Art Gallery of NSW: Adrián Villar Rojas to take over WWII bunker as Sydney Modern unveiled

Four stories underground, a 2,200 sq metre second world war fuel bunker has been transformed into a showpiece gallery for the Art Gallery of New South Wales after lying unused for decades.

Art by acclaimed Argentinian sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas will be the first installed in the AGNSW’s new Tank gallery, which will open free to the public in December as part of the major Sydney Modern expansion.

Sydney Modern is the AGNSW’s new contemporary art museum and sits alongside the original gallery.

While little is known about Villar Rojas’ plan for the Tank gallery, titled the End of Imagination, he is known for collaborative, elaborate and immersive sculptural worlds which are often designed to crumble and thematically concerned with the end of the world.

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones has described him as “one of the most incisive artists of his generation, a man on an ecological mission that is actutely timely”.

Villar Rojas worked on the project in Argentina and New York. He first visited the Sydney fuel bunker during building works in 2018.

“This project in Australia is a special one,” the artist said in a statement, “not only because I have been trusted with a space of such uniqueness on Gadigal Country, but because it reminds me of many conversations with many caring and generous people across four years in remarkable places in your country.”

The art gallery will commission a new artist to create a site-specific installation for the Tank gallery each year. It’s expected that commissions will play with the unusual acoustics of the space, where sounds reverberate for more than 20 seconds around 125 columns seven metres high.

Taken together, the NSW tourism minister, Ben Franklin, said the new Sydney Modern would see the AGNSW become as iconic as the Guggenheim in New York, the Louvre in Paris or the Tate Modern in London.

“I genuinely believe that the Art Gallery of NSW joins the great pantheons of art museums in the world,” he said at a media preview on Wednesday.

The $344m development has been funded by the NSW government with more than $100m in contributions from private donors.

It means the AGNSW will be spread across two buildings, almost doubling the space available for exhibitions and its permanent collection display – and include a new Yiribana gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at Sydney Modern.

In another first, Sydney Modern will open with gender parity among its collection and exhibitions.

The Tank commission joins an opening program that will feature work by more than 900 artists from Australia and around the world, including major new site-specific commissions from Waradgerie artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones and Māori artist Lisa Reihana.

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It’s anticipated more than 15,000 people will come to see the Villar Rojas exhibition alone.

Sydney Modern is the most significant cultural development for the city since the building of the Sydney Opera House.

Sections of the current AGNSW building have also been upgraded, and a new public art garden is being built.

The new building will open to the public on 3 December.

Australian Associated Press travelled with the assistance of AGNSW.