Some of the National Gallery of Australia’s greatest masterpieces can be found outside of the exhibition spaces and curated galleries, in the Sculpture Garden surrounding this grand building.

When exploring the Sculpture Garden there are some artistic highlights that are not to be missed:

Fujiko Nakaya, Foggy wake in a desert: An ecosphere 1976

Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture challenges our ideas of what art can be. It appears and disappears at different times of the day, with fine clouds of mist drifting through the trees and marsh pond. It moves and changes according to the breeze, or the number of people passing through. The artist researches the sites of all her fog sculptures – wind, temperature and climate – but accepts that when it comes to the fog’s behaviour, nature always has the final say.

Mark Di Suvero, Ik ook 1971–72

Look up into the trees and it’s hard to miss the massive black beams of Mark di Suvero’s Ik ook. The title is Dutch for ‘me too’. Di Suvero’s geometric forms are made from modern building materials, and use engineering techniques to create tension and balance. Di Suvero likes to be hands-on in the fabrication and installation of his art. One of his tools of choice is a crane, and you can see why — Ik ook is more than seven metres high and seven metres wide.

Clement Meadmore, Virginia 1970

Clement Meadmore’s rust-red Virginia is an enormous curve of steel that seems to defy gravity. It sits on two small points with upturned ends, looking light and flexible, despite weighing over eight tonnes, making it the heaviest work of art in the NGA’s collection. It looks solid but is actually hollow, made from a thin shell of welded steel. Watching the sun rise up through the trees behind Virginia has to be one of Canberra’s most memorable sights.

Bert Flugelman, Cones 1982

Bert Flugelman’s seven stainless steel Cones are polished to a mirror finish. You’ll notice straight away how they reflect and distort the surrounding sky, ground and eucalyptus leaves. They also involve you as a participant, as your reflection moves and changes when you walk around the cones. The artist has cleverly made heavy materials appear light and dynamic by standing them on narrow points; they’re almost dancing across the clearing.

Bert Flugelman’s seven stainless steel 'Cones' sculpture
Bert Flugelman’s seven stainless steel 'Cones' are polished to a mirror finish

Antony Gormley, Angel of the North (life-size maquette) 1996

Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North (life-sized maquette) is a 1:10 model of one of the most talked-about pieces of public art in the world. Near Gateshead, England, it is a 20-tonne figure that towers over the motorway. Here the scale of the model is smaller, but the materials are the same: they hint at centuries of coal mining and England’s industrial past. The figure was cast from the artist’s body, with the wings made separately on a wire frame.

Dadang Christanto, Heads from the North 2004

One of the most haunting works of art in the garden is Heads from the North by Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto. His art comes from his experiences of social and political injustices when growing up in Indonesia. These 66 bronze heads floating on the pond are a memorial to victims of violence following an unsuccessful military coup in September 1965 and into 1966. Dadang Christanto’s father was one of many who disappeared when the artist was just eight years old. When the heads were installed here in 2004, Christanto created a performance to pay respect to his father and others who suffered in 1966.

James Turrell, Within without 2010

Within without is a major Skyspace by the renowned American artist James Turrell. A Skyspace is a viewing chamber designed to affect the way we see the sky, and Within without is one of Turrell’s largest and most complex. You enter the Skyspace by a long, sloping walkway, which takes you inside a large pyramid. In the centre of a turquoise pool of water there’s a dome, or stupa, made from Victorian basalt. Inside the stupa is the viewing chamber, open to the sky. Once you settle in to the Skyspace, light itself becomes the medium of the artwork. The sky becomes framed, a canvas for the colours of nature. At dawn and dusk the chamber is lit with a cycle of colours timed to interact with the changing sky and play tricks on our perception. It’s a special free experience and an incredible way to experience the natural beauty of Canberra’s skies and some of the most exciting contemporary art in the world.

Explore further

The Australian Garden is a delightful place to linger after a visit to the Skyspace and a good spot to start exploring other works of art outside the NGA building. Near the front door, you’ll find one of the newest sculptures. Indigenous artist and elder Thanakupi made Eran 2010 especially for the NGA: a silver globe swarming with crocodiles, kangaroos, lizards, eggs and birds.

Behind Eran are some iconic sculptures that have been with the NGA since it opened in 1982. Barnett Newman's Broken obelisk 2005 is also on the lawn near the NGA entrance. George Baldessin’s Pears – version number 2 1973 is a ripe, elegant still life located near James Turrell's Skyspace. The giant fruit are a bit surreal, but friendly too – they’re leaning towards each other like they’re in conversation.

Looking up you’ll see Neil Dawson’s Diamonds 2002, a globe made of aluminium and mesh. It’s suspended by wires between the NGA and the High Court, and moves gently in the wind, like a shimmering bubble about to pop. The footbridge is a great place to get a closer look.

On the eastern side of the NGA look out for an unusually shaped wrought-iron gate. This will lead you into the sheltered oasis of Fiona Hall’s Fern Garden 1998. This whole space is an artwork, set out in a spiral shape like a palm frond and containing references to the environment, to the cycle of birth, life and death, and to the artist’s friends. Fifty-eight Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns were planted here as mature trees, and are now more than 200 years old.

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