We visited quite of few Sydney museums during our time in the city.
Art Gallery of New South Wales provides an overview of global art with particular collections of Aboriginal and Australian art and European art from the 15th century, including a handful of Impressionist paintings and Picassos. It also had a high-level survey of Asian art with a particular emphasis on calligraphy. The highlight of the collection, however, was in its contemporary art. This included a work by Ai Wei Wei, a series by Sol Lewitt. It also had a couple special exhibits including “Nudes from the Tate”, that examines the very different ways in which different artists from different ages have portrayed the nude figure; and “Time, Light, Japan” in which a number of contemporary Japanese artists provide their own visual interpretations of the passage of time. The most engaging, at least to us, was a computer-generated video of waves by TechLab, the same firm that produced two even more engaging videos that we saw a few weeks ago at the Adelaide Art Museum.
Most interesting of all was “Manifesto” a suite of nine fascinating videos, each starring Kate Blanchett as a totally different character (homeless man, aristocratic Russian choreographer, pedantic mother, and so forth), in which she takes on totally different appearances, mannerisms, speech patterns and accents—then, totally breaks character to enter into nine different monotone soliloquys, each espousing a manifesto for or against about issues including capitalism, traditionalism, Dadaism, futurism, conceptual art, modern, artistic and truth, architecture and many of other issues. Each of the videos, which provided opportunities for Blanchett’s tour de force performances, was created by a different contemporary visual or video artist and all were directed and produced by Julian Rosefeldt.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Art was something of a letdown after the contemporary exhibits at the NSW Gallery. Although we saw some interesting works in the permanent collection, none had the impact of those from NSW.
Hyde Street Barracks
Hyde Street Barracks is now a museum that traces the city and the building’s own history through and after the convict era. It has renovated some of its cells and magistrate benches and has extensive exhibits in the main building. These include overviews, pictures and artifacts that trace the city’s and the building’s convict history, starting with the rather enlightened and visionary approach taken by Governor Macquarie and how this changed dramatically after a government commissioner convinced London the Macquarie was too lenient with the convicts and that he was spending too much money on facilities that convicts did not deserve. It profiles and traces some of the inhumane treatment the prisoners endured, details a number of personal stories and explains the evolution of the building through its multiple uses, including a temporary home for immigrant women and an asylum for old and infirm women. On the day we visited, the Barracks grounds was also hosting an artisan food fair, where a couple dozen purveyors sampled and sold their wares.
This small, but very informative museum is dedicated to explaining the history of the neighborhood through narratives and artifacts that highlight the stages of the area’s initial inhabitation by Aborigines, to the first British settlements, its development as the city’s maritime center, through its decline and rehabilitation. (The discussion in our From Penal Colony to Global City post on the history of the city, came from this museum.)
Susannah Place Museum
Susannah Place Museum is a faithful recreation of a shop and three working-class apartments that were built by the Riley family in 1844. The tour (which is the only way in which the building is accessible), began in a corner retail shop that fronted one of the apartments and is stocked as it may have been in the 19th century. We then went through each of their three apartments (and their outdoor bathrooms, complete bathtubs, sinks and outhouses). The very small apartments, with kitchen, parlor and two bedrooms, has original peeling paint and is furnished with products and personal effects from the last family to have lived there or with items from that period.
They contained artifacts including chamber pots and wash basins in bedrooms, a late 19th-century gas meter in which residents inserted a penny for three hours of service (a luxury at the time), an ice box for which the icemen delivered a weekly shipment of ice all the way from the New England lakes from which it was harvested. Each of the apartment tours was personalized by descriptions and stories of one of the families that lived in the unit sometime during its history. The stories included nationalities, family stages and occupations of some of the occupants, family practices and the ways in which children entertained themselves both within and especially outside the very small, very cramped units.
This relatively small museum traces the city’s history. It has models and tells the stories of each of the eleven ships that made up the “First Fleet” that established the first penal colony. It examines the histories of relations with the aborigines and traces the evolution of the first government house. It also examined the growth of the city as a shipping town (initially for direct imports and exports, but increasingly as a trans-shipping port for auto changed the nature of and types of city’s buildings and of its culture; and the evolution of the city’s skyline, from the elimination of the city’s longstanding 46 meter height limit, the 1962 construction of its first high-rise (the AMP Tower) and the subsequent Manhattanization of the CBD. It also has an interesting audio-visual storytelling device where the viewer selects two characters from a diverse list and watches and listens to a discussion between them about an important topic of the day. On the day Tom visited, the museum also had a temporary exhibition titled “Demolished Sydney which examined the evolution of the character of the city’s architecture from Georgian, to Victorian to modern and specifically, the fate of several of the city’s iconic old buildings such as the Fort Macquarie, the Garden Palace, Sydney International Exhibition Center and the State Office Block. It explains how changes in technology, population societal values and laws affected overall discussions, the tradeoffs that were considered, how decisions were made and the changing role that citizen preservation movements have played over the years—sometimes resulting in preservation and renovation of old structures, and sometimes in the retaining of historic facades in new replacement buildings.
Q-Station, as it is better known as, is a facility in Manly’s Sydney Harbour National Park. As the nation’s first and largest Quarantine Station, it diagnosed, treated and housed in quarantine, more than 150,000 immigrants over its almost 150 year history. While all of the barracks have either been destroyed or repurposed, a few of them have been transformed into a museum that traces the history and recreates an idea of the conditions of the station. The museum explains the history of immigration into Australia, the decision to quarantine new entrants to minimize the chances for epidemics and the long process of building, an upgrading the facilities and the processes for screening, diagnosing, isolating and treating entrants from 1828 through the facility’s 1973 closing and repurposing into a disaster relief center and eventually, in 2006, into a hotel complex and national park. The museum also traces the history of the diseases and epidemics that swept through Australia, the landmarks in and evolution of modern medicine and how Q station evolved to accommodate ever-changing best practices.
The Big Dig is more of an ongoing archeological exploration of The Rocks than it is a museum. It consists of a series of ongoing archeological digs, permanently exposed building foundations, explanatory panels and demonstrative reconstructions of old terrace apartment fronts that suggest the very cramped quarters in which sailors and working-class Rocks residents lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The gallery stages rotating exhibitions from its own collection of 2,000 pieces from 680 different contemporary Chinese artists. We initially walked through the current “Evil Bodies” exhibition on our own, finding many of this pieces and installations to be intriguing, but to our eyes, virtually incomprehensible. We were enlightened when we returned for a one-hour walking tour during which the excellent docent explained the theme nature of the exhibition (exposing the evil that humans perpetrate on the planet and each other), and how several of its main works relate to that theme. For example:
- The two-story lobby highlights a “Chinese Offspring”, a work in which the sculptor, Xhiang Dali cast distorted forms of migrant Chinese workers who were hung upside down by ropes to accentuate their tortured circumstances and lack of control over their lives.
- In “Garden of Heavenly Delights” A large white lightboard serves as a platform for hundreds of white (a color that signifies mourning) 3D printed resin images that appear from a distance as something like a city skyline. As you get closer, you see that each image is actually a composite of troubling and distorted forms (such as monstrous forms growing out of a human or animal body) that is intended to symbolize the artist’s disdain for the Chinese practice of hiring foreign architects to design buildings that are supposed to integrate into Chinese cities.
Among the couple dozen other works are:
- Three paintings with grotesque root-like forms growing out of clothes worn by men and women, which represents the very different ways in which men and women’s sexual indiscretions are viewed by society;
- A number of insect-like forms that morph forms from different species into one;
- A five-panel screen that profiles the decades of an artist’s life for his children; and
- A disturbing video of the distorted images (especially the eyes) of Parkinson’s Patients undergoing electro-therapy.
Overall, a fascinating explanation of troubling, but generally inscrutable images.