Having been closed for nine months, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney reopened its doors in March following a major AUD$53 million building redevelopment and programme overhaul. The most striking feature of the new MCA is the white and grey extension by Sydney architect Sam Marshall, which stands alongside the original Art Deco building – a courageous clash of old and new. The redevelopment also includes a complete refurbishment of existing gallery spaces, a new rooftop café, a sculpture terrace and the introduction of the National Centre for Creative Learning (NCCL). This latter development – which includes a 120-seat lecture theatre, a multimedia room, a digital classroom and two studios – orientates the museum more towards a cultural centre that aims to generate discourse and encourage engagement with the exhibitions through a programme of related educational events. Major new commissions are dotted around, reflecting the MCA’s commitment to facilitate the production of new art works.
Curated by Glenn Barkley, ‘Volume One: MCA Collection’ occupies an entire floor of the museum and features more than 280 works by some 170 Australian artists. It is epic, eclectic and personal: a snapshot of post-1970s Australian art chosen from the MCA collection and filtered through Barkley’s singular curatorial vision. It includes work by Australia’s more prominent contemporary artists (such as Ricky Swallow, Tracey Moffatt, Shaun Gladwell and Rosalie Gascoigne) but the selection is unpredictable, with local and lesser-known artists spliced into the exhibition to great effect at almost every turn. Asher Bilu’s intricate collage Insights into the Ultimate (1988), for example, is mesmerizing, while a collection of 1970s posters by Earthworks Poster Collective highlights the crucial function of collections in helping to overcome the ephemeral nature of much artistic and cultural production.
Barkley chose to structure the layout of ‘Volume One’ around a handful of loose thematic groupings such as portraiture, landscape, abstraction and motion. The themes are not overtly signposted but they do become apparent. For example, in a screening room a programme of single-channel digital video works play on a loop. Marr Grounds’ Oxide Street Junction (Dingo fence) (1978), Fiona Foley’s Bliss (2006) and Shaun Gladwell’s Apology to Roadkill (1–6) (2007–09), are all very different works but are linked by their take on the Australian landscape. Throughout the exhibition, strategically placed art works play off one another and create an aesthetic flow and conceptual continuity. Alongside Tim Johnson’s Aboriginal-inspired dot painting Dewachin (1987) is Nick Mangan’s shrine-like eXoecoaXis (2005), a floor-based assemblage of cast bones and New Age crystals bursting out from the centre of a Persian rug. Both works have a mystical, spiritual undertone. In a separate part of the exhibition, Justene Williams’ manic action-painting/video-sculpture Crutch Dance (2011) clearly references Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s ‘Untitled (Body Painting Series)’ (1996), as well as linking optically to Helen Eager’s wall painting Tango (2012).
The eclecticism of ‘Volume One’ not only mirrors the eclecticism of the MCA collection itself, but also the multi-faceted nature of artistic activity in any community or region. Barkley’s selection has something of that chaos, but also comes across as oddly cohesive. The redevelopment has given the MCA a lightning bolt of energy. The building has caused an initial stir but, long-term, the programme is more important. Rather than a new venue for more touring blockbusters, Sydney really needs a major contemporary art institution with curatorial diversity, vision, ideas and vitality; a space receptive to international developments and discourse, but also willing to respond to and invest in local artists and Australian debate. It’s early days, but the new MCA may well be it.