A cultural tour of Sydney with Hong Kong menswear purveyor Alex Daye

City's corridor of art galleries, independent shops, cafes and pubs is right at that sweet spot of development - before landlords cotton on and raise the rents to stratospheric heights

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 9:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 9:21am

There is no more modern a tourist attraction than the scruffy art gallery district hewn from the rough stone of the post-industrial neighbourhood. Every city worth its salt has one at various stages of gentrification. Some, like New York, have a few, although most have become luxury shopping destinations.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a nascent "art hub". The old factories of Chai Wan and Wong Chuk Hang are where the art people hang their hats, but are so un-gentrified that you'd be hard pressed to find a place to eat dinner. You can also forget about shopping.

Then there's Sydney: bright blue skies, great food, charming old buildings and a funky corridor of art galleries, independent shops, cafes and pubs right at that sweet spot of development - before landlords cotton on that something interesting is happening and raise the rents to stratospheric heights. Catch it while you can.

The White Rabbit Gallery (30 Balfour St, Chippendale, tel: +61 2 8399 2867), South African Judith Neilson's private collection of 21st century Chinese art, housed in a former Rolls-Royce service depot, is the jewel in the crown of the new Chippendale, the tiny inner-city district which was, in the 19th century, the city's most notorious slum. Until as recently as a decade ago, it was still the site of the 168-year-old Carlton & United Brewery. Today, the small warren of leafy side streets radiating off its main artery, Abercrombie Street, lined with the Victorian terrace houses built for its bygone working class and the brick warehouse spaces they toiled in, is a fairy tale of urban renewal, and, on a clear day, an exceedingly pleasant area to wander about in.

Neilson's collection is too large to fit in the gallery at any one time, and so is shown in circulation in new thematic shows every six months. At the moment, that theme is "State of Play", and, largely because it's neither a commercial enterprise nor an academic one, the curation is more whimsical than what one is accustomed to in Hong Kong. Guan Xiao's David, for example, is an hilarious yet somehow profound video piece in which the artist grapples - through the medium of karaoke - with Michelangelo's statue of David and all the souvenir bric-a-brac it has spawned.

Around the corner on Little Queen Street, Nikki Ginsburg, having grown up in London, the birthplace of the post-industrial, was one of the first in Sydney to see the potential of Chippendale, turning a stunning Gothic Revival City Mission into NG Art Gallery (3 Little Queen St, Chippendale, tel: +61 2 9318 2992). Not content with the life of a mere gallerist, she is also the founder of the Chippendale Creative Precinct, hosts the annual Beams Art Festival, publishes the Gallery Guide to Chippendale and Surrounds, conducts free walking tours of the district on the first Saturday of every month, and sponsors an art prize, open to the public and exhibited across three galleries.

Walking south towards Redfern, there is much to delight in. Press, quite literally a hole in the wall shop, sells magazines, photobooks and other artist-produced printed matter. MOP Projects is one of the pioneering artist-run initiatives for which the neighbourhood has long been a breeding ground. Founders Ron and George Adams, who also work as hairdressers, have added a for-profit sister to the stable: Galerie pompom. No Instagram feed is complete without a shot of the fantastically creepy Regent Street Mortuary Station, a Victorian Gothic train depot from which funerals once departed for the Rookwood Cemetery in the outer western suburbs. In the 1980s, it became a pancake restaurant.

Speaking of pancakes, you'll probably want to stop for a coffee and there is no better place to do so in the whole city than Brickfields (206 Cleveland St, Chippendale, tel: +61 2 9698 7880), one of a small handful of local cafes where all the baking is done onsite. This is a town that takes its sourdoughs seriously, and Brickfields, although less than two years old, is already spoken of with the sort of hushed reverence usually accorded to urban institutions of advanced age. It probably helps that it looks like an institution of advanced age, loaves stacked in the windows, bakers kneading and rolling in the back, soaring ceilings and hanging potted plants and timber furnishings, and, most importantly, a warm and convivial atmosphere.

Crossing Cleveland Street into Redfern, things get even more interesting. Traditionally a base for Sydney's Aboriginal community, Redfern is increasingly home to its community of West African refugees known as Bobo as well, which has resulted in its share of frisson. For Amanda Rowell, owner of art gallery The Commercial (148 Abercrombie St, Redfern, tel: +61 2 8096 3292), this is a chance to engage the issues this presents, a source of the neighbourhood's dynamism, rather than something from which to shrink away in denial or colonial guilt.

"I thought it was a gateway to a really important cultural place for the city, for the whole country," she says of her decision to open her gallery here, rather than traditional hotspots such as Paddington or Darlinghurst.

Rowell, who for 10 years worked with one of Sydney's most respected and bluest chip galleries, Roslyn Oxley, is what you might call an artist's gallerist - "I really push my artists," she claims of the group of 15 or so, none of whom had any prior representation. And it shows. Thirty-year-old Emily Hunt's Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, a post-apocalyptic model railroad rendered with somewhat gruesome but oddly sensual ceramic pieces and tiny hand-painted figurines, is without doubt the strangest, most compelling artwork on view in Sydney at the moment.

A few blocks away, Regent Street is home to offbeat vintage furniture and design shops including Chee, Soon & Fitzgerald (173 Regent St, Redfern, tel: + 61 2 8399 1305), while next door is The Bearded Tit (183 Regent St, tel: +61 2 8283 4082), a bar and art gallery. It might seem precious, with its taxidermy and tapestries, antique mirrors and paintings of ships. But this being Sydney, and Redfern no less, the vibe is remarkably relaxed, and most patrons nursing their beers are oblivious to the collage of '70s-era Playboy shivas on the column next to them.