Apr 03 2012

Re-opening of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art

by Michael Young

Entrance to the new Mordant Wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Photos for AAP by Michael Young.

After being closed for several months, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) re-opened to the public on March 29, wrapping up 18 months of major construction work that has seen AUD 53 million spent on refurbishing the old building and creating the attached Mordant Wing, fronting the iconic Circular Quay.

On the first day of the MCA’s public re-opening, 3,450 people flocked to the museum to see Sydney architect Sam Marshall’s building and the three renovated floors of gallery space in the old 1950s Art Deco-inspired building. The expanded MCA allows for the first time dedicated and permanent space to be given to exhibiting the museum’s collection of contemporary Australian art, currently called “Volume One: MCA Collection.” On the upper floor, which until now had only been accessible via a single antiquated lift, the opening is also celebrated with “Marking time,” an exhibition featuring 11 international artists exploring how art can depict time.

However, visitors expecting radical changes to the old gallery spaces will be sadly disappointed. The internal structure of the old building, which was not intended as an art gallery but as offices for the Maritime Services Board, dictate that the galleries remain corridor-like, with oppressively low ceilings except for two specially designed ”white cube” spaces where ceilings soar and art works can breathe. Most notable from “Marking Time” were Lindy Lee’s Buddhist-inspired scrolls, which hang on five-meter-high walls.

The new wing is named after Sydney businessman and philanthropist, Simon Mordant, whose AUD 15 million gift to the museum last year kick-started fund raising that had stalled in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Talking to ArtAsiaPacific, Mordant, who is also chairman of the MCA, said excitedly of the building on the first day, “It’s totally gobsmacking and supercharged,” and that being inside the finished space “gave him goose bumps.”

Forty percent of Marshall’s blocky, cubist new wing is given over to the National Centre for Creative Learning with digital, multimedia studios and practical spaces for educational activities. The allocation fulfills director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s commitment to create a first class educational facility that will communicate contemporary art to the state’s children. There are bright primary colored rooms pierced with windows giving spectacular views of Circular Quay.

Work on the new and refurbished building has created 4,500 square meters of additional space overall and has increased gallery space by 26 percent.

Early on in the public opening day, Marshall himself had crept surreptitiously inside and was eagerly people-watching, taking candid photographs to assess how groups circulated. “It is so nice to see the building full of people and art,” he told AAP, while also running his feet lovingly over the concrete floors, “They are so velvety,” he said. Marshall’s reputation is very much built on the use of this brutalist medium.

Mordant Wing Sculpture Terrace overlooking Sydney Harbour. Photos for AAP by Michael Young.

Off-centered and set within the Mordant Wing, the new entrance to the MCA is a triumph of spatial awareness that contrasts with the heavy cubist feel in the rest of the building. The portico pushes through from George Street and descends wide concrete stairs to Circular Quay and a new external space eponymously called the MCA Square, which will accommodate commissioned installations—although the first such work, by Australian artist Brook Andrew, has been delayed.  A huge wall painting by Sydney based artist, Helen Eager, lines the staircase and either greets arriving visitors or farewells them, depending on where they enter.

On the ground floor is a large cube-shaped gallery, currently showing the 24-hour video The Clock (2010), by the Swiss-American Christian Marclay, which seamlessly pieces together movie clips of various clocks, watches and other temporal references depicting passing minutes that unfolds across a 24-hour period in real time. Australian artist, Stuart Ringholt, who was in the adjacent upstairs galleries researching the collection for an adults only nude tour he will lead as part of the “Local Positioning Systems” performance series, said the work is: “A masterpiece. And I don’t say that often.”

Circulation within the new wing leads inevitably upwards to the MCA Café and Sculpture Terrace on  Level 4, where Australian artist, Hany Armanious’ Fountain (2012), sits before million dollar views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. The Sculpture Terrace will be home to the MCA Sculpture Series, an annual commission for new site-specific installations. Higher still, and set on the roof area of the old building, will be a function area which Macgregor hopes will become an important revenue earner, attracting both weddings and corporate functions.