April 2012

Arts & Letters

Sydney Gets a Laneway

By Drusilla Modjeska
The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay West re-opened on 29 March with a new wing, as the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Abutting the old building with its whiff of Art Deco, and glancing across to the Opera House, its stepped facade of white blocks creates a shifting pattern of light and shadow, as viewed from the harbour ferries, Bennelong Point or the lawn outside.

Talking on Radio National, architect Sam Marshall spoke of dialogue – a word that occurs often in conversation at the MCA – between the old building and the new, with the harbour on one side and the streets and laneways of The Rocks behind. The old Maritime Services Board building that has housed the MCA since 1991 was, in a sense, a building out of time. Designed in the 1930s, when Art Deco was already past its prime, it wasn’t built until after the war, opening in the late 1950s as work began on the ultra-modern Opera House. As Marshall says, you could think they were from different centuries. So there’s that dialogue, subtly achieved, across time and across the water; there’s another with The Rocks, the site of earliest settlement, where the thoroughfare roads run along the contours of the hill – as the long MCA building itself does – and are cut by steep laneways and steps.

In a contemporary take on an old template, Marshall has created a wide ‘laneway’ through the new wing, as much a pedestrian passageway linking George Street to the Quay as it is a foyer and entrance to the museum. Enter from George Street and you can see through to the water; walk towards it and space and light open around you as you reach the steps down to Circular Quay. Walk the other way, up the wide steps with glass and space rising around you, and the laneway appears to contract towards the street and the buildings of The Rocks. This laneway draws the outside in, and brings the inside out, disturbing the distinction between horizon and boundary. It is a magisterial entry point for a museum of contemporary art. 

It is also a brilliant practical move, resolving the problem of entry to the building from two levels. The first level of galleries has now been moved up, opening off the laneway foyer, thereby creating space beneath the new wing, concealed by the facade, for loading docks that – at last in the life of the MCA – are equipped to deal with the realities of moving art in and out. Before this essential conversion, the museum would have been hard-pressed to exhibit a work as huge as Jim Campbell’s dramatic Scattered Light (2010) for the front lawn, where it will be visible from across the Quay, a night work for the inaugural exhibition, Marking Time.

Senior curator Rachel Kent raises her eyebrows as she remembers the problems of the old building. I had a glimpse when I was one of several people invited to curate the first MCA Unpacked in 2001. We were each allocated a space and the brief was to exhibit our choice of work from the MCA collections. There have been few commissions I’ve enjoyed more; it showed me the extent and quality of the MCA collections, as well as the shortcomings of a building designed for clerks. So while public attention is on the new wing with its bold lines wrapped in light and the unfolding of space as the laneway opens onto the Quay, it is the internal conversion that is the quiet triumph. The ramble of exhibition spaces that confused even seasoned visitors has been transformed into three levels of galleries: one dedicated to the collections, another to temporary and international exhibitions, and one that can serve both. The old meandering stairs have gone, replaced by lifts and stairs from the foyer laneway, providing an easy flow of visitors as well as resting places with views out to the sky and harbour. The long galleries on the Quay side of the building are now internal thoroughfares with clear sightlines to the new building and occasional glimpses through windows that were once concealed. While the vertical seam between the old sandstone building and the new wing is rendered visible, the ceilings and floors continue seamlessly.

As to the exhibition spaces themselves, the paradox is that in order to house contemporary artworks that have been moving away from the concept of art hung or displayed in the white box of a museum, Marshall has provided the MCA with a series of clean white spaces. In 1958 Gaston Bachelard wrote that the whiteness of walls “protects” imagination, and it seems he is right, for these large clear spaces do indeed provide a framework for “the architecture of the imagination”. When I was shown the level three galleries – dedicated to temporary and international exhibitions – the carpenters were building the scaffolding that now holds the vast screen for John Gerrard’s Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez / Richfield, Kansas), a key work in Marking Time. The adjacent gallery now holds the “star maps” of Gulumbu Yunupingu’s magnificent Larrakitj memorial poles. These two spaces have been reshaped with double-height ceilings, another architectural achievement in a building designed for offices. A third beautiful vaulted space opens off the new laneway foyer to exhibit Christian Marclay’s The Clock, described as “a majestic, circular film” by Luke Davies in last month’s Monthly.

Rachel Kent is very happy with the conversion and the scope it allows for a complex and ambitious exhibition such as Marking Time. She has chosen – or commissioned – works from 11 artists that grapple with time and how it can be visualised or expressed, deconstructed and re-imagined; it is an exhibition that is “conceptually apt”, she says, for the new era of the museum. In Berkeley some years ago, she’d seen Jim Campbell’s Last Day in the Beginning of March, in which he re-imagined the last hours of his brother’s life. Immersed in “the flickering pools of light and a quiet soundtrack of rain”, she experienced the work viscerally, moments of time caught by the slam of a car door, a cigarette being lit, the glow of pharmacy lights. She tucked it away in her mind, along with Elisa Sighicelli’s Untitled (The Party is Over) from 2009, in which fireworks are played backwards over and over, the brilliant explosion of light contracting to tiny points as if “time is literally rewound”. Both these works are in Marking Time, which, like them, ranges from human-scaled, diaristic and memory time to the unimaginable vastness of eternity and the cosmos.

John Gerrard’s extraordinary Oil Stick Work plays with the mark-making of the human hand, while spooking us with the inexorable passage of time. Never turned off, even when the gallery is closed, Oil Stick Work has been playing in real time since its inception in 2008 and it will continue for 30 years. Each morning an actor arrives at a farmhouse on the flat plains of Kansas and paints a section of the white walls black with an oil stick. In this computer-programmed 3-D projection, he is literally painting the house out of the landscape and out of time so that when the task is completed in 2038 (which will be around the end of the artist’s expected lifespan) all that will remain will be the silhouette of the house that is gone.

Marking Time is a challenging exhibition. Its dramatic variations in scale, its testing of notions of time and space, confront us with the duration of our own short lives in ways that are not always easy to grasp. Beautiful, mysterious, layered, modest or dramatic, the works employ a range of media from layered paper to installation, from glue on the floor to the most sophisticated of digital technologies.

Heather Whitely Robertson, the head of the museum’s National Centre for Creative Learning (NCCL), quotes Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate in London, who says that even after 30 years of looking at contemporary art, he’s “very familiar with the experience of being completely at a loss when confronting” a new work. A visit to a studio “never fails to test [his] resources”. It is a reminder, Robertson says, to all who work with contemporary art that a state of “not-knowing” is an integral, even necessary element of the encounter.

Robertson lights up when she talks of the new era that’s coming into being with the new building. The huge uptake in the MCA’s educational programs over the last decade has prompted the museum “to examine what creative learning and indeed what creativity mean in the context of a contemporary art museum”. The architects have provided the spaces to experience the building, the site and the views; the curators work with exhibitions that draw visitors from across the country; and it’s the task of the NCCL, which has been allocated 40% of the floor space in the new wing, to put “equal energy” into engagement with the art. “I believe we should inspire confidence in viewers to look and explore and have a say about the contemporary art they encounter.” On the third floor of the new wing, the centre is equipped with custom-built studios, multimedia and video technology rooms – and digital technology that can connect into every classroom in New South Wales. Over the next few years this reach will extend across the continent. For Robertson, creative learning is always a dialogue – that word again – as much about bringing the outside in to the museum as taking the inside out. As MCA Australia opens with a season of events, from the zany to the intellectual, from a symposium in the new auditorium to performances in the galleries and spilling outside, the synergies both Kent and Robertson speak of are as visible and engaging as Jim Campbell’s magnificent Scattered Light. 


Marking Time and The Clock will be showing at the MCA from 29 March to 3 June.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

Daniel Crooks, 'Static No.12 (seek stillness in movement)', 2009–10, exhibited as part of 'Marking Time' at the MCA. Courtesy of the artist
Cover: April 2012
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