The National Gallery of Australia may have been closed to the public, but its Sculpture Garden will always be open

Clement Meadmore's Virginia 1970, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.
Clement Meadmore's Virginia 1970, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.

Like many other institutions and businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic forced galleries and museums to close to the audiences that bring them to life.

However, some of the most well-known works in the national collection were hiding in plain sight for people to enjoy, to find solace and inspiration through art during this unusual time.

The National Gallery of Australia is home to one of the country's most developed Sculpture Gardens, open to visitors 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, the garden, designed by Howard Hughes and Associates, was planted in 1981-82 and designed around the changing seasons.

Fringed by deciduous trees along the shore, the local species of the Sculpture Garden give it a distinctly Australian flavour.

The slate-paved forecourt area is the Winter Garden, while the casuarina forest and marsh pond comprise the Summer Garden - the season when the area near the lake where the spring-flowering banksia, hakeas and grevilleas is best seen.

Stretching over three hectares, from the Gallery's front entrance off King Edward Terrace to the lake, the garden has continued to flourish and evolve.

The wide-ranging collection of sculptures across the site feature some of the best-known works of art for visitors from Canberra, across Australia and from overseas.

On the southern side of site, near Gandel Hall, is the new Australian Garden, which opened in 2010, where terraced lawns combine with layered plantings and waterways to welcome visitors.

It is home to Within without 2010, a Skyspace by James Turrell, a work which plays with visitors' perception.

Entering via a long, sloping walkway, visitors enter a large pyramid and encounter a stupa of Victorian basalt set at the centre of a turquoise pool, and open to the sky.

The ever-changing light, particularly at dawn and dusk, ensures a unique encounter for every visitor.

Antony Gormley's Angel of the North 1996, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.

Antony Gormley's Angel of the North 1996, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.

Nearby, next to the above-ground carpark on the Gallery's eastern side, a wrought-iron gate leads to Fiona Hall's Fern garden 1998, which features more than 50 tree ferns, Dicksonia Antarctica, planted as mature trees and now at least 200 years old.

Near the lakefront entrance visitors can ponder Virginia 1970 by Melbourne-born artist Clement Meadmore.

The work is made from a thin shell of welded steel and, despite appearances, is hollow.

The curve of steel appears to defy gravity, with upturned ends and only two points of contact with the ground, it looks light and flexible - though it weighs over eight tonnes.

Meadmore dedicated it to fellow Australian artist Virginia Cuppaidge, with whom he was in a relationship at the time.

Under the shade of Casuarina trees sits Bert Fugleman's Cones 1982.

More than 20 metres in length, seven geometric stainless-steel forms twist and turn upon a horizontal axis.

Despite the immense weight of the polished steel, the structure floats in the landscape.

The polished surface acts like a fun-house mirror, reflecting distorted images of visitors and the surrounding landscape, making it a constant source of delight for children and adults alike.

Auguste Rodin is regarded as the father of modern sculpture and one of his best-known works, The burghers of Calais 1884 (cast 1973), is a highlight of the Winter Garden.

The 14th Century burghers, six leading citizens of Calais in France, sacrificed themselves to Edward III of England to save the town.

As the artist intended, the burghers are at eye level so the viewer can feel their struggle and see the angst on their faces.

With the National Carillion standing guard across the lake, Antony Gormley's Angel of the North (life-sized maquette) 1996 is a compelling sight for visitors to the garden.

A 1:10 model of Gormley's most discussed work, a 20-tonne figure that towers over a motorway near Gateshead in England's north-east, it hints at the region's industrial past.

A favourite destination for many is Fujiko Nakaya's Foggy wake in a desert: An ecosphere 1976/82, better known as the fog sculpture.

For 90 minutes every day, beginning at 12.30pm, it comes to life with 900 nozzles emitting a fine mist that slowly wafts across the pond and surrounding vegetation, creating a self-sustaining ecosphere.

Bert Flugelman's Cones 1982, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.

Bert Flugelman's Cones 1982, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.

Visitors arriving at the gallery's front entrance are greeted by the aluminium sphere Eran 2010 by Thainakuith artist and master ceramist Thanakupi (Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher).

Thanakupi's designs reflect her ancestor's dreaming and incorporates native animals including kangaroos, emus and fish, which can be seen dancing across the surface in Eran, named for the Thainakuith language word for river.

It was commissioned as part of the development of the gallery's new wing, which opened in 2010.

It is joined by Barnett Newman's powerfully symbolic Broken obelisk 1963/67, a monumental sculpture combining the qualities of ancient forms with the geometry of modern architecture and materials.

Long-time visitors to the Sculpture Garden can now find George Baldessin's much-loved, seven weathered steel pears in the Australian Garden.

Pear - version number 2 1973 has drawn visitors to numerous sites in the Sculpture Garden over the years and continues to do so.

No matter the season, or the time of day, there will always be a fresh new way for visitors to experience the many treasures of the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden.

  • The National Gallery of Australia is now open to visitors. For more information on upcoming exhibitions and programs, visit nga.gov.au.