In a World War II-era fuel storage tank deep beneath Sydney, the smell of gasoline still hangs in the air. Pulsing lights sweep the cavernous space to reveal fragments of “The End of Imagination,” an installation by Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas. Five twisting sculptural forms, born from a digitized future of Rojas’ creation, emerge out of the darkness.
Now known as the Tank, this 24,000-square-foot former naval bunker has been transformed into an exhibition space as part of an ambitious redevelopment of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Dubbed the Sydney Modern Project, the 344-million-Australian-dollar ($230 million) expansion has been described by state officials as the city’s “most significant cultural development” since the famous Opera House opened almost 50 years ago.
The gallery’s original 19th-century structure now sits at the center of an art museum campus. A huge new building, which opens to the public on Saturday, almost doubles the available exhibition space, while three art pavilions hug the hillside, sloping down toward the harbor.
Yet, it is the Tank beneath it that serves as the experiential centerpiece. Rojas, the first artist commissioned to fill the space, said his installation aims to recreate the awe he felt descending into the subterranean gallery for the first time in 2018, when the Sydney Modern Project was still under construction.
That moment “was very similar to what you’re experiencing now,” Rojas told CNN. “You have to commit yourself to navigating the space.” The experience, both formidable and inspiring, is a rebuke to a “world where everything is articulated for us,” he added.
Rojas described the invitation to join Sydney Modern Project’s inaugural program as a “once in a lifetime opportunity that I wasn’t going to let go.” He also enjoys the unique position of being able to exploit visitors’ unfamiliarity with the space.
“The next commission, whoever comes, will have to deal with the fact that people know that it is waiting for them,” Rojas explained. “This is a unique moment; this is a very fragile moment that we have.”
Design ‘breathes with the city’
The depths of the Tank are almost antithetical to the gleaming harbor above. The underground gallery also stands in contrast to the rest of the Sydney Modern Project, where multiple stories of glass windows and towering ceilings produce fresh, light-filled exhibition spaces.
The redevelopment was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architects SANAA, who sought to create a building that “breathes with the city, the park and the harbor.” The bright white for which the firm’s buildings are known seems to blend with the colors of Sydney’s ubiquitous sandstone.
With millions of tourists drawn to the iconic white sails of the neighboring Opera House each year, SANAA’s co-founder and principal architect, Ryue Nishizawa, said the new wing was designed to be welcoming to passersby.
“There is no border to cross,” he said. “There is not just one way to come in and come out. You can choose the way.”
Elsewhere on the site, gardens and outdoor art spaces link the new pavilions with the gallery’s original building. Describing the 125-year-old neoclassical structure a “temple on the hill,” gallery director Michael Brand believes the new additions will help the institution better capitalize on its prime location.
“We all love (the original building) of course, but for new visitors sometimes that can be a bit intimidating,” he added.
The New South Wales government has financed the bulk of the decade-long project, though almost a third of the funds were raised from private donors and some of Sydney’s wealthiest philanthropists. State officials believe the project will provide the local economy with a 1-billion-Australian-dollar ($669 million) windfall over the next 25 years, while providing Sydney — and Australia -— with a destination to rival the world’s major art museums.
Spotlighting Indigenous art
Sydney Modern Project’s opening program features the work of over 900 artists, with commissions by international names like Yayoi Kusama and Lee Mingwei among the star attractions. But Australian Indigenous art takes center stage at the new building’s entrance — a place where Brand hopes visitors begin their journey, both physical and artistic, through the complex.
“It’s very important in Australia, in Sydney, to have a place where school kids or international visitors can come and get a snapshot of how important Indigenous culture and Indigenous visual arts are for Australia,” he said.
The gallery’s deputy director, Maud Page, meanwhile said it was crucial that Indigenous works were placed throughout the gallery, not siloed in a specific room.
“Our uniqueness here in Australia is being able to be guided by (Indigenous) knowledges,” she said. “We’ve only just begun to understand what that might be. And that’s why, throughout our two buildings, you’ll find Indigenous art on every single floor, in conversation with all artists.”
The Yiribana Gallery, which is dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, opens with over 160 works. Among the artists represented is Iluwanti Ken, whose epic black and white panel work “Walawuru ngunytju kukaku ananyi” (or “Mother eagles going hunting”) speaks to her role as a matriarch and trailblazer.
“Just like this painting, this is what our lives are like in the community and in the arts center,” Ken said, speaking via a translator in the Pitjantjatjara language of Australia’s Southern Desert. “The older people have a responsibility but also the joy of training up young people so that our culture is strong.”
Last week, 1,500 school students from across New South Wales became the new galleries’ first visitors. A further 15,000 people have registered to be among the next through the doors of Sydney Modern Project.