Sydney Modern – The End of Imagination?

January 2023
The Tank at Sydney Modern; a space unlike any other.
The Tank at Sydney Modern; a space unlike any other.

Off we go then, across Te Tai-o-Rēhua to the new Sydney Modern art gallery. Built on Gadigal land in the Eora nation, designed by Japanese architects SANAA, funded mostly by Mum and Dad taxpayers via NSW Government coffers, and topped up with $100m from a handful of rich, and on the face of it, pretty generous local benefactors. 


Sydney Modern (still its working title) is an Art Gallery of New South Wales initiative, driven to completion by its current Director Michael Brand, who has a fine pedigree bringing to life such initiatives around the world. Ten years in the making, it's the single biggest (and most expensive) arts project to happen in Sydney, at least since Jørn Utzon's Opera House opened its doors in 1973. The receipt at the end added up to a cool $363,000,000 NZD. Yup, three hundred and sixty-three million bucks.


I emphasise the money bit, because of course, it's all about the money. It always is. Probably always has. So I'm not going to focus on that. Much. But I do want to have a serious talk about the cultural value of the art that kind of money supports. We were given a clue at the opening press conference, when the NSW arts minister, Ben Franklin, giddily told us all that Sydney Modern, "will bring in an extra two million visitors to the Art Gallery of New South Wales every year. Over the next 25 years, [it] will inject $1bn into the state's economy." 


Righto then. But... what about the art?




It's a hot late afternoon in Woolloomooloo. The Uber driver, Arthit, is wondering why I'm excited to see the new gallery. He was born in Thailand and has lived in Sydney for 14 years, hasn't visited the new gallery yet, and doesn't have a plan to either. "I don't know if the art would make me smile," he says, while beaming a dazzling one in the rear-view mirror.


I wasn't sure either. Maybe it's my depressing Scottish Presbyterianism that makes me think happiness must ultimately be paid for. But hey, entry is free, and the opening week offers a generous 10pm closing time. I hop out of the car as ominous thunderclouds gather, and ogle the view.


There isn't much of one. Sydney Modern (which inexplicably, is yet to be formally named) lies on a relatively short-stepped slope in Woolloomooloo, hemmed in by Sydney's ever encroaching infrastructure to the east, the harbour to the north and the Domain parklands and CBD to the west. Having traipsed through that area for years when I Iived in Sydney, I know it well. It's a pokey, difficult site which must have caused the architects, not least the geotechnical engineers, a few sleepless nights. They've done exceptionally well. 


A large forecourt with a ticket booth and a fancy coffee cart welcomes visitors to take shelter under a porch of waved glass, printed with micro dots to offer some shade from the baking Sydney sun (or recent rain!)


Francis Uprichard's work Here Comes Everybody lolls in the forecourt, like the drunks up the road at Kings Cross, catching their breath, leaning in, and looming large. It's a decent enough series of works - the scale and form doing most of the work, with tiny creatures afoot to add a bit of charm - but the site is incongruous, with the juxtaposition of the wavy roofline and white steel columns making it feel like an architectural prop rather than a stand-alone sculpture. It looks gaudily out of place.


As you walk past the humanoid forms silently cussing you from behind, you enter a more sober white steel and glass cube foyer into the main entry floor. I'm immediately reminded of the first time I walked into Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's architectural masterpiece, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. But this is 2022, not 1989, and I'm hoping for 33 years' worth of better. 


It's debatable.


Inside, it is light, airy and strangely minimal. In fact, the more I ponder it, the more I realise it's a baffling muddle of contrasts; the outside spaces being more inviting than those immediately inside. One of the first things you see - apart from the curved bookshop walls showing children's books (context people, context) are two clunky glass and steel blocks capping the elevator shafts; one for the public, and another - much larger one ­- presumably for transporting artworks to the light-filled layers below. It's an awkward choice. These cumbersome semi see-through monoliths block the spectacular view over Woolloomooloo and Sydney's north shore from the entrance viewpoint, and it does nothing to entice the viewer in - especially given there's barely any art in the immediate vicinity to distract you. Most of that has been cleared away into the floors underneath.


As you'd expect from a new institution, there are lots of directionless uniformed staff wandering aimlessly around. They're trying their best to look purposeful, but mostly look like bus drivers waiting to start their shifts. "Where would you like to go today darl? Post Structuralism!? Ooooh no sorry, we don't go past Formalism.


The first stop on my immediate right is the Yiribana Gallery - a dedicated space for Australia's First Nations artists. It's a joyful quick win; exacerbated by Iluwanti Ken and her terrific hunting Tjilpul (eagles), which feel very much at home here. The layout is pretty much another bland white space inside of a bigger glass cube, but the works hold their own and sing clearly - even if the voices feel a little bit too high on the reverb in places, being so densely packed together.


As I walk through the space, a boom of thunder makes the whole experience a bit more dramatic. And as it rolls on, more moments of lightning clarity flash into view, this time in the works of the late Yolngu clan leader and artist Mr Wanambi - a supremely talented artist and curator. His Wawurritjpal, 2021 is a metal sculpture-come-painting hybrid, with each mark scraped through the rusted surface to reveal the shining metal below. It's raw and honest and edgy. Nearby, is another brilliant example of contemporary First Nations art, Untitled 2007, by Western Desert region artist Doreen Reid Nakamarra (c1955-2009) a meditative, yet extraordinarily sophisticated and unique, masterpiece. They're both surrounded by a ripper of a show of various works, all with attitude, power, and grace. It's an exciting and strangely comforting place to be. It feels like it belongs more than any other space in the gallery.


Strangely, there are no works of senior Kaiadilt artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori anywhere to be seen. I say that not only as a past representative of her Estate in New Zealand, but also as a punter. But I suspect it's probably for good reason; the AGNSW generously loaned a magnificent Gabori painting for the recent large-scale show at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris and apparently it's on its way home. Still, it feels like the new space will feel more complete with one at its heart.


Walking out of the main room along a long-curtained, glass-walled corridor, it's a lovely surprise to see Lorraine Connolly Northey's work. Commissioned for the new building, she has produced a series of massive steel Narrbong - 'many bags' - made from rusted and desert-baked metal sheets and poles, presumably, if her previous work is anything to go by, often leftovers from colonial farming stations. At first, their placement shocks. Why hang 4-metre high works on a 6-metre high wall, in a 3-metre wide corridor? Crazy. Looking for the logic, I read the bit on the AGNSW website which tells me that it was entirely intentional so people could 'enjoy the artworks day and night'. (By whom? The surrounding area is a dead zone after 6pm.)




Back down the rabbit hole. Or the gigantic escalators, to be exact. In addition to the entry level floor, there are three sub-levels, each containing a range of gallery spaces with different 'themes'. 


First up, or down, there's the Making Worlds Collection which features works made from 2000 (ish) - present. It starts with an impressively large work, Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters 2019, by Tokyo-based art superstar Takashi Murakami that'll no doubt be popping up on Insta feeds everywhere (I can already hear the influencers moaning that the 10m wide work can't fit into a square format lol). It's fun and silly, and once referred to by the artist as a 'stupid cat painting'. He's not wrong.


Close by is a set of scruffy portraits by our very own Richard Lewer. It's a series of commissioned panels, each highlighting a team, individual or event in the making of Sydney Modern. They're disarmingly honest works, and add a nice touch to the intentional sensationalism of the glittering eye candy that surrounds them. Yet even as a fan of works that focus on subject matters involving labour and the working classes, they do feel a bit out of place; tokens of authenticity amidst a vast sea of trinkets and baubles. I have a hunch they'll be quietly shuffled out of the building under cover of darkness and into the store rooms in a year or two, never to be seen again. 


The other thing I notice is… the artists are all a bit familiar. You won't be coming here for surprises. But it's still a joy to see some of them. Tom Polo's gorgeously munted portraits in The most elaborate disguise 2016-19, beam off the wall, hung in a weirdly dysfunctional way befitting of the paintings themselves. They collectively peer onto the untidy mash-up of Mikala Dwyer's The divisions and subtractions 2017.  It's a messy and incoherent conversation they're having though, and one that doesn't really fit the awkward register of the space on this level. That might very well be the point. Still, in either case, I suspect it's yet more art that won't age well.


I'm guided into an installation - or perhaps an event -  entitled Archive of Mind by Korean artist Kimsooja, which despite its scale, just feels like a pointless people pleaser. It's been seen before in numerous guises, in the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, Italy in 2017, and at The Peabody Essex Museum in 2019, where I wish they would have left it.


There was little excitement in the room, although admittedly it was sold to us as a 'meditative communal experience' but the breath-taking expanse of the table – at a rough guess around 25m at its widest point – contains lots of clay balls hand-rolled by baffled-looking visitors (are they meditating on how expensive this table cost?) It's a navel-gazing extravaganza that sucks the oxygen out of the room due to the scale of its banality. The thunderstorm outside is honestly the best part of the experience, prompting an excited 'OoOh!' for every flash. Then it's back to damp clay drudgery. Aussies really need to start asking for those responsible for such acquisitions to put their names to it. Maybe little cards with 'artist > title > year > curator now looking for work'. I joke, as I'm absolutely against public shaming or cancellations of any sort, but at least let it serve as a warning  so we know when to run…


Perhaps the selectors have been reading from the same Hans Ulrich Obrist hymn book - but if so, they're singing 10 years too late. His ideas are getting old, and that ship may have long sailed from the Woolloomooloo dock. The 'cultural confetti' technique on show here doesn't really cut it anymore in terms of multiculturalism nor representation, and (someone has to say it) quality. 


Ah well, curators gonna curate. 


Smoke and mirrors are a large part of gallery and auction life these days, and you at least get the mirrors quite literally doing their faux-magic in the blingy installation called Guts by Samara Golden. People were raving about this; I didn't get it. At. All. Something about dystopian futures and COVID and the past few dramatic years we've all lived through. It's a high-school project with an institutional price tag. And once you get over the initial giddy spectacle, on reflection, you realise it really is merely just about reflections. It's all a bit meh, once you see through the shinyness of it.


In a way it's the archetypal work for the tone of the new space; a place that fetishizes the objects on display, rather than frames them as portals to new, deeper human experiences and connections. It's all a bit Art Lite™ for my liking.


In fact, a lot of the art here feels like it has lost its way - settling for 'acceptable' rather than exploring any brave new worlds of possibility. For a spectacular building specifically designed to house it, the art for the most part already feels surprisingly tired. In the main spaces astride the lofty atriums, it struggles to achieve any sort of interesting dialogue, never mind a deep dive into anything new. It's the kind of art that showy collectors adore; and they're going to feel right at home here. But the sycophantic media ravings and the many groups of overly well-dressed 'art lovers' I saw excitedly exclaiming at every opportunity about how 'BRILLIANT' it all was, made it feel a bit like a group masturbation exercise - with the building being the poor sock.


Next level down, I'm hoping for next level experience because apparently this is where  more of the Kiwi artists can be found. Yay! Instead, I find Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter. There's an Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan installation Making it Home consisting of cardboard cut outs of 'ideal homes' made by local children over the previous year - a sort of vague gesturing (of course) about our domestic and global environment. Oh well, at least its recyclable.


Nearby, there's an incongruous work by Michael Parekōwhai which seems to riff on the Lighthouse project he did here over half a decade ago. Oddly, I can't find any reference for it on the AGNSW website and didn't take a reference shot. Not that it really matters; where the original work is quite striking in its audacity, this one is neither edgy nor especially well executed, feeling like a maquette rather than a particularly poignant work of art in itself. 


Still, there are enough little Easter egg surprises for me to crack a smile about. These, like the tiny Lotus pond ceramic from China's Jiangxi province made during the Jingdezhen Yuan dynasty about 900 years ago, cut through the consumerised confusion like little diamonds. It's essentially a small ceramic dish of children in a lotus pond, complete with fish, lotus flowers, playful poses and bountiful moments of sheer unbridled joy. There are a few of these gems dotted around - no spoilers - and while they're incongruous, they do add a touch of much-needed difference, not to mention depth.




You can't miss Lisa Reihana's digital work, GROUNDLOOP, 2022. Quite literally. It's best viewed from the platform next to the escalators, so you can take in the ultra-wide screen of the kind you'd see in the cinema, albeit from the very back row as it feels just a bit too far away. Viewing it in this detached context makes it feel more like a Westfield experience rather than a gallery one. Reihana is an accomplished storyteller, bringing to life ancient myths and stories from Maori and wider moana cultures. The film is positioned as an 'indigifuturist narrative' (?) and while it does indeed have a distinctively unique narrative and honourable creative ambition, it certainly doesn't push any boundaries in the medium nor use any truly cutting-edge technologies that take it from good-ish to great. A work about early pioneers that isn't very pioneering is a lost opportunity.


Speaking of digital, there is very little of it on display in the new gallery, and what they have is nowhere near edgy enough. How the AGNSW hope to attract anyone under 25 here is beyond me. There's a dedicated kid's library - a delightful and useful touch - but it's a striking omission at a time when younger artist are moving away from the more traditional forms of institutional trinkets and baubles into Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Generative, Blockchain-based and Digital art. Of course, you can't buy your way into the vanguard (actually you can lol) but with all that commissioning money sloshing around they could have at least tried. Where is the experimentation? The visually new? The art that doesn't fit easy-cultural-trope-laundry-lists? It feels like the selectors have reached out to the artists they knew were safe bets rather than really uncovering anything extraordinary. I hope for all our sakes this changes, otherwise Sydney has just built a new airport terminal, except it's about 14 kilometres away from the actual airport.


Art needs to stay relevant. At a time when the world is in an extreme state geopolitically and economically - art should address these things in a gutsy, real-world way. There's little point in presenting sugar-coating subtleties 'with a twist' as hard-core intellectual feasts, or half-baked social science experiments as 'interrogations'. Because in an always-on, 24-hour news and info cycle, our bullshit radars are too finely tuned for us to buy into it. But I guess we have to keep the $1 billion over 25 years coming in somehow




Anyway, such critical gloominess has no place in such a gloriously light-filled space on opening week. And as the sun brightens the sky again outside, I'm in a curious mood as I descend to the lowest level of Sydney Modern, which is also one of the highlights; its very own heart of darkness. 


Way down in the underground basement, accessed by a brilliant, and brilliantly white, spiral staircase, is SANAAs masterstoke. 'The Tank' was once an old oil storage facility for the naval warships of Woolloomooloo. Once you descend deep underground into this cavernous chamber, you may need time to adjust your eyes; it's a jarring contrast to the light and airy spaces above. It's also chillingly brilliant. The uneasiness is made worse by the ever-searching spotlights robotically trundling across the ceiling in an unsettling way, lighting a series of even darker sculptural works. This is a place of sheer awe; a living, breathing Piranesi etching disorientating in its scale and arresting in its rhythmically pillared vastness.


I'd arrived at the best work in Sydney Modern - in fact one of the best installations I've seen anywhere in Australia outside of the national treasure that is MONA. And if you're not familiar with the work of Adrián Villar Rojas (he's never really shown work here in Aus or NZ so you are forgiven) you're in for a very special treat. Villar Rojas is a young (b.1980) Argentinian artist who has made his mark with his oversized, and usually monumentally disturbing, installations. 


And this is one of his darkest.


The End of Imagination, which is the title of this show, is spellbinding stuff. Each 'sculpture', for want of a better word, is hung on a heavy steel frame, propped up by chains like a set of sacrificial carcasses that might once have populated strange planets, spaceships, fossilised monsters or familiar earthscapes. There are moon boot imprints alongside munted ancient space wreckage. Gnarled and twisted steel and resin bio-morphic machines, which reek of death, resignation and ancient histories - hung as memento mori reminding us of our insignificance in a future universe more powerful and unexpected than you or I could ever imagine. Yet they're not depressing works at all. As an installation it's awe inspiringly, jaw-droppingly magnificent in its audacity and ambition. It's been a long time since I've seen anything this good, and I guarantee you'll be a better person for seeing it. (Also, buy the limited-edition commemorative book if you can - it's brilliant, even if priced at an eye-wateringly expensive $140).




Money is the stuff that makes art happen and, ultimately, breaks it. We live in an era of late capitalism, groaning under the weight of its relentlessly stark inequity and inequality, so it's a shame Sydney Modern reinforces these capitalist ideals rather than questions them. The entire exercise is living proof that you can have all the money in the world,  yet still end up with such middle-of-the-road cultural value. It's everything we were warned would happen to art in late capitalism; art is eating itself one canapé at a time. You can already see this yearning for safety in both private and corporate collections, of course, but it's a tad depressing to see it creeping into institutions which are already suffering from a relevance issue. Not everyone likes art, but that doesn't mean you should try to convince them with showy entry-level artworks. Sydney Modern must not be allowed to age into a monument of mediocrity.


So Arthit, on the off chance that you might read this, yes. It's worth a visit, and yes, there's a lot to love. As a project, a building, a canvas, a space to debate, argue, and feel a little awe -  it will, ultimately, make you smile. Art is the one place we have left to ask questions, get angry, be mesmerised, be bored, be enriched, be outraged and feel awestruck all at the same time - but still leave the room as friends. I feel a lot of things on my departure from the place, but overall, despite some of the artworks chosen for launch, I'm a better person for the experience.


Sydney Modern is a noble project. At a time when the arts are under pressure across the board, it's a terrific feat of long-haul vision, impressive fundraising, and sheer determination. The AGNSW has gifted us one of the most elegant galleries in the world. The task now is to fill it with art that smashes expectations like a wrecking ball.


Until that time, it'll be interesting to see how Sydney Modern reconciles the tension between trying to be one of the best new gallery projects in our region - and having to settle for merely being one of the biggest.


Scott Lawrie

January 2023


The views in this essay are my own, and may not represent the views of the gallery artists. Feedback, corrections, suggestions welcomed.


Well written piece Scott, I know the area down to Woollamoolloo and as your tour proceeds I couldn't help thinking about our visit to MONA not long after it had opened, it felt familiar. It had the big Gilbert & George exhibition that was a very slight and commercial piece of G&B branding. That was disappointing as it filled most of the large galleries leaving little of significance in the remaining spaces.
A Sydney trip this year will provide the opportunity to check out the Sydney Modern for myself.
Thanks for the intro.
Roy Good
27 January 2023
Thanks Scott, appreciate your in depth, lighthanded style of critique & like that you chose to describe rather than illustrate. A gobsmacking cost ! Motive becomes clear in what & how they exhibit - with vision hopefully! All eyes & ears!
Phil Dadson
13 January 2023
Thank you for the introduction to Adrián Villar Rojas.
Anne Hill
2 January 2023

Hi Scott,
Interested to read your reaction (the first I've read of your criticism). Illustrations throughout the text would have helped.


** Hi Gerry - thank you! I was a bit worried about copyright, so instead I popped in links for each artwork. These should open in a new window. Scott

Gerry Bell
2 January 2023

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