What happens when a public art collection, commissioned for a particular building at a particular time, loses its building? This was the question facing the ICC Sydney Art Collection when in 2013 the building that had housed the collection since 1988 was knocked down to make way for the redevelopment of Darling Harbour. However, the new International Convention Centre Sydney, completed in 2016, has come to be the new home of the original collection. In addition, under the direction of curator Leon Paroissien, the revitalised Darling Harbour precinct now includes four newly commissioned works.
Originally built in 1988 as part of the Australian bicentenary, the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, designed by architects Phillip Cox and John Andrews, dominated Darling Harbour, and turned what was once a working port into a tourist mecca and ibis sanctuary. To complement the buildings and as a continuation of New South Wales government policy to invest in public art to adorn and elevate major public works, a series of artworks by major Australian artists were commissioned, all of which revolved around the theme of the harbour.
Paroissien, reflecting on the purpose of the original collection, noted that “the focus of the collection was originally presenting Sydney to interstate and international visitors, and giving a showcase for Australian art.”
This was achieved by giving Australian artists who were at the height of their careers, including Brett Whiteley and John Olsen, a broad canvas on which to depict the dynamic Sydney harbour at the moment that it was transitioning from being an industrial dock to a pleasure-focused harbour.
However, the challenge in the new home of the collection was to find spaces for the artworks which had been specifically constructed with the previous building in mind. This was Paroissien’s primary obstacle for rehousing the old collection.
“You'll see some of them are huge, a couple of stories high. In some cases, initially they were on a curved surface in the old building and they had to be flattened out so the canvas had to have a different stretcher to suit the new location.”
Today, the works from 1988 and those that were acquired or gifted to the collection in the interim hang in five distinct spaces; on three separate floors at the northern edge of the Convention Centre and then on the western side of the Convention Centre outside the Pyrmont Theatre. What ties all of these spaces together, however, is their light-filled character. At the northern end of the Convention Centre, just as the works refer to the harbor outside, giant floor to ceiling windows frame the current harbor and its activities. In the Exhibition Centre, what was a low, blank white ceiling has been lifted up, and an oval shaped window in the roof allows natural light streams down into the room below.
While these interior spaces house the older works, the outdoor areas of the ICC play host to four new artworks. Paroissien, who led the team that commissioned these works, revealed the process that went into their placement and selection.
“[The new works] were to be integrated into the site. I worked collaboratively with the landscape architects about what works would be appropriate and what kinds of impact they wanted to have with them.”
The four works, three by established Australian artists and one by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, all respond in their own ways to the place where the ICC is constructed and the history of the site. Danie Mellor’s Entelekheia comprises ghostly etchings on the concrete façade of the Exhibition Centre that depict the flora which once occupied the Darling Harbour site before European settlement. Janet Laurence’s 16 channel soundscape Habitat plays the songs of the birds that previously inhabited Tumbalong Park. These new works point towards the complex and changing role of public art in not only representing Sydney to visitors, as the collection did in 1988, but also reminding Sydney-siders of the many layers of history that have been erased over the past two-hundred years.
For Paroissien the Darling Harbour precinct is one step towards Sydney becoming more and more a city suffused with art, “I think in the coming decade or more you'll find Sydney is a city populated by art wherever you walk, not just the city centre, but around all the fringes and the suburbs.”
In the mean-time, take a stroll through Darling Harbour and experience both the old and the new works of the ICC collection. Further information about the collection and the venue it is housed in can be found here.