In Australia, being cultured used to mean denying the
existence of Australian culture. The novelist Patrick White, the country’s only
Nobel laureate for literature, set the tone in the 1950s by referring to his
homeland as “the Great Australian Emptiness”. The dancer Sir Robert Helpmann,
an early winner of the Australian of the Year award, did not help much when he
scoffed, "I don't despair about
the cultural scene in Australia because there isn't one here to despair
about." By the early 1960s, a sense of “cultural cringe” had become firmly
lodged in the national psyche – a sense that, when compared to their British
and American counterparts, the Australian arts were plainly inferior.
Nowadays, the country has a
rich and vibrant arts scene, from the acting of Cate Blanchett to the music of
the Aboriginal singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu;
from the literature of Christos Tsiolkas, the author of The
Slap, to the poetry of the celebrated “bush bard”, Les Murray. Just as
important, Australia’s artistic infrastructure is starting to rival its world-renowned
sporting infrastructure, with new cultural cathedrals rising up all over the vast
continent -- sometimes in unexpected corners.
Consider the new Museum
of Old and New Art in Tasmania (MONA) which the New York Times called “the
best museum you’ve never heard of”. The bunker-like structure, which opened in
2011, looks like it emerges from the banks of the River Derwent outside of Hobart
and exhibits more than 400 artistic works across three floors of gallery space.
It was the brainchild of Tasmanian millionaire and professional gambler, David
Walsh, who wanted to display his private collection in what he called a “temple
to secularism” and a “subversive Disneyland”. With exhibits including the
dismembered body parts of a suicide bomber rendered in chocolate and a machine
that supposedly manufactures excrement, the museum is wilfully shocking. But
that has not deterred visitors. Indeed, MONA has produced something of a
mini-Bilbao effect for Tasmania.
Less controversial, but just as noteworthy, is the new
Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in
Brisbane, Queensland -- a state that has long been viewed, perhaps unfairly, as
a cultural black hole. Set on the banks of the snaking Brisbane River, across
from the skyscrapers of the central business district, GOMA is an airy
pavilion-like structure, with outdoor balconies and terraces that nod
architecturally towards the open verandas found in so many Queensland homes. By
2010, less than five years after it opened, it had not only become Australia’s
most popular gallery, but one of the top 50 in the world. It has also helped
turn Brisbane’s South Bank, home to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum and the State Library of Queensland into one of
Australia’s hottest stretches of cultural real estate.
Sydney’s artistic skyline has also been enhanced by
the opening of a new extension at its harbour-side Museum of Contemporary Art Australia – a gallery that had outgrown the Art Deco,
former maritime building that had been its home since 1991. The new Mordant
wing, which looks diagonally across to the Sydney Opera House, has been likened
to a Rubik’s Cube. But the architecture is generating less buzz than its
signature exhibit, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour cinematic collage
made up of minute-by-minute time references from movies. The
Guardian has called the work the “most staggering, complex thing made by
any artist so far this century”, and each Thursday the museum opens
round-the-clock so that visitors can watch its nocturnal hours. Little wonder
then that when the revamped museum opened its doors to the public in April, it
witnessed the busiest day in its history. More than 100,000 people visited in
the first few weeks.
In Melbourne, the city’s civic hub, Federation Square,
houses another 21st-century gallery, the Ian
Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria. It is the first anywhere in
the world to be devoted solely to Australian art, and the architecture is
eye-catching, with its sandstone, zinc and glass panels likened to the crazy
paving one might normally expect to find on an Australian backyard patio.
More impressive, from an architectural point of view,
is its mother gallery situated just over the Yarra River – the mausoleum-like National Gallery of Victoria, which was
built in the late-1960s and given a facelift by the Milanese architect Mario
Bellini at the turn of this century. Its great hall, with a spectacular stained
glass ceiling, looks like the nave of a cathedral.
Finally, there is the new National Portrait Gallery in Canberra
which opened in 2008, a low-slung building dominated by two cantilevered
concrete blades that complements the brutalist architecture of its neighbour,
the High Court of Australia. Critics,
De Lorenzo of the University of New South Wales, have celebrated
its “assured presence”, suggesting that it “reveals
a new architectural maturity in Canberra and, perhaps, the nation”. Australia’s
bush capital has never really gone for grand, monumental architecture –
visitors can literally clamber over its new parliament building on the turf
that covers its roof – and the Portrait Gallery is typically understated.
Like all the other galleries, though, it is a
welcome addition. “The Great Australian Emptiness” is a thing of the past. Just
look at the artistic landmarks peppering its cultural landscape.