A beautiful and inspiring hidden sculpture garden lies between Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin and the National Gallery of Australia. It is one of my favorite Canberra attractions. But like everything in Canberra, you need to be a local to find the hidden places where there is life, beauty, works of art, and, well, people!
The hidden sculpture garden is actually part of the National Gallery of Australia (the NGA) and forms the majority of its Canberra sculpture exhibition. It’s a large site and this is my favorite part of the Gallery. Not many people realize there is a sculpture garden at the back of the site. Kids love it. Couples love it. My dog loves it! It’s both a secluded park and an art exhibit of unique pieces by international and Australian sculptors. At the same time, and at each turn, the sun glints off the lake.
It is free to enter and there is cheap and free parking all around, including at the Gallery on weekends. The sculptures themselves are hidden among the mature eucalyptus trees because of the design of the garden into distinct ‘rooms.’
Isn’t Sculpture Kind of Boring?
Well some of it so boring you could fall asleep in front of it. But the same can be said for stuff on Netflix and a lot of books I’ve started and films I’ve seen lately. I like BIG sculpture! I like sculptures that you stand in, jump on, walkthrough. Sculpture can be disorientating – it’s like an early version of Virtual Reality. All good artworks share this property but for me, Sculpture is the easiest kind of material culture to understand, to find powerful, and to make me go “Wow.”
I prefer sculpture gardens and sculpture outdoors rather than in a gallery where it is stuffed among so many other pieces that I start getting them all mixed up and it makes my head spin. When I view sculpture sitting in valleys or on hills or beside the sea, I feel like it adds a three-dimensional reality that makes the experience more immersive and somehow, just more real!
What’s Unique About This Sculpture Garden?
In a nutshell: the setting, the landscape architecture of the garden, and the quality of the sculptures themselves. Oh, and it’s all free and opens every day, 24 hours a day.
Along the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra’s hidden sculpture garden has no boundary and nothing to mark it as part of a national institution. You just leave the cycle or walking path, wander in, have a picnic, use their bathrooms, and hang out among the sculptures. One of my best friends got married in the Sculpture Garden (many couples choose a Sculpture Garden Canberra wedding!) and there are often free events in the Garden including jazz and painting.
The Layout of the Garden
The original plan for the garden was a different area or ‘room’ for each of the seasons of the year with native plantings appropriate for each room. The sculptures were purchased from all over the world, including from Australian artists, mostly in the early 1980s. As such they reflect the industrial aesthetic of the time. As money dried up over the next 25 years, some of the sculptures were moved into the forecourt and foyer of the National Gallery, and the fourth garden, the Autumn garden, was never finished.
I love the industrial aesthetic and I love big sculptures. The best sculptures are arguably the biggest ones (see my Angel of the North post)! and they are implanted in their landscapes and move or change how they look according to the weather. Scroll down and see the best ones!
The Summer Garden
Let’s go straight to the best bit: the Summer Garden. A small spring was found by a water diviner when the garden was being built and allowed a marsh pond to be created. It is filled with rushes and lilies. Mature casuarina trees form a grove around the pond. They were chosen deliberately because you can hear the sound of the wind rushing through their leaves on Canberra’s windy days. A magnificent Fog Sculpture (yes, I said “fog”!) is installed beside the marsh pond. The Fujiko Nakaya fog sculpture is turned on and generates a fine mist between 12.45 pm and 2 pm every day.
The fog floats over the marsh pond and two sculptures that have been installed in the water. The first is a crude fishing boat or raft made from bronze. It lies half on the shore and half in the marsh pond. It’s called On the Beach Again by Robert Stackhouse.
In the center of the marsh pond is a sculpture by Dadang Christanto called Heads From the North 2004. It consists of 66 slightly larger than life heads cast from bronze that memorialize the killings and trauma of 1966 in the country to the north of Australia, Indonesia. Dadang Christanto lost his father in the killings by the Indonesian military by the Suharto-led government in retaliation for an attempted coup. 500,000 people were killed or disappeared in 1965-66 and this serene but sad installation of 66 bronze heads marks the year, 1966 and also expresses the author’s grief at his personal loss.
At the far side of the marsh pond is an incredibly organic sculpture by the renowned sculptor, Henry Moore, called Hill Arches. It has been described as “two bodies in rhythmic movement, whose empty spaces are just as important as their shapes.”
There are two other very cool sculpture arrangements in the vicinity of the marsh pond. The first is the towering slit drums from Vanuatu in the Pacific. They are called Atingting are usually played only by men of high rank and are some of the largest musical instruments in the world.
I have always loved the Pukamani burial poles (1979-1984) from Bathurst and Melville Islands. Pukamani means ‘dangerous’ or ‘taboo’ and is a ceremony conducted by the Tiwi islanders in the months after a person has died. The number and size of the poles tell us how important a particular person was in Tiwi society. This is like a dream garden for us anthropologists!
The Winter Garden
The winter garden shelters in the lee of the 23-meter tall walls of the Gallery and consists of a paved sculpture court and a reflection pond. The burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin are here. My favorite two winter garden sculptures are La Montagne 1937 by Aristide Maillol and Gaston Lachaise’s Floating figure 1927.
La Montagne is a sculpture of Maillol’s muse in his later years, Dina Vierny. He met her when he was 73 and she was 15, after the second world war in Paris. His work was influenced by his friend and mentor, Paul Gauguin and has been called ‘primitive classic.’
Lachaise’s Floating figure 1927 is also of a nude hanging around the winter garden. In fact, pretty much all the sculptures in the winter garden are nude!
The Spring Garden
The Spring Garden contains acacias and grevilleas and is open to Lake Burley Griffin. It is home to the three massive sculptures, Cones, Ik ook and Virginia.
Cones 1982 was commissioned by the National Gallery from Bert Flugelman. It is made from stainless steel and is more than 20 meters long. It reflects the sky, the ground, the eucalypts and the visitors who see their reflections in the cones.
Ik ook 1971-72 is by Mark di Suvero. You’ve got to love Ik ook, even if you only love its name! The artist says that “my sculpture is painting in three dimensions.” Mark di Suvero left America for Europe as a protest against the Vietnam War. He returned to America after the Vietnam War and made Ik ook and other massive sculptures. Ik ook is all about male occupations, metal trades, construction, and engineering. It is about the working class industrialized America of the 1970s.
The last monumental sculpture is by Clement Meadmore and is called Virginia 1970. On the lawn facing the lake is the weathered steel sculpture that was made in America and weighs over 8000 kg. The National Gallery commissioned the work which is named after Virginia Cuppaidge, an abstract artist from Brisbane, Australia. Meadmore’s sculptures seem to defy gravity by being extraordinarily heavy but just resting on the ground.
Finally, a relatively new work for the garden is the wonderful life-sized maquette (model) of the Angel of the North by Antony Gormley. I have written a post on the real Angel of the North, Britain’s largest statue!
There are many other sculptures for you to discover in Canberra’s Hidden Sculpture Garden collection, but first, read on to know how to get there!
How To Get To Canberra’s Hidden Sculpture Garden
- The National Gallery of Australia is open every day except December 25, from 10 am to 5 pm. The sculpture garden is open every day. Admission to the sculpture garden is free.
- The wonderful fog sculpture is turned on between 12:45 pm and 2 pm every day.
- Walk or Cycle: Walking and cycling to the Sculpture garden around Lake Burley Griffin is easy and a lovely walk.
- There are 15 bike racks available. 5 of these are beside the Sculpture Garden.
- Drive: Most visitors to Canberra’s Hidden Sculpture Garden come by car. The underground car park is immediately to your right when you turn into King Edward Terrace, off Parkes Place.
- From Sydney: Sydney is a 30-minute flight or 3-hour drive to Canberra.
- Bus: Nearest stop is King Edward Terrace and Parkes Place East. Use the ACTION bus route planner here.
Canberra’s hidden sculpture garden is only one place where you can find sculptures in Canberra. The airport, beside roadways, along the lake foreshores and in the Parliamentary Triangle near the NGA are also places where you find Canberra sculptures hiding in plain sight!
Links and Further Information
- National Gallery of Australia, Parkes Place, Parkes, ACT 2601.
- Phone: + 61 2 6240 6411 | https://nga.gov.au/
- Download a free map of NGA including entrances to the Sculpture Garden and How To Get There information here
- Download a free Canberra city map and attractions here. The NGA is Number 24 on this map.
- Link to the NGA Sculpture Garden official web page can be found here. It lists most of the works in the Garden.
- Another great sculpture experience is Britain’s largest statue, the ‘big brother’ to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North maquette at the NGA. Read my post here about Newcastle’s Angel of the North statue.
- And for other amazing things to do when you’re in Australia, see my Australia Destinations page. Whilst you are in Canberra, also check out Questacon.
- More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page.
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