Yiribana Gallery, AGNSW

While in Sydney, we naturally went to the AGNSW to see what was on display. The Yiribana Gallery was long one of my favorites, the first place I came to depend on for regular, excellent displays of Indigenous art. The selection and presentation of work was always stunning. The first painting I really fell in love with was Willy Tjungurrayi’s Tingari Story from 1986, and on each return visit to Yiribana it was waiting for me in all its splendor.

It was there as well that I first understood, in 2001, what all the fuss over John Mawurndjul was about. There were four enormous barks lined up one after another and the power of the abstraction left me literally speechless. It was all shimmer and wonderment, and before I left Australia on that trip I’d purchased my first bark painting. Not a Mawurndjul, but a very nice Dird Djang by Mick Kubarkku.

There was another visit–maybe it was the same one that made the Mawurndjul magic–where a number of large canvases by Emily Kngwarreye gave me a similar insight into the old woman’s power. All the newspaper stories and the catalogs proclaimed her majesty, but the Art Gallery of New South Wales made a believer out of me.

But now I’ve got a bone to pick with them.

Quite simply, the Yiribana Gallery is in a shocking state. The floors are abraded, chiseled, broken, and spotted. Whoever thought they could get away with a black and white floor that looks like a bad dot painting ought to be brought up before the Board of Museological Aesthetics. The exhibition case where the Tiwi tutini used to stand is gone, but you can still look through a window at the Museum’s storage space if you get tired of the art.

Maybe I was just cranky because workmen on a badly greased mobile lift were sawing away at the ceiling while I was trying to watch Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley’s film, I Don’t Want to be a Bludger. But it was more than that. It was also the fact that despite the capacious screening room that had been built in the middle of the exhibition space for the film, the audio system was completely stuffed. Almost anywhere you stood in the gallery, no matter what painting you were looking at, you could hear the film’s soundtrack.

The only place the soundtrack wasn’t audible was from the seats in the screening room. So you could listen to the sound of the soundtrack while not watching the film, or you could watch the film and imagine what you might be hearing if you were standing somewhere else and the workmen had gone on smoko.

OK, yes, I was cranky and out of sorts. For once I found the selection of works on display less than inspiring; in fact I had a suspicion that some of them were chosen to appeal to the Biennale crowd who might otherwise be dismissive of Indigenous art: there was more irony and oddly at the same time less edge than I cared to see. 

But my real complaint is that the space–it’s the basement for heaven’s sake, isn’t that bad enough?–is getting run down, and the art is suffering. It’s hard to make even great art look great in shabby quarters, and the Yiribana Gallery is definitely getting shabby. With GoMA and the Ian Potter Centre’s glories to compare with, the once-proud, once mighty collections at the AGNSW appear a bit depressed these days. I doubt that the curatorial staff is feeling much better.

I understand from Sydneysiders that the economy in NSW is about to tank, if it hasn’t done so already, but this neglect has been going on for years now. I can only hope that someone among the senior management of the Gallery will take action to treat this magnificent collection as the the crown jewel, not the bargain basement.

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