilarity forcing a rethinking of one’s initial assessment of the place.

The largest scale work in this part of the gallery is Archive of mind, a participatory work from South Korean conceptual artist Kimsooja. Visitors are asked to take a lump of clay and roll it into a clay ball between their hands. They place it on a large wooden table overlooking Wooloomooloo where it dries overnight. The balls will collect overtime, capturing the same small, sensory moment for thousands of visitors. 

Photography by Ellie Stephenson.

Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter

The exhibition in the Ainsworth Family gallery features works by 29 artists, including five new commissions, with themes exploring the nature of homes, home-making, and seeking home.

The first room features a huge installation by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, entitled From this place, formed out of ‘dream homes’ created from cardboard by visitors to the Art Gallery throughout 2022. The nests, treehouses, tents, and towers are formed into a cavernous structure that hangs like stalactites from the ceiling. The overall picture creates a cardboard metropolis, full of crannies and niches, that reveals itself (and the dreams and memories embedded within it) as you observe.

A particularly haunting room is the ‘shadow homes’ part of the exhibit. Lineament, a haunting film from Hiraki Sawa, explores surreality and memory loss, imagining a home suddenly rendered unrecognisable. The film’s soundtrack (reminiscent of Maya Deren) plays from a record player on display, which is echoed in Reggie Burrow Hodges’ Face the music: lenience, displayed opposite. In that painting, two faceless figures stand near a central record player. Despite being unrecognisable, they are clearly connected by the flow of the music; their stance and the tone of the painting betrays a sense of loss and strain. These motifs and the room as a whole tie together feelings of estrangement and connection, illustrating that homes can be sites of complexity and discomfort.

The next part of the exhibition, ‘house in a storm’, explores feelings of disorientation and disruption. A psychedelically mirrored loop of demolition and redevelopment in Walid Raad’s Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) _ Solidere 1994-1997 is projected over one wall. Similarly mind-bending is Danica Lundy’s luminous painting The inspiration of the poet, which surreally depicts an artist at work at a desk. The painting employs vivid colour and texture, peeling back the layers of the artist’s skin and house, laying bare the wiring.

Glowing texture is reflected — literally — in Samara Golden’s Guts, an enormous (or at least, seemingly enormous) installation that mirrors lurid colour infinitely. Guts is dislocating and disorienting, pairing with Lundy’s painting for a disconcerting exploration of what lies inside our social and corporeal homes.

Installation view of the Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter exhibition in the new building at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring Samara Golden Guts 2022 © Samara Golden, photo © Iwan Baan.


Two particularly excellent pieces of multimedia art can be found in the Nielson Family gallery, where the exhibition explores themes of rebellion and meditates on pop cultural antiheroes.

Howie Tsui’s Retainers of Anarchy brings to life historic Chinese literature by combining it with an intricately illustrated rendition of the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. The video scroll contains both elements of the quotidian — a chef chopping vegetables, for instance — with fantasy figures. Immense and algorithmically animated such that it never repeats itself, the video is remarkable in its seemingly endless detail: every minute spent watching reveals a new quirk.

Installation view of the Outlaw exhibition in the new building at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring Howie Tsui Retainers of Anarchy 2017 © Howie Tsui, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Zan Wimberley.

Meriem Bennani’s Guided tour of a spill (CAPS interlude) is easy to miss, situated away in a side room (I watched it alone for its entire 15 minute duration). However, you should, under no circumstances, miss it. A surreal, techno-tinged sci-fi short film, the work combines social critique with humour and absurdism, imagining the politics of migration in a world with teleportation. It alternates frenetically between live-action documentary footage and animation, and is truly delightful.

Experimenting with space

Two parts of the gallery feature particularly unusual forms of gallery spaces.

The Tank is a former WW2 oil tank located underground, beneath the rest of the gallery. You descend into the abyssal space via a spiral staircase. It’s immense and dark, with huge concrete pillars throughout the space, and has a lingering petrol smell. 

It currently houses Adrián Villar Rojas’ installation The End of Imagination. A series of huge, contorted objects sit throughout the Tank. They are dinosaurian machines: rife with claws and screws and chunks of dirt, but somehow alive and glistening. They sit in darkness (at times, near-complete), lit up periodically by random flashes of light. The Tank echoes any noise bizarrely, adding to the other-worldly feel. Because of the dark, you must walk slowly, discovering the objects in glimpses. The experience world-builds a dystopian feel, between the sudden beams of light catching your eyes, the futuristic-yet-fossilised objects, and the pervading smell of fuel.

Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas The End of Imagination 2022 in the Tank at the Art Gallery of New South Wales © Adrián Villar Rojas, photo © Jörg Baumann.

Lee Mingwei’s Spirit House is substantially more spiritually peaceful. Set outside of the gallery, a rammed earth cave houses a bronze Buddha statue, where visitors are encouraged to sit and reflect one at a time. Once a day, a stone is placed in the Buddha’s open hands, which participants can take with them. The outside setting adds to the exhibit, with the angle of the sun illuminating the statue, the warm smell of rammed earth and eucalyptus, and the hum of insects creating a permeating sense of peace.

These innovative elements typify what makes Sydney Modern worth a visit — its diversity and emphasis on participation makes it an engaging addition to Sydney’s art scene.

The Art Gallery of NSW’s new building is open from tomorrow, Saturday December 3. Free timed tickets for the opening weekend are available now.