We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

A portrait of Archie Plus

As Archie Plus comes to life throughout the Gallery, Look magazine editor John Saxby asks lead curator Justin Paton about this ‘many-voiced’ project and what makes it different.

Five banners hang between sandstone columns at the front of the building with Art Gallery of New South Wales on the facade. Four of the banners feature colourful artwork.

In 25 words or less, what is Archie Plus?

It’s our way of marking an unforgettable year and paying tribute to the people we’ve shared it with. It’s hundreds of portraits in many media filling our spaces with people-power. It’s about connecting with art and each other again in a year when we’ve been ‘together apart’. It’s collective portraits, alternative portraits, alive to the changes and challenges of 2020. It’s the in-real-life expansion of our pandemic-response digital project Together In Art … And I’ve already used twice as many words as you gave me …

How does it differ from a conventional exhibition?

It’s different because it’s decentred. There are Archie Plus offerings all through the ground floor and downstairs too. It’s also different because it’s evolving and responsive. The first work went public on 21 September 2020 and new things have been emerging ever since. Then there’s the fact that it’s not just visual art – music and performance are key to its spirit. But the biggest difference is that it’s many-voiced and of-the-moment, with topical wall texts by dozens of contributors, mini-exhibitions from across the curatorial team, amazing new works by NSW artists, audio portraits from artists in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, and art from all corners of our collection.

And why is it important to do things differently right now? 

Because we’re in a different world than we were at the start of 2020. Things have changed – are changing – so it’s right that art museums should be listening and responding and trying to move differently. The constraints on travel induced by the pandemic have given museums good reason to think locally, to think about the many ‘locals’ that exist around the world. And, with fewer opportunities for artists, we want Archie Plus, like the Together In Art digital project, to be an act of real support for NSW artists. The presence of music in the program is a great example of how things change. It began very organically, when Ngaiire, Joji Malani and Sarah Belkner came and performed in the Gallery six days into our temporary closure. It’s like what they say about movie soundtracks; the sound is how you feel when you’re watching the visuals. And those performances caught something essential about that moment, when everyone was anxious and wanting something heartfelt and hopeful. Now some of those musicians are back, creating portraits in word and sound that speak directly to the pandemic year and the question of art’s power in times of crisis.

If Archie Plus were a portrait, who might it resemble and would its eyes follow me around the room?

It’s a portrait of many rather than one. And it’s hard to describe because it’s moving. It contains many moods, as has 2020 – from anxiety and resistance through to care and joy. It speaks in lots of voices, not all of which agree or neatly harmonise with each other. And it’s a portrait that will indeed follow you round as you walk the ground floor of the Gallery – there are Archie Plus interventions in every direction. (There was even one projected from the roof of the Gallery – Michaela Gleave’s Messages of hope, messages of love.) The result might be described as a portrait of us – there’s an ‘us’ in ‘plus’ – but the ‘us’ is a crowd that’s milling and changing and arguing, in generous and spirited ways, about who ‘we’ are and what we want.

A long mural features a person with bobbed red hair and glasses running in a yellow dress and peaking out from curtains dressed in red. The rest of the wall features many different people.

Adrienne Doig What do we want? 2020 (detail)

A person looks at nine head-and-torso portraits hung in a grid. Paintings hang on the wall in the background.

Portraits by Richard Lewer in the modern Australian galleries with works by Sidney Nolan (left) and Arthur Boyd (right)

23 framed portrait paintings hang on a red wall next to a sign saying 'Grit + grandeur'.

A view of Grit and grandeur, curated by Anne Gérard-Austin

Four head-and-shoulder portraits, each with 'Aussie' in text at the bottom, are hung on a wooden display stand within an historic gallery space displaying framed paintings.

Peter Drew's Aussie posters displayed in the Grand Courts

A gallery space with multiple works of art hanging on the walls and sculptures on plinths.

A view of How we hold, curated by Isobel Parker Philip

Multiple beams of purple light shine directly up into the night sky. In the background is a cityscape of buildings with lit windows.

Michaela Gleave’s collective poem in light, Messages of hope, message of love, projecting from the roof of the Gallery in October 2020

In a room with a few furnishings and scattered materials, a person stands holding a pottery head.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran at Parramatta Artists’ Studios with work in progress for the installation Avatar Towers

Two people stand in a vaulted room next to wooden scaffolding that holds a ceramic figure.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Justin Paton with the beginnings of Nithiyendran’s Avatar Towers in the Gallery’s vestibule

Two people in front of a colourful painting featuring a person in glasses leaning on another person.

At work on the mural Love owls and mermaids singing in the rainbow pop 2020

A person completes a portrait of a large head as part of a mural. Other artists work on different sections of the artwork.

Jaycee Kim (left) and Megan Pelham (centre left) painting Love owls and mermaids singing in the rainbow pop with Florence Araniego and Emma Johnston of Studio A

In a gallery space displaying historic artworks, two people sit around a table with laptop computers.

Musicians Nardean and L-FRESH The Lion in residence in the Gallery’s Grand Courts in September 2020

What are some of the works to encounter?

So many. Adrienne Doig’s epic mural, which tells the story of 2020 through the artist’s eyes. The big facade banners by the kids of Plunkett Street Public School in Woolloomooloo and the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown which reveal their ‘superpowers’ for confronting an uncertain world. An incredible welcome party of more than 70 ceramic and bronze beings by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran that is about to emerge in the entrance vestibule. Beautiful new photographic works about intimacy, togetherness, growth and loss by William Yang, Cherine Fahd, Amanda Williams and Angela Tiatia.

Do you have favourites?

The only thing better than new art in the building is artists making new art in the building, so my favourites at the moment are those works which are being created on-site. A few nights ago, L-FRESH The LION and Nardean recorded a new musical work in our history-laden Grand Courts. It’s a meditation on art and community with a great, site-specific title – Gold frames, gold chains. And at the moment Mathew Calandra, Emily Crockford, Annette Galstaun, Lauren Kerjan, Jaycee Kim, Catherine McGuiness and Meagan Pelham of Studio A are pumping optimism into our entrance court as they work on their mighty mural, Love owls and mermaids singing in the rainbow pop.

There was real energy in front of that wall when I saw it last week.

Absolutely. In a year when our Gallery closed to the public for only the second time in its 149-year history, it’s been magic the way this project has energised and socialised our ‘main street’. It’s become a kind of open-air workshop and theatre of painting, with a constant flow of visitors stopping to talk and marvel.

Finally, will I need a map to find everything on offer in Archie Plus?

No map needed. Just step inside and you’ll be in it. Then follow your curiosity. You’ll discover things and some things might discover you. 2020 has contained some unwanted surprises, chief among them the pandemic. Time now for some art surprises – the good kind.

Archie Plus runs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until January 2021.