Sydney museum & gallery walk
This past March 2019, I visited Sydney, Australia for my cousin’s wedding. Luckily, it fell right into my Spring Break, and I got to spend time in the city I consider my 2nd home. I spent lots of time with my mom’s side of the family.
If my calculations are correct…
there are 16 aunts & uncles, 20+ cousins, and lots of love to go around!
I visited for 11 days, which was really the BARE MINIMUM amount of time to see them all!
In addition to heartwarming family time, I wanted to see parts of the city that I haven’t yet experienced. My 1st trip to Sydney was when I was 2 years old, and since then I have traveled back about every 2 years. (In total, I think that makes 10+ trips throughout my lifetime thus far?) It is frequent, but even then, there is so much to this giant city that I haven’t seen as an adult + new things popping up daily!
I decided that I wanted to spend a day checking out the art scene in Sydney.
Just 1 day?
I barely scratched the surface!
I could have spent my whole 11 day trip delving into the rich art world of this cosmopolitan city, but I chose 2 accessible places to start - The Art Gallery of New South Wales & The White Rabbit Gallery.
#1: The Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales…
is one of the largest in Australia & one to which my mum would bring me often on our trips back to Sydney when I was a child. Even at my young age, I was blown away by the halls and rooms filled with magnificent pieces of art.
Visiting this beautiful gallery again was almost like coming home.
I remembered the high white ceilings and golden hued frames that lined the front rooms…
While the gallery is one of the largest in Australia, I never would get past these 1st several rooms to look at the other exhibits. Instead, I would spend all my time looking at the towering oil paintings of 19th century Australian artists, pondering these images of a nature that existed so long ago.
This time was no exception.
Once again, I gravitated towards the first several rooms, seeking the comfort of memories kept since childhood.
It was special because I was also there with my sister. As we drifted between rooms, she told me,
“I could care less about the portraits, but the paintings of nature always get me.”
It wasn’t until then that I paused to examine the subtle details - the reflection of morning sky on a painted lake, the spray of salt air from a jagged cliff edge.
It seemed almost a sin to have this quantity of masterpieces crammed into one room, sidled next to each other as if they were clicked frames on a reel of film, and not individual wonders of human talent from so long ago.
Each piece dated back to the 19th century, a time capsule to a different yet not so different Australia. It was this similarity of nature that struck me. We may consider our 21st century lives to be worlds apart from those who lived in the 19th century, and in many ways, they are.
Yet, the way the sunset warms the hillsides… the way the light catches the mountain ridges…
It is not so different at all.
The following are some of my favorite pieces from these rooms -
The sculptures, in particular, had me in awe of their true-to-life contours, physiology, and timelessness.
This painting below was created in 1909 by Violet Teague and described as one of the first fashion illustrations of its time. The luminous shine of the silk is so realistic, I feel as if I can touch it. The light pours in from a window just behind the viewer and creates a natural spotlight effect.
My favorite part is that this painting was done of a woman & by a woman.
To me, this stood out for the very reason that an overwhelming majority of classical art portrays the female body through a male gaze.
You can read more about this beautiful piece, “Dian dreams,” here.
As the museum announced that I was closing in the next few minutes, I rushed over across the hall to contemporary Australian art…
And I was so glad that I did.
I can’t explain how much I love these next few pieces by contemporary Australian artist, Judy Watson, so I will simply show you.
Having studied transatlantic colonial literature of Latin America, I found the social commentary riveting. Half my family lives in Australia, and I had never encountered the country’s colonial history in this way.
Just a few months ago, I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker, called “The Mapping of Massacres,” in which Australian historian Lyndell Ryan discusses the importance of her project to compile visual catalogue of massacres, both of aboriginal and colonizers, during Australia’s colonial period - the mapping of a culture’s trauma.
The first image that heads the article’s page?
A map by artist Judy Watson.
A quote from the New Yorker article, “The Mapping of Massacres”:
[…] she also believes that white Australians who are skeptical about widespread frontier massacres need to be confronted with the gruesome truths recorded by their own ancestors—the magistrates and crown-lands commissioners, the settlers who wrote about killing sprees in their journals or correspondence. In the History Wars, she noted, the denialists figured out ways of discounting all evidence of massacre, no matter its provenance. “They’d say things like, well, you can’t trust evidence from a convict, they’re born liars. Same with the Native Police. Women don’t tell the truth. Soldiers who weren’t officers clearly didn’t know what was going on.” This sort of thinking would leave only sources from the two categories of whites with the most to gain from covering up massacres: the officers who gave the orders, and the male settlers who often carried them out.
I left the Art Gallery of New South Wales filled to the brim - with beauty, knowledge, and awe. The craziest part? There was so much left that I hadn’t seen! Luckily, as I’ve put together this blog post, I’ve discovered that anyone can explore the gallery’s collections online!
For example, I came across this delightful piece, titled “Goat and rhododendron” (1933)
Next up, we visited a very different gallery all together.
#2. The White Rabbit Gallery…
is a relatively newer art space, founded in 2009, to exhibit “what has become one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art.”
The exhibit was so wildly different from what I had seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but it enchanted me all the same. There was a scope and range I could not believe. Some pieces were eery and kooky, while others were nostalgic.
The title of the show was “Hot Blood.”
This display was one of my favorites. It was nostalgic in its quotidian familiarity, yet heartbreaking upon reading artist's inspiration.
The following artist, Mia Liu, was my absolute favorite. She had 2 works on display, titled “Guggen’ Dizzy” and “A Route of Evanescence.”
I stood mesmerized by the detail and ingenuity of these wheels. They spun in a hypnotic hum that filled the room.
Her other piece, “A Route of Evanescence",” was impossibly beautiful & had me transfixed by the amount of detail. Having recently lost my grandmother, I felt a connection with this piece.
This last piece was so vast, I couldn’t fit it all in the shot.
We thought we were done with our day of art… until I realized there was one more stop nearby.
#3. Angel Place…
Hidden behind a busy city pub, this unassuming alleyway harbors an impressive hanging art installation of singing birdcages.
The name of the installation is “Forgotten Songs,” in honor of the birds who once inhabited the area. These hanging cages played recorded birdsong, turning the small city alley into what felt like a vast meadow or forest.
I loved that besides the beauty of the installation, it also shared a powerful meaning and memorial to what once was.
It was the perfect end to a day full of art.
I can’t wait for more days like this one -
wandering around a new place & observing strange, beautiful things.
Sydney holds a special place in my heart,
and I know I’ll be back soon to explore more.