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Aerial view of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new SANAA - designed building,
Photograph: AGNSW/Iwan Baan

The Art Gallery of NSW has opened the absolutely huge new Sydney Modern Project

Make sure to visit the new $344 million Sydney Modern Project at the Art Gallery of NSW. Check out this sneak peak

Alannah Maher
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Alannah Maher
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The most significant cultural development to be established in the Harbour City since the Sydney Opera House opened its doors to the public on Saturday, December 3. Sidled up next to the existing Art Gallery of New South Wales, the new standalone building is the centrepiece of the Sydney Modern expansion, and has been in the works for the past decade.

To celebrate the opening week, the gallery will be open late every night until Sunday, December 11, including a pop-up bar by Mount Pleasant. The bar is open every night on the terrace outside the new restaurant, MOD Dining, with views of the harbour. The wines on offer pair beautifully with the mini lobster rolls and vegan dip and crudites on offer. The bar also doubles as the best spot to watch the evening drone show designed by Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie, which is now on at 8.30pm nightly until this Sunday (Dec 11). Find out more about the opening celebrations here.

You cannot fully comprehend the scale of this mammoth building – designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA – until you descend down from the ground floor entrance, through the three limestone-clad art pavilions that gently step down towards the harbour, and wander out onto the more than 3,400 square metres of accessible roof ‘art terraces’ and courtyards. Around every corner, new spaces emerge, and reveal with them entirely new styles and arrangements of art. Keep heading down to the fourth level below ground to discover the Tank, an adaptive re-use of a 2,200-square-metre former Second World War fuel bunker.

Sydney Modern ProjectPhotograph: AGNSW/Jenni Carter; installation view of Lisa Reihana's 'GROUNDLOOP' 2022

Rather than obstructing the sweeping views of the city, the architecture embraces the scenery. Sheer glass-panelled walls, a Wonka-esque glass elevator and layers of escalators with glass railings all work to showcase the landscape as an artwork in its own right. Natural light plays a big role, and on a particularly sunny day the rays stream through those clear walls and the ripped cover to the entrance foyer to light up the indoor and outdoor artworks better than any specially rigged electric lights. 

“This gallery demonstrates how powerful art can be,” said critically acclaimed artist Tony Albert, member of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust, at the new gallery’s media launch. 

“Art has the ability to heal and to transcend culture, age and language to educate and to challenge. With the opening of Sydney Modern, this art museum has the opportunity to engage many more people than ever before. It broadens our outreach to a wider and more diverse audience. In a place like Sydney, Australia, why follow when we can lead? Let's not be a part of history, let's make history.”

Sydney Modern ProjectPhotograph: AGNSW/Jörg Baumann; installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas' 'The End of Imagination' 2022

Highlights to discover among this mind-bogglingly expansive temple to art include the first installation to inhabit the subterranean Tank gallery, ‘The End of Imagination’ by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. Amid the darkness, roving lights reveal “time-travelling sculptural forms” (or “Terminator fossils”, according to the Time Out team). Side note: you wouldn’t want to lose a child down there.

Immerse yourself in the kaleidoscope-like optical illusion of American artist Samara Golden’s ‘Guts’ in the Dreamhome exhibition on Level 2. Among the permanent outdoor sculptures (which contribute to the largest commissioning program in the Art Gallery’s 151-year history), you’ll find a colourful contribution of towering florals by famously polka-dot-peddling Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, ‘Flowers that Bloom in the Cosmos’

AGNSW’s first-ever purpose-built gallery for time-based art is kicking things off with Outlaw, an exhibition inspired by the escapades of fugitive rebels (definitely worth settling in to watch Howie Tsui’s monumental and rather graphic animation of everyday life in an ungoverned realm). The Yiribana Gallery, elevated from the lowest level of the original building to a larger dedicated space on the ground level of the new building, also showcases an exciting collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. 

Sydney Modern ProjectPhotograph: AGNSW/Zan Wimberley; installation view of Yayoi Kusama's 'Flowers that Bloom in the Cosmos' 2022

From Saturday, a free opening program of exhibitions, collection displays and new commissions, featuring works by over 900 artists from around the world, will be open across the Art Gallery’s two buildings and outdoor spaces, to celebrate this historic moment.

Sydney Modern is genuinely a world-class new art institution, with a spacious design and impressive collection that could even rival the likes of the MoMA in New York. It should definitely be on your summer things-to-do list. 

Want more? Check out the best art exhibitions in Sydney this month.

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