The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Elder Wing has re-opened for business.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. The Art Gallery of South Australia flashing its neo-classical pegs on North Terrace is a conflated 1936 bolt-on to a skinny-minnie version, aka the Elder Wing, the original structure built to house the state’s growing art collection in 1900.
The wing has undergone various facelifts over time, some dictated by tastes and ideologies of different eras. The most radical was a 1970s venture into ‘white cubism’ complete with chequerboard grey and white tiles in keeping with an enthusiasm for minimal/conceptual purity. Beige Berber carpet flooring followed – not a good look following rain. Then the parquetry which has flowed on into the 21st century. During the 1980s the first two galleries of the Elder Wing were restored; the walls were repainted and parts of the Australian collection (also the European) were re-arranged to recreate the visual ambience of a late Victorian gallery. From early settlement to Federation the Australian collection was subdivided on colony/state lines. Rich red walls, green accents in the upper structures and a massed ‘palazzo hangs’ framed the viewing experience for visitors as heritage driven.
After a period under wraps following the Colours of Impressionism exhibition, The Elder Wing has re-opened for business.
The first thing to notice is the change in colour scheme. The heritage green and deep red colours are gone – replaced by delicate hues of principally blues, greys and pinks which echo the subtle chromatics of the Colours exhibition. This has the effect of releasing the various works from the servitude of cultural history.
Despite the ornate gold frames, earth colours and dark timberwork and clay glazes, the works have a born-again quality. Second point – there is a lot of match-making going on. Where the previous hang formula did integrate decorative arts ware such as ceramics and furniture with the paintings, the new hang is built around clusters of pictorial and decorative art and design objects which collectively tell stories.
A particularly successful example in Gallery 1 is a selection built around the sea shell as both a decorative and cultural agent. An 1837 watercolour by Thomas Bock depicts a young Aboriginal woman wearing a necklace of shells. Later colonial period, photographic studio portraits (carte de visite) by Samuel Sweet and Townsend Duryea also respectively depict a woman and a girl wearing shell necklaces.
Alongside these works are contemporary necklaces by Indigenous artists Lola Greeno (the first Indigenous visual artist to receive the award of National Living Treasure) and Jeanette James. Greeno is well-known for her distinctively patterned and iridescent strands of shells collected from the coastlines of Tasmania and surrounding islands. James is a traditional shell necklace stringer, also from Tasmania. A distinctive feature of her work is the diverse menu of materials, such as echidna quills, black crow shells and kelp used to make the two necklaces on display. Looking at and thinking about this compact display of diverse items is like looking through a key hole at the entire Elder Wing hang. Pictorial art, decorative art, design, Indigenous and Western technologies and cultural values – even world views – are to be encountered here.
It has taken time, perhaps five minutes to adequately explore one section or wall of a single gallery. The curators’ intent is clear – slow down, look long and think about connections and the fact that maybe the overarching narratives that sustain a sense of, say, ‘colonial history’ are contradicted (even enriched) by the lessons of material culture.
Gallery 1 in which these items are displayed is themed as ‘Exploration and Exchange’. Appropriately, many key and familiar paintings depicting early settlement in New South Wales and Tasmania are front and centre in the hang.
So, if you feel the Gallery has gone too shake and bake in its departure from chronology don’t be afraid. The scaffolding is still there. But complementing it is an alternative way of envisaging how art frees us from the bonds of linear thinking (and cultural straightjackets) by posing relationships often invisible to the logical mind.
In the same gallery there is another small cluster of items that conflate the sky, the heavens, the earthly globe and even the cosmos into a notional narrative too broad to be absorbed in a single glance. We are talking here of such items as a 19th century celestial globe from India, Minimini Mamarika’s 1948 bark painting from Groote Eylandt, Orion and the Pleiades and Gulumbu Yunupingu’s fragments star-studded night sky fallen to earth.
Dominating the Gallery 1 hang are Owen Yalandja’s imperious yawkyawk sculptures, mermaid-like figures with fish tales. With their sinuously curved trunks they swim in the air, greeting the visitor, like Yunupingu’s stars with the promise of wondrous things to see.
So, the scene is set, in this refreshed (and challenging) hang, for encounters with artworks familiar and new, in cultural, thematic and visual contexts that address the eye and imagination. Twenty minutes into the ‘new’ Elder Wing and I haven’t got past Gallery 1 and its interwoven worlds of land, sea and heaven. Only another four galleries to go.
Art Gallery of South Australia / Saul Steed