FEATURE STORY NOVEMBER/DECEMBER EDITION 2021: Art Gallery of WA relaunch heralds a new era

LYN DI CIERO

Christopher Pease with his work Targets, 2020, ink and polymer coating on aluminium and LED lighting, fifty-six panels: 483 x 3,471cm (overall). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2021. Photo Jessica Wyld

A gleaming renaissance has occurred at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Closed at the onset of the recent pandemic, as all galleries were, AGWA has puttered along since with a limited program while much of its structure was a building site. The aim was ambitious – to create a rooftop venue to include a sculpture garden, a gallery and a bar, accessed via a new lift on the outside of the building. But there is so much more to AGWA’s rebirth, as it now emerges, butterfly-like, from a lengthy hiatus, with the first major changes to the building since it was constructed in 1979.

 

The idea of utilising AGWA’s rooftop is not new. Architect Charles Sierakowski intended the area to be a public space. He also intended AGWA to feel connected to the city via large windows in the galleries with the cityscape clearly visible. AGWA has returned to this original vision, revealing windows looking out to the city, and removing semi-opaque blinds which blocked this view. The result contributes to a welcoming atmosphere, an outward looking attitude, and a reconnection with the metropolis surrounding it.

 

The rooftop has been used only intermittently over the decades, but it was previous AGWA Director Stefano Carboni who earmarked the space for development at the beginning of his directorship in 2008, finally convincing the government to invest in the project several years ago. And invest they have, with $10 million thrown at it, plus another $2 million as the project progressed – and it shows. Attention to detail is everywhere. Paving on the rooftop has been replaced with the warmer feel of wood, laid with angled patterning reflecting the hexagon shape of the building. The open air bar also reflects this angled shape, replete with stock of AGWA’s own beer, 1979, named after the year the gallery first opened. The outer perimeter of the rooftop space is lined with native plants, astoundingly considered in their placement, and a sparkling new gallery space replaces the conservation studio at its centre. But the coup d’etat is Targets, by award-winning Aboriginal artist Christopher Pease, which wraps around the exterior of the rooftop building. At five metres high and 34 metres long, it’s hard not to miss. The Dunsborough-based artist has reworked Frederick Garling’s 1827 colonial landscape Swan River, with the Targets title referencing his muse Jasper Johns and his mid-century work, as well as the idea of colonists ‘targeting the land’ for acquisition, and the notion of Aboriginal people as ‘targets of the state.’ The work lures viewers with depictions of recognisable colonial art before exposing colonial history as seen through an Indigenous lens.

 

Director Colin Walker says its the most important contemporary artwork in Australia at this point in time. “It’s awesome in every sense of the word,” he says. “It’s about the story of this place, and the history of this place, and the subtlety of its messages allows people to dig deeper into its meaning.”
There’s no denying Walker’s excitement at the launch of this work and the entire project, despite delays stretching the timeline for completion to 18 months. He says it’s been a civic privilege so many people worked on, creating something absolutely remarkable. “But you know what? We get to give it to the people for free and they can actually enjoy it,” he says. “We took a few risks without fear of making mistakes. I’d rather we take chances and fail than deliver mediocrity. I am not interested in mediocrity in any shape or form, not for this gallery or for this city. The project has only been achieved through hard work, cooperation, sweat, blood and tears. And there’s been plenty of tears along the way. Was it all worth it? I think so.”

 

He says it’s tricky to differentiate what is magnificent and what is just brilliant about the changes at AGWA. “It could be the massive new, enormous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection gallery we’ve reintroduced on the ground floor. Or it could be turning the gallery back to what the architect wanted, to that wonderful, welcoming new foyer with its beautiful desk. We want people to feel as though this is their place, not somebody else’s place. Everyone who comes in will feel welcomed – they’ll feel part of something that’s really special.”

 

As well as major changes to the building, AGWA has relaunched with a punchy, gallery-wide celebration of Western Australian art. The View From Here is the AGWA’s largest ever focus on local artists, featuring over 230 artists, 361 artworks and 111 new works commissioned for the historical moment. Artists include WA-raised, LA-based Sarah Bahbah who has over one million Instagram followers; Tim Meakins, whose giant, playful, 3D-printed sculptural works of weightlifters, posers and grinning weights occupy AGWA’s new interior rooftop gallery; Bruno Booth, whose Adidas-wearing cats appear throughout the gallery, as well as recent works by Abdul Abdullah, Ngarralja Tommy May, Danielle Freakly, Tyrown Waigana and Tarryn Gill.    

Tyrown Waigana, AGWA Director Colin Walker, Tim Meakins, Christopher Pease, Hon David Templeman,  Dip Tchg BEd MLA Minister for Tourism; Culture and the Arts; Heritage, Joanna Lamb, Bruno Booth and Tarryn Gill at the launch of AGWA’s Rooftop venue. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Collective Ground, a result of the AGWA Foundation’s $1.5 million artists stimulus package provided in response to COVID-19, sees 60 works on show from over 120 acquired from Aboriginal Art Centre’s and Aboriginal artists across Western Australia.

 

Walker says the new AGWA vision is to create a gallery which celebrates great Western Australian art and artists alongside those from the rest of the world. “AGWA will be a champion of WA artists. Our reopening is a celebration of local artists and our unique view of the world from this special place.” 
Hon David Templeman, Minister for Tourism; Culture and the Arts says Western Australia has a tremendously rich history of art and artisans our state should be very proud of. “One of the things we wanted to make sure of with this project was our WA artists would be exposed to a larger audience and celebrated.” He says the completion of the project cements an election commitment, but more funding is on the way to rejuvenate the surrounding space. “We’re also going to reimagine and re-landscape and the Cultural Centre of Perth to make it much more functional, much more accessible, and much more open and inviting.”

 

At the official launch at the Rooftop, Hon Mark McGowan MLA, Premier of Western Australia said he had been looking forward to the launch for four or five years, commenting the project was under the intense management of David Templeman. “I’m not disappointed,” he said.   “What has been created here is really something quite spectacular. Around 265 people worked here on the project, including 40 apprentices and up to 10 Aboriginal workers. The project itself used 75 tons of steel, 180,000 screws were installed in the deck, 345 tons of soil was brought in, 16 tons of stone was lifted up for landscaping, and around 700 kilos of auto doors were installed in the gallery as part of the project, so it’s really quite a remarkable, incredible, development on an existing building.”
 
As McGowan spoke, the sun began to set, and stunningly orchestrated lighting emerged around the Rooftop site. The centrepiece of this lighting extravaganza is Targets by Christopher Pease, his work incorporating LED lights in perforated patterns referencing traditional Noongar body paint. It’s an amazing inclusion which sees the work transform and glitter in the night sky.
 
The AGWA Rooftop is a 500-person venue with 360-degree views of the Perth skyline. The gallery is already taking function bookings for this unique space, accessed during opening hours by either the internal lifts or the new lift to the left of the foyer, also accessible externally for after hours functions.
The Rooftop features food and beverages with a distinct WA flavour, and sounds by local DJs. When can I go there, I hear you ask? AGWA Rooftop is open from 3pm Friday, 12pm Saturday and Sunday until late.
 
The View From Here is on show until 31 January, and Collective Ground until 14 November, returning in 2022 for a whole-of-gallery First Nation’s exhibition event.

Stylish outdoor furniture and spacescaping will no doubt make AGWA’s new rooftop venue a hit through warmer months.

Hon David Templeman,  Dip Tchg BEd MLA Minister for Tourism; Culture and the Arts prepares to serve artists AGWA’s own 1979 beer. 

In collaboration with AGWA Learning, Eveline Kotai’s Looking Out/Back/In is an exhibition and all ages play-space inviting visitors to build sculptural forms that double as cubby houses and create geometric 2D patterns on the floor.

The caller, 1967, by Gerhard Marcks now shouts from the rooftop.

Native plants skirt the perimeter of the new Rooftop at AGWA.

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