"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

22 November, 2009

Art Sydney – How to be a Venerable, yet Very Hip Art Institution – The Art Gallery of New South Wales

This image: copyright The Luo Brothers

We have all got them, haven’t we? A rather specific, rather personal, list of our own favourite, arty hang outs. They are, more often than not, the key venues we visited, usually as pimply adolescents, clutching our cheap reproductions of Matisse and Monet, insanely happy to wander through hallowed halls, finally contemplating the images that had inspired us – still blissfully ignorant that the rest of life, sadly, did not consist of empty afternoons, devoted to the casual contemplation of art.

In a fairly long list, mine would include the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, acknowledged ugly sister of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, but an institution where key elements of the European avant-garde were forged, and a place where I personally did much of my own art education, over the course of several lunchtimes, during my first posting as a foreign correspondent.

There is also Peggy Guggenheim’s still somehow slightly louche villa on the Grand Canal in Venice, the light, bright Picasso Museum in Antibes in the South of France and the warren of basements and mezzanines which constitute Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

It would also very much include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, an eclectic and extraordinary collection of significance, housed in a fabulous late 19th century neo-Classical building in the heart of Sydney’s airy, green heart, The Domain.

I first visited AGNSW on a flying trip to Sydney in 1999. It has been a rather long ten years and Oz is a very long way away; but I resolved that my recent trip Down Under would include another visit – if only to check that my initial impressions of a superior institution had been well-founded.

Before we – myself & my friend Elana (of whom, more later...) even entered the Gallery, we were treated to the latest of the Kaldor Public Art Projects: an installation by Japanese-born, Berlin-based, artist Tatzu Nishi, who has ingeniously recreated the immediate environment surrounding the equestrian sculptures outside the museum - in a thought-provoking and utterly chilling way. I would urge Sydneysiders not to miss this extraordinary installation and anyone passing through to try and catch it (it runs until February 2010).

The AGNSW also boasts a vital Asian Art collection. Funerary ceramics such as Tang horses are cleverly, and not at all patronisingly, displayed alongside works by provocative contemporary Chinese artists, such as the Luo Brothers (see image at the top of this post).

The AGNSW exhibition space itself is aptly fit for purpose. Every piece was immaculately installed and sensibly labelled - elements so often ignored, even by leading global galleries. As a whingeing Pom, I particularly enjoyed all the home-grown stuff and I have now concluded that Australian Art is rather like Swiss Wine: the locals are well aware of how good it is; ergo, they like to keep it all to themselves.

The Australian artistic tradition exhibited at AGNSW is vibrant and inclusive. There is plenty of heritage work by artists who are perhaps better known further afield such as Sydney Nolan (1917-1992) but more contemporary artists are also well-represented, such as Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen, Fred Williams, John Brack, Rosalie Gascoigne and everyone's favourite, Brett Whiteley. There is also an important collection of Aboriginal and Torres Straits art, from bark paintings to new media installations.

As a brief aside, the Australian contribution to the Venice Biennale this year also impressed, particularly Felicity Fenner's small, but perfectly formed, group show at the Ludoteca, a former convent between the Giardini and the Arsenale. The medieval building lent itself perfectly to the installations by emerging artists, Vernon Ah Kee, Ken Yonetani, and Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro.

Given my exuberant enthusiasm for the Gallery, I was thrilled when I returned home to Blighty to discover that AGNSW also had a Twitter feed @ArtGalleryofNSW run by the lovely Molly and Sheona. The Gallery also runs regular Art After Hours sessions, with live music and ArtBeat workshops and events, especially for Gallery Kids. They have tours in Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese and sign language tours for the deaf. The Gallery also has a Flickr group and a YouTube channel – sure signs of a venerable institution that knows just how to make the most of Social Media.

It was through Social Media that I first came across the perfect companion for my NGNSW trip. I was in Sydney helping out with a conference about the Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age, run by Media140 and generously hosted by the ABC.

Elana Bowman is a feisty South African born lady, whose family emigrated to Australia in the 1990s. Fellow bookworm Elana and I first met on-line, via virtual reading circle, Shelfari.com, back in the mists of time, around five years ago, when Twitter itself was still a gleam in the eyes of its founders: @ev and @biz.

Since then, she and I have become Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter. I learned about her heartbreaking decision to close her beloved book shop, her subsequent job hunt and followed a few of her romantic ups and downs. She, in turn, was a great cyber support when my dear old Dad succumbed to dementia over the course of 2007/8. I had no doubt that when we finally met IRL, in the bowels of ABC’s Ultimo Centre, it would be just like a reunion with a long lost and trusted friend.

And so it was. Our afternoon in the gallery, followed by a stroll through China Town's night markets, a welcome libation in a backpacker pub and the post-Media140 valedictory drinks at the CBD Hotel, was truly one of the highlights of my Australian interlude. So thank you, city of Sydney for the Art Gallery of New South Wales and thank you, Social Media, for my dear friend, Elana.