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Revisit Canberra: National Gallery of Australia

Bethany Nevile

Typical of a travel brochure, many of our iconic Canberra attractions are really only ever visited by locals when family or friends come to town. As was the case for Bethany Nevile. Having only ever visited places such as the National Library, National Museum and National Gallery for school excursions, complaining about being dragged to them as a kid, or realising she had never actually ever checked them out, Beth decided to make a re-visit and live it list—for Canberra that is.

In this series, Beth has revisited iconic landmarks around the capital and rediscovered tourist attractions that are often forgotten (the ones we’re all guilty of driving by each day without giving a second thought). This series will hopefully inspire you to revisit some of Canberra’s institutional treasures with new eyes, fresh enthusiasm and the determination to reinvigorate an appreciation for the city you call home.

I have always understood words better than pictures, and so remained slightly awed by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). I’ve visited many times with various school groups, friends and family but never really stopped as an adult to appreciate the amazing art that Canberrans are lucky enough to have on display in the centre of our city. For my revisit to the NGA I had the company and expertise of two of my friends from ANU’s School of Art, and we had a fantastic day exploring the many varied treasures of the National Gallery.

It’s challenging to even begin to describe just how many varied pieces are on display each and every day, so I’ll just pick out some of our personal favourites, starting with the obvious — James Turrell to which a lot has already been said about this incredible exhibition. In case you haven’t heard of it, or had the chance to go yet (and you really should), here’s a refresher. James Turrell is a contemporary artist specialising in light, and his pieces play with how we see space and colour, light and dark. The retrospective covers his entire career, and contains prints, photographs and drawings and as well as holograms and spaces built specifically for the exhibition.

Virtuality squared 2014. Ganzfeld: built space, LED lights (800 x 1400 x 1940.5 cm overall) Collection James Turrell. Photograph: National Gallery of Australia

Virtuality squared 2014. Ganzfeld: built space, LED lights (800 x 1400 x 1940.5 cm overall) Collection James Turrell. Photograph: National Gallery of Australia 

My personal favourite was the room bathed in pink light, as the lovely staff member advised me, stay in there staring for a least a minute and observe how everything is coloured differently as you leave. Make sure you don’t miss the room on the right near the exit, it’s a real highlight (and you even have to take your shoes off). The NGA is the only Australian gallery to feature this collection and it is a ticketed event that will run until June 8 (although the premium Perceptual Cell experience is unfortunately already sold out). Prices and full exhibition details can be online.

It was another lovely Canberra day, and so of course we had to explore the sculpture garden. There are 26 sculptures scattered throughout the lawns of the gallery, some big, like Bert Flugelman’s reflective stainless steel Cones, and others small, such as Dadang Christanto‘s Heads from the North that peer through the reeds of the pond. As an adult, I took significantly more time to actually look at the art as I had a child, but the fog was, and remains, one of my absolute favourites. For those who haven’t seen it for themselves, I’m referring to a piece by Fujiko Nakaya that runs from 12- 2.30pm daily and envelopes an area of the garden and pond in a thick mist.

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The fog is beautiful to behold year round, but especially nice to run through on a hot day. My friend took me to her favourite, Fiona Hall’s Fern Garden, which is an incredibly peaceful little spot within the gallery’s gardens, tucked in next to the building itself. The winding pebbled path leads through the ferns, and in places is inscribed with various words for ferns in different Aboriginal languages. There are also benches to provide a place to sit quietly and reflect, and the benches themselves are dedicated to the memories of Tamsin and Deuchar Davy. The Fern Garden is a very comforting space that I will certainly be returning to visit again.

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There is plenty more to see inside too. Until July, the photospace gallery on level one is displaying the breathtaking series Myth and memory in recent American landscape photography, chronicling the changing wilderness and urbanisation of the United States. While exhibitions in some areas, like the photospace, are regularly updated and changed, the NGA also has over 160,000 works from Australia and beyond in its permanent galleries. My friend Bec’s pick of the day was Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander area, my housemate showed us highlights of the Pop Art area within the European and American gallery, and some of my personal favourites were outside in the sculpture garden: so there really is something for everyone’s own artistic tastes!

With summer still (occasionally) lingering, the weather is perfect to sit in the quiet cool of the Fern Garden, or to be engulfed in the fog. Canberrans should make the most of the opportunity to see the James Turrell retrospective, or any one of the excellent permanent exhibitions the gallery offers year round, so it is definitely the right time to revisit the National Gallery of Australia.

The essentials

What: National Gallery of Australia
Where: Parkes Place, Parkes
When: Open 10 am to 5pm daily (except Christmas Day)
How much: Free, although fees may apply for some specific exhibitions
Web: www.nga.gov.au

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Bethany Nevile

Bethany Nevile is a Canberra local and recently graduated from the ANU with an honours degree in English Literature. She loves op shopping, baking, binge reading, live music, theatre, trashy TV and thinks there is always room for dessert. More about the Author

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