In December 2016, Brisbane’s much-loved Gallery of Modern Art marked its 10th birthday with a party that will last all summer. A huge exhibition that features over 250 works from the collection, Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything, is at the heart of the celebrations. Of course, no birthday party would be complete without presents, and this one is no exception.
Thanks to the generosity of benefactors, GOMA has received several very special gifts, including a performance of Heard by the American artist Nick Cave that features elaborate, near life-sized horse costumes in an exuberant dance. Fifteen of these bespoke equine outfits are on show in Sugar Spin and they will remain in GOMA’s permanent collection. And a new light and sound installation by the British- born, US-based sculptor Anthony McCall, seen for the first time in Sugar Spin, has also been purchased for the gallery.
And GOMA itself is the gift that just keeps on giving. Since opening its doors in 2006, the gallery has welcomed some 6.8 million visitors, injected $62.2 million dollars into the Queensland economy through ticketed shows, entertained 250,000 people with 4500 films, and introduced more than two million young visitors to the pleasure of creative participation at the Children’s Art Centre.
But as Chris Saines, director of QAGOMA (the awkward acronym that links the venerable Queensland Art Gallery, which opened in 1895, with its much younger sibling) points out, GOMA’s most important contribution can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
During the last decade, the inspiring architecture and vast exhibition spaces of GOMA have encouraged innovative and ambitious major exhibitions and programs, which have had a widespread impact. “I think what GOMA has done is that it has really changed the cultural landscape in Queensland,” Saines says, adding: “More than that, I think it has changed the cultural landscape in Australia more broadly.”
“I think that the rest of Australia, in terms of the major cultural institutions, has spent the last 10 years thinking, We need a GOMA,” Saines explains. “There is a very serious public good that is generated over and above a directly measurable economic benefit, and that is what Queensland and Brisbane should be most proud of. GOMA is a building that has really galvanised the state and made people take real pride in the presentation of contemporary culture.”
The complexity of contemporary culture was foremost in curator Geraldine Barlow’s mind while she was putting the 10th birthday show, Sugar Spin, together. “My challenge was to make it as celebratory as possible, but also to give a context for the more complex intentions and language of each of the artworks,” she says. “We want to engage people, to celebrate and to entertain. But also, art is at its most powerful when it is really reflecting the full range of experiences that we have in the world: the challenges and the difficulties.”
According to Barlow, Sugar Spin may sound like a big whirling party, and it is, but it’s not all sweetness and light. “There are some works that really reach out to people and kind of grab them through the use of colour or movement, and there are other works that are tough and talk, for instance, about issues of environmental degradation and the settlement of Australia.”
Sugar Spin starts with Carsten Höller’s twin spiralling slides, a much-requested interactive artwork. Then a bright seething sea of synthetic hair, Nervescape by Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir – which was specially commissioned for the show – draws visitors into GOMA’s vast exhibition spaces. There the show is divided into what Barlow calls “chapters”, titled sweetmelt, blackwater, soaring, treasure and cosmos.
“I wanted people to feel like there was quite a dramatic, and hopefully exciting, itinerary that they could navigate as they move through the spaces.”
In mapping out the journey of Sugar Spin, Barlow listened to a wide range of voices, from her fellow curators to the public and the people who work in the GOMA shop. “Because,” she points out, “it’s kind of about GOMA and its place in people’s hearts, but it’s also about trying to make that into something that feels coherent and can tell us about where we are in the world, and who we are in the world.”
Which is, after all, what good art does best. And you can’t ask for a better present than that.