The Weight of History, The Mark of Time, 2015
The Australian arts editor Ashleigh Wilson
It sits beneath a hill, hard up against a dramatic sandstone wall. It’s called the Cutaway, and this is the giant, cavernous space reserved for cultural activities inside the Barangaroo development now taking shape on the western edge of the Sydney CBD.
Brook Andrew was one of the artists invited to explore this concrete canvas, and he was struck at once by its power. He describes it as “awe-inspiring”, reminiscent of the Tate Modern experience in London. It seemed as though he was inside the land, or perhaps inside the body of a whale. Like Barangaroo itself, the multi-billion-dollar development soon to be home to James Packer’s casino, the numbers give an idea of the scale: 7500sq m of space, 150m long and 15m high, it sits under 12,000cu m of land and is said to fit 5500 people.
For a Sydney-born artist such as Andrew, who has long burrowed into ideas of historical transition, memory, colonialism and identity, it was an exciting prospect. “It was really inspiring and imaginative,” he says. “It kind of reminds me of just dreaming. You know when you’re a kid you can dream big but when you get older they try to knock it out of you a bit.”
This weekend, the first stirrings of a grand dream will begin at Barangaroo with the unveiling of Andrew’s work at the Cutaway. His four sculptures are called Stone: The Weight of History, The Mark of Time, and they are intended to immerse viewers in a “breathing lung-like imaginative environment” that brings to life the land. “It’s really looking and acknowledging the history of the place and the site,” he says. “They breathe like lungs. They exhale and inhale. It will be like moving through some sort of organ or beast.”
Andrew’s sculptures are the first of three commissions to be shown monthly at the Cutaway in spring, followed by installations focusing on the sea and sky. Spread across 12 weekends, the celebration includes free performances, talks and tours. The program is designed to draw crowds to Barangaroo Reserve, the parkland that opened two weeks ago. But as the bigger picture comes into view — gradually, meticulously, each element carefully considered by an army of advisers after years of consultations and reports — it’s clear it also represents the early stages of a vast cultural project under way in Sydney. “I think it’s a reality check,” Andrew says. “It’s like Australia’s coming of age with this sort of project.”
In July, the Barangaroo Development Authority released a public art and cultural plan, an 84-page blueprint full of grand aspirations. Under the plan, nine main projects would be funded by a development levy of 1 per cent, with the total cost across 15 years expected to exceed $40 million and cost the taxpayer nothing. Proposals range from large permanent installations to artworks integrated into the environment to as-yet undefined cultural hubs.
Barangaroo advisers are being encouraged to think big. One source of inspiration is Millennium Park, the Chicago home of Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel Cloud Gate that attracts huge numbers of visitors and generates significant residential and commercial investment. “That’s the great draw of wonderful places,” says Gabrielle Trainor, chairwoman of the Barangaroo arts and cultural panel. “People want to be around them.”
Trainor talks with enthusiasm about Barangaroo, how she hopes to see a place with a global reputation, and how Sydney’s centre of gravity may shift along the way. It’s all a long way off, beyond 2020, but the road map is slowly being drawn. “Everybody can see the value of arts and culture, not only in a design sense and social sense but in an economic sense as well,” she says. “Really good public art can bring so may benefits to places. They make them distinct, interesting. They draw people and they draw activity.”
The cultural development is overseen by two panels of advisers, one under the banner of Barangaroo and the other Lend Lease. These are a cross-section of the city’s arts sector: among them is curator Hetti Perkins, businessman Simon Mordant, Art Gallery of NSW deputy director Suhanya Raffel, Sydney Festival artistic director Lieven Bertels and artist Alison Page. Former Sydney Opera House boss Richard Evans and curator Barbara Flynn are also key advisers.
Others have been brought in to share their thoughts on individual projects. One of the most high profile will be the “landmark public artwork” set to rise from the water at Nawi Cove: as well as Trainor, the jury consists of former AGNSW director Edmund Capon, Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, New York Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume and company director Lucy Turnbull. A handful of artists, local and international, have been invited to submit ideas for this work, which will sit just off the shore next to Barangaroo Reserve. Some have visited the site already, and the selected work is expected to be announced early next year. At that point, the city will learn whether to expect an iconic sculpture by its 2018 installation date.
“We like to think in a rather grandiose way that it will be a single work of art that will be something of a destination in its own right,” Capon says. “The challenge here is to create something that responds to the location. The location in all its contemporary presence and its historical presence and its atmosphere, and yet is not determined by that.”
No names are being mentioned but those involved say major figures — “some of the best artists around”, according to Capon — are in the mix. “It’s going through a very long considered process,” Capon says. “What we want is a work of art that speaks about the place but is nonetheless independent of the place. It’s got to stand alone and yet we want it to somehow echo and to feel comfortable in that space.”
Capon points to Kapoor and Jeff Koons — whose enormous Puppy stood outside the MCA two decades ago — as artists who bring the right sort of touch to large-scale works. But he acknowledges the problems. A few weeks ago, Capon visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, admiring work by Anthony Caro, Ai Weiwei, Antony Gormley and Henry Moore, when his friend turned to him and said: “They still look better inside.”
“Outdoor sculpture is a real challenge,” Capon says. “Aesthetic simplicity is one of the secrets to successful works of art in the great outdoors.”
Some of the other projects planned for Barangaroo include a “major Aboriginal artwork”, to be installed on Barangaroo Reserve in 2017; integrated light art along the pedestrian walk known as Scotch Row by 2018; and a “signature piece” at Barangaroo South by 2017.
The first commission has already been revealed: a 22m wall of shells by indigenous artists Esme Timbery and Jonathan Jones to be incorporated into a building design in the southern part of Barangaroo.
The final stage of the development is Central Barangaroo, which is due for completion in 2023. Apart from a requirement for half of it to remain public space, this remains largely undetermined, with more details to be released in the coming months. The public art and culture plan makes reference to an urban theatre at the base of the steps, plus one 5000sq m site “identified for a future cultural space”. It’s too early to say how these will be used but clues are available: the Ambassador Theatre Group, for instance, has registered an interest in building a 1650-seat lyric theatre in Central Barangaroo.
Another idea gathering pace is for a national indigenous cultural centre, itself the subject of a business case and extensive consultations. It makes a certain amount of sense for it to be established at Barangaroo, which is, after all, named for the respected indigenous woman who married the man whose name has been adopted for Bennelong Reserve around the corner. There are more signs that the pieces are coming together: Perkins left the AGNSW in 2011 calling for a stand-alone indigenous institution, a “flagship national cultural institution” — and now, of course, she finds herself engaged as a Barangaroo adviser.
Where could such a centre go? The Cutaway is a logical choice. Trainor says there is potential for a centre that presents a rotating series of art from across Australia, one that wouldn’t necessarily have its own permanent collection but would exist as a vibrant hub of activity. It also could exploit technology, allowing artists, for instance, to collaborate in real time with people in the western desert. Trainor says further consultation is required, plus more discussions about funding.
“Conceptually it’s really exciting because it’s potentially the sort of centre that is unlike anything we’ve seen,” she says. “It would be lovely to see it off the ground in the next few years. But it will take a while to develop.”
As for the project as a whole, Capon adds a note of caution: “There’s a lot of good intentions and high aspirations. But the fact is that Sydney is a very pragmatic place and many of the grand ideas tend to become inevitably diluted in the process.”
Capon is speaking from London, a city where “fabulous breathing spaces” have been protected for the public. The challenge for Sydney, he says, is to resist the urge to fill every open space. “It’s very hard in a city to actually keep space pure,” he says. “I’m a great believer in protecting space. I think there’s been a very strong urge to give Barangaroo some real cultural and artistic vitality. And there’s a dynamic in the program too, there’s no doubt about that. My point is that just because you’ve got space you don’t have to do something with it or in it.”