It seemed particularly fitting that Bob Carr, who is the NSW Minister for the Arts as well as the State Premier, should be en route to meet the visiting Chinese President when he attended the official preview of the new Asian Galleries extension at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). Aside from demonstrating shifting geo-political (and economic) alliances, his presence also indicated the significance with which governments imbue cultural institutions, as representations of such alliances. The State government funded the Asian Galleries extension to the tune of $16.4m, part of a more comprehensive ‘upgrade of arts infrastructure,’ in Carr’s words, which also includes the refurbished Conservatorium of Music, and the Opera House redevelopment. This vision of Sydney as a culturally-sophisticated, historically-grounded, contemporary global city, located at the intersection of Europe and Asia and represented by ‘internationally significant’ architecture, appears to hold powerful political and ideological force.
In this respect, it is not surprising that the iconic ‘lantern’ element of the new Asian Galleries, with its stainless steel lotus fixings, has received the most attention. But it must be said that the additional exhibition space is only 40 per cent of the new development, which also includes a restaurant, function space, and conservation area, as well as a reshuffling of the existing café and administration spaces. In some ways, the ‘real’ architectural work – careful planning increasing the effectiveness and amenity of existing spaces – occurs in these considered adjustments and interventions behind the scenes. Nevertheless, it’s the lantern that gets the press, and that stands as an architectural manifestation of changing cross-cultural attitudes.
But of course, it’s not all just mutual diplomatic back-patting. And at the preview, as Carr flitted off and Gallery Director Edmund Capon spoke in turn, it became clear that the gallery is profoundly aware of the issues created by these larger global shifts, for which art and culture serve both as ambassadors and potent symbols. As Capon pointed out, the AGNSW has had an Asian collection since 1879, but only in 1979 was this formalised as a separate department of Asian art.
The Head Curator of this department, Jackie Menzies, notes that the title of the new exhibition space is telling – the plural Asian galleries instead of the singular Asian wing acknowledges the problems inherent in the term ‘Asian’ itself. This label tends to homogenise difference, lumping together a huge range of diverse cultures under a sign of otherness – the unknowable ‘orient’. Likewise, the idea of a ‘pan-Asian’ exhibition may be somewhat questionable in this post-colonial age – you would never do such a thing with pan-European art, for instance. But more than anything, this reflects the lack of knowledge about Asian art that the Australian populace (in general) presently holds. It is because of this that there must be some overarching theme linking and framing the objects on exhibition, opening them to a public who may otherwise find them uninteresting simply because they are unapproachable. The curatorial theme Faiths of Asia has been chosen for precisely this purpose, and follows the gallery’s highly-successful earlier exhibition, Buddha: Radiant Awakening. Both of these exhibitions were designed by Freeman Ryan Design, whose refined installation mediates between the architecture, the artefacts, and the visitor, in scale as well as in specific programmatic requirements. The exhibition designers have also made selected judicious interventions in the existing fabric, most notably on the lower-floor of the Asian galleries, where a glass showcase now pushes through into the escalator shaft, alerting and attracting passers-by to the objects within.
Just as the name and curatorial strategy of the Asian Galleries represents a necessary generalisation and compromise, so does the architecture, which needed to be abstract enough to refer to a whole range of ‘Asian’ cultures without becoming meaninglessly vague. The new gallery’s allusions to a floating platform, a lantern, and the use of the lotus motif, have been much-commented upon. But there are also many other subtle layers of connotation and denotation, which Richard Johnson, of architects Johnson Pilton Walker, can expand upon at length. It is to Johnson’s great credit that despite this search for an abstract architectural representation of an ‘Asian sensibility’, the building never proposes some kind of totalising ‘essence’, but rather makes a glancing, tangential and poetic allusion. In this respect is no surprise that Johnson is also the architect working with Joern Utzon on the redevelopment of the Opera House – his erudition and subtle architectural sensibility, as well as his professional integrity, make him an obvious choice.
In its allusive ambiguity, the Asian Galleries can be seen in the context of a wider question and trend in international art museum architecture – namely, in the changed use and conception of glass. The early Modernists were transported by the mystical properties of glass; its icy reflectivity, its brittleness, and its fragility. But somewhere after Bruno Taut’s ecstatic paean to coloured glass as a cure for hatred, after Mies van der Rohe’s first wondering experiments with facetted crystalline skyscrapers, glass became commonplace. Today it often seems to be seen through to the extent that it is no longer seen. But in what may be a significant architectural shift, this is changing. Works as geographically diverse as Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthalle in Bregenz, Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern, London (MONUMENT37), and now Johnson Pilton Walker’s AGNSW Asian Galleries, are linked not only by their programme, and their simple, rectilinear forms, but by the fact that each is a translucent ‘light box’. These architectural lanterns are hazy and camouflaged by day, but entirely transformed at night into beacons denoting the presence of art.
While the previous Asian gallery was dark, secluded, and tucked away on the lower-ground-level, the refurbishment and addition to this gallery extends it upward and outward, boldly claiming a significant place for Asian art within the larger collection. This spatial and symbolic realignment of the gallery building now more accurately reflects its overall curatorial focus. The new exhibition space is located at the southeast end of the main concourse, completing a complex spatial sequence through the historical layers of the building. This ground-level concourse has always had an interstitial character, providing a buffer and a connection between the original, neo-classical W.L. Vernon wing, and the two later additions by Andrew Andersons and the NSW Government architect. But where this long, low space used to peter out in a little-used sculpture garden, it now has a much more emphatic conclusion. The Asian galleries achieve a sense of completion partly because they are the last possible building development within the gallery’s existing footprint. But they also, in a sense, complete the gallery’s coverage – it now has not only collections, but also significant dedicated gallery spaces for three main fields: Australian and Aboriginal art, European art, and now the arts of Asia.
Translucency and light are simultaneously the key elements of the new Asian Galleries exhibition space, and its key problem. Within the space, it is immediately evident that a struggle has occurred, between two mutually exclusive attitudes: the architectural desire for light, and the conservatorial desire for dimness. Many museum objects are fragile and deteriorate rapidly if not protected. To be preserved for the future they must be displayed under heavily-restricted light levels. This is, of course, unarguable. But against this immovable requirement the apparent logic of the architecture is muted, if not lost. It seems contradictory to build a high, elegant glass lantern, only to line it with blind plasterboard walls, and lower most of the ceilings. The new exhibition space’s full architectural potential is thus only realised in the northernmost gallery in the new upper floor, adjacent to the airy glazed link between the original concourse and the new function centre. Exhibiting stone religious figures – which can take a high level of light, and were intended to be seen in daylight in the first place – this high, narrow room, with light flooding in from windows above, provides a sublime glimpse of the quality that the whole space could have had. In comparison with this, the other galleries inevitably seem compromised, the milky glass cladding only tantalisingly revealed through slits at floor, ceiling, and corners of the opaque wall linings. This is a disappointment, albeit a necessary one. But the gallery must be seen as a long-term proposition: the solid internal walls are apparently demountable, they can be removed or reworked, and the light may still, one day, flood in.
Transparency has historically been the most highly-prized characteristic of glass, its architectural value matched and even exceeded by its metaphoric connection with lucidity, with conceptual as well as literal clarity. Translucency, on the other hand, has more ambivalent connotations: of obscurity, ambiguity and inscrutability. Translucent glass has a materiality, a milky whiteness, which denies the notion that the principle virtue of glass is its ability to disappear. Translucent glass captures and diffuses light, flattening it and making it planar, therefore transforming light itself into a chameleonic architectural material. Johnson Pilton Walker’s alteration and extension to the AGNSW adds something to each of the building’s previous wings – from the judicious cutting of new internal and external apertures, to the reorientation of the function and restaurant spaces north-east toward the spectacular harbour view, to the provision of new exhibition space within the existing gallery. Each of these has been handled with the deftness and restraint that is the mark of an assured hand. More importantly, the new Asian Galleries add to the architectural ensemble as a whole, throwing a distinctly contemporary light onto an already rich historical assemblage.