The Australian - Wish Magazine
The Art Gallery of NSW’s forthcoming Sydney Modern project is the catalyst for a stunning exhibition that will link the past with the future
MICHAEL BRAND strides through a brasscoloured Sydney afternoon towards a sporty mini with dustsmeared duco. He waves towards the car as if cleaning it by gesture control, tuts and apologises, but it could hardly be avoided: Sydney is blanketed in bushfire fallout. The Art Gallery of New South Wales director, dressed in a natty checked jacked over an untucked white shirt, takes me for a spin through the city towards a surprise location that has some – as yet undisclosed – bearing on his forthcoming Some Mysterious Process exhibition: a distillation and celebration of the gallery’s international contemporary art collection, or the past 50 years of it. “Why 50 years?” I ask. “Because I like round numbers,” he says as we zip around a corner.
“And by starting in the ’70s you begin at an interesting time culturally,” he continues. “The exhibition starts in the wake of the studentled protests and political assassinations of 1968 and the first manned landing on the moon in 1969. Extraordinary events.
“At that time Sydney really opened its eyes to international contemporary art, and the gallery itself was about to begin a period of change.”
As we leave the CBD and sweep onto a stretch of freeway, Brand says, with an almost imperceptible grin: “This is where we have to blindfold you.” Minutes later we pull into an anonymous industrialscale facility, in appearance not unlike a silo; and minutes after that we are strolling through the gallery’s collection of artworks in storage.
Many of the works destined for display in the Some Mysterious Process exhibition, curated by Brand himself, are being fished out from this vast storehouse with pharaonic interior spaces, frames of every shape, size and description, and thousands of paintings stored on large vertical racks. Many have labels bearing familiar names such as Stella, Whiteley, Boyd, though a fair proportion of the names are unfamiliar – or forgotten.
About 80 per cent of the gallery’s collection is gathering metaphorical dust at this and other sites. “I often come across things here and think, ‘Why don’t we see more of that?’” says Brand as we survey the ranks of storage racks receding toward a vanishing point. “It’s also true that sometimes – though rarely – I see things and think, ‘Why do we even have that?’”
The Some Mysterious Process exhibition takes its title from a reflection on creative inspiration by American painter Philip Guston, whose work spanned a range of styles and genres. “There’s some mysterious process at work here that I don’t even want to understand,” Guston famously said. Michael Brand, in stark contrast, wants very much to understand the making of art and – equally importantly – the processes and conventions of acquiring, collecting and displaying it.
The catalyst for the exhibition, which opens on April 18, is the construction of the AGNSW’s $344 million Sydney Modern Project extension designed by Pritzkerwinning Japanese architects SANAA. The first sod was turned in November and when I visit, on an early December afternoon backlit by bushfires, earthworks have begun in earnest.
Brand, who was director of the monied and muscular J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for five years before taking up the helm of the midsized AGNSW on Edmund Capon’s retirement, plans to open the extension in 2022: his 10th year in the job. His fondness for even numbers is clearly no idle boast.
“When the Sydney Modern Project opens it will nearly double our exhibition space,” he tells me. “The gallery’s transformation will be reflected not only in our
expanded physical premises, but also in how we think about, interpret and present art. Central to our curatorial philosophy across the new building and the old is our view that the art of the past is crucial to understanding the art of our own times, and that Australian art is also international art. The Some Mysterious Process exhibition provides a platform for thinking about future collecting and curating as we work towards completing the Sydney Modern Project.”
At first it seems a defiantly ponderous, almost selfreferential project: an exhibition about past exhibitions designed to inform future exhibitions. But when Brand takes me to a set of horizontal trays on which the works of ceramic artist Lubna Chawdhary are stored, the show reveals something of its sensuality, its zest and its wit.
Chawdhary’s works, though freshly acquired, are expected to be one of the highlights of the exhibition. The English artist, born in Tanzania to Indian parents, makes sets of uniquely glazed and handcut tiles and arranges them into playful ensembles. The varied textures and vibrant colours of the pieces evoke the polychromatic Hindu imagination, like abstractions from a Durga Puja festival. The artist is also working within an Islamic art, craft and architectural tradition, and simultaneously referencing Western architecture and fashion. “That’s ’70s kitchen,” says Brand of a particularly luscious burnt orange. But it could equally be Indian saffron. The gallery acquired five of Chawdhary’s ensembles from a series titled Certain Times after Brand saw them last year at Art Basel Hong Kong.
The peripatetic Michael Brand’s early childhood was spent in Canberra and his teenage years in Washington, after his father, a treasury bureaucrat, was posted to the US. On their way across the Pacific to their new home the family stopped at Papeete, and it’s there in Tahiti, at the Paul Gauguin House, that Brand had his first striking art moment. Later, he and the family visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City – “still one of my favourite museums and favourite cities”. By the time he turned 18 his travels had allowed him to see a vast amount of Western and Eastern art in places where art is a way of life. During a gap year before university, Tuscany naturally beckoned, but so too did Cairo.
Brand took an undergraduate degree in Asian studies at the Australian National University – winning a university medal along the way – and went on to complete postgraduate degrees at Harvard. His doctoral thesis was on the littleknown IndoMuslim ruins of Mandu in central India, and his first big job was inaugural curator of the NGA’s Asian art collection. It’s little wonder that Chawdhary’s EastWest sculptural ceramic art strikes such a powerful chord with him.
“They evoke cityscapes, different types of architecture, and different forms of architectural ornamentation,” he explains. “They’re beautifully evocative. I see European buildings, mosques and modern skylines. The artist draws inspiration from the subcontinent, and the English arts and crafts movement. They work as an ensemble and are also beautiful individual objects with amazing glazing. These works are beautiful on the surface, and deep with meaning – even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.”
Some Mysterious Process is in part a celebration of collecting, but it is also an invitation to think about the AGNSW collection’s strengths and weaknesses, its past and its future – or notional futures. Collecting, Brand suggests, possesses something of the mystery of creation itself. Returning to his purchase of Chawdhary’s works last year, he reflects on their instant allure as if it were as unfathomable as love at first sight. “It’s wonderful when you come across an artist who you don’t really know about and a work of art you’ve never seen before, and it just strikes you in a certain way,” he says. “Now that is a mysterious process. And I think this work gets better and better the more you look at it.”
Storytelling is an important gift for any curator, and the story Brand is telling with Some Mysterious Process touches, at key points, his own. At the age of 15 he visited Kathmandu, and what the young Michael Brand saw there was transformative.
“I visited temples and saw sculpture and architecture fused together, heard chanting, saw pilgrims, and priests,” he recalls. “The art was so much more holistic than in a Western gallery. There were colours, forms, scents, movement – drama. Ever since then, and right through my own studies in the more formal aspects of Western architecture, I’ve been interested in art as it’s experienced in architectural space. It’s one of the reasons I was interested in art museums rather than academic positions.”
Rarely are chanting priests to be found at the AGNSW, but the complex, I suggest, somewhat resembles a city, and on the completion of Sydney Modern it will even more closely resemble a multipurpose art polis. Brand nods in agreement. “It’s art and architecture in a garden, with restaurants and, now and then, performances.” One of his bugbears, he confesses, is the insistence on silence in art galleries. “I love noise,” he says. “I love enthusiasm. I can’t understand people who complain about children in the gallery.”
Next on Brand’s whistlestop tour of works in storage awaiting display in Some Mysterious Process is a painting and silkscreen on paper by acclaimed Pakistanborn artist
Shahzia Sikander. It’s titled, in a nod and a wink to the Indian and Persian manuscript tradition, Illustrated Page. Sikander, who lives in New York City, was born in Lahore, and Brand, even before he took up his role at the NGA as founding head of Asian art, worked in the former Moghal capital of Lahore codirecting a Moghal garden project for the Smithsonian. Connections, as Brand well knows, make great collections.
Brand and his wife Tina Gomes, a communications strategist, were married in her birthplace of Borneo before spending a honeymoon and the next six months in Lahore. It was, he admits, for reasons that need no explanation, a tough time for his young wife. He had already developed a fascination with the miniature paintings of the Indian and Persian traditions, and Sikander’s work is riffing on this legacy.
Sikander was schooled in traditional miniature painting at Lahore’s National College of Arts, an institution founded by Rudyard Kipling’s father. “This was in the early 1990s when everyone wanted to paint in the Western manner,” says Brand. “But there’s since been a huge revival of the discipline.” Brand is proud of the fact that artist and former gallery trustee Khadim Ali trained at the same college in Lahore. Students at the college are required to first immerse themselves in the lessons of the great masters and only then, after acquiring the traditional skills, are they encouraged to develop a personal artistic language.
The journey from tradition to selfexpression, Brand explains, is reflected in Sikander’s Illustrated Page. “She’s taken the form of a miniature, interpreted the ornamentation, and at the same time extracted and reanimated the details. The result is something like an open book with two large pages side by side in a single frame. But there’s no narrative, at least not a traditional one, and at about 1.6 by 2 metres, it’s clearly not a miniature.”
As we move through the storage facility, Brand reveals several more works destined for the new show. There is Indonesian artist Nyoman Masriadi’s sinister Untitled Book, which depicts in near monochrome a gymbuffed holy man with the solidity of an Assyrian statue, and American artist Dana Schutz’s Willem de Kooninglike Breastfeeding. The final piece is by American pop artist Edward Ruscha and it is composed of just one word – Gospel – painted aslant on raw canvas in an uppercase font reminiscent of an album cover or billboard advertisement. That one word has been skewered artfully with arrows.
When Brand arrived in Sydney from the J. Paul Getty Museum via Toronto, where he was consulting director for the new Aga Khan Museum, the Art Gallery Society put some money towards a work in honour of his arrival. “I thought, the gallery hasn’t been as strong in American contemporary art as European,” he explains as we stand in front of the simple, striking, yet ultimately sphinxlike work. “Tony Bond and Edmund Capon [ assistant director and director respectively] were very strong on Europe. I thought I might reorient a bit towards the US, having just finished living and working in Los Angeles.”
Brand knew Ed Ruscha and liked his work, so he decided to visit the artist in his studio to inquire about a possible acquisition.
“Ed came up with this work, which he’d kept for himself,” Brand says with a tada flourish. “It hadn’t even been published, as far as I know. In the US the word Gospel is so complex, and then to pierce it with arrows... Is it gospel singers? The gospel truth? Or the gospel misused? Perhaps it has multiple meanings. I asked the artist and he said laconically, ‘Oh well, I just had some arrows lying around.’
“Ask an artist about their work and you more often than not get a variation on the same response: ‘It’s a mysterious process’.”