Janet McAllister: Shaking up the box

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The installation by Gulumbu Yunupingu at the newly refurbished MCA in Sydney. MCA Photo / Alex Davies
The installation by Gulumbu Yunupingu at the newly refurbished MCA in Sydney. MCA Photo / Alex Davies

Walking into the re-launched Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, an Aucklander's sense of deja vu will be strong. The A$53 million ($67.3 million) extension to the north includes a new entranceway, stairwell, education space and (small) multi-storied atrium; it is the Auckland Art Gallery reopening all over again.

But whereas the Auckland gallery was already a pastiche of builds from different eras cobbled together, the old museum in Sydney was a monolith, a 1950s art deco throwback, built for the Marine Services Board which controlled all the navigable waters of New South Wales. Overlooking Circular Quay, it was a "strong ordered building, one big box", in the words of its extension architect Sam Marshall.

Marshall shook the box up a bit and challenged its authority, by attaching a more "random, inclusive and inviting" jumble of smaller black-and-white boxes at one end. The new boxes jut further out towards the water than the original building, and seem to float over space. The museum now has two entrances, one roadside, the other quayside, joined by a large, light punch-through passageway.

(What a pity the Auckland Art Gallery doesn't have an entrance from Albert Park.) For all the delays and compelled changes, the Auckland gallery architects did not have to contend with a site with 15 different stakeholders, and an immovable police station arresting development on one corner. In spite of these challenges, the Sydney extension is wonderfully eye-catching and easily-readable - particularly if you approach it on the waterside, where there's room to admire it. It sits on The Rocks at the site of first contact between Indigenous Australians and European explorers - a historical moment with contentious meanings, to put it mildly - and several artworks both inside and out acknowledge this history.

But reception has been muted; Elizabeth Farrelly of the Sydney Morning Herald sneered that the rooftop cafe "is so under-nuanced as to feel like an Ikea special" (never mind the best view in Sydney) and wailed that she wanted "the sublime - and it's not that". This seems a little greedy; the sublime is just across the quay in the form of the Sydney Opera House - and its construction took 16 years and blew its budget 14-fold.

It's true that inside, the exhibition spaces seem low-ceilinged - at least when compared with the tall atrium of the Museum of Sydney and the soaring classical spaces of the NSW Art Gallery (showing the Archibald Prize for portraits until June 2). But there's more to the MCA than the nude tours it's achieved notoriety for. As well as the obvious large opening survey show, there's Marking Time until June 3, an exhibition with time-based artworks (videos, again), and still works dealing with repetition, death, the universe and all that. Gulumbu Yunupingu of the Gumatj people, who lives in eastern Arnhem Land, literally portrays the universe on hollow eucalypt trunks in the form of thousands upon thousands of stars, the shadow of clouds and smoke evoked by variations in tone.

Coming up, from June 27 to September 16, both the MCA Australia and the NSW Art Gallery are on the 18th Biennale of Sydney Art Walk, which finishes at Cockatoo Island, where art will be displayed among large workshops, wharves and convict-built prison buildings. There should be enough there to satisfy the art bubble and the once-a-year gallery-goers alike.

- NZ Herald

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