For just a few weeks, a collection of vibrant contemporary artwork lies hidden among the gravestones at the historic Rookwood Necropolis — Australia’s largest and most multicultural cemetery.
Cemeteries can be both fascinating and enlivening additions to any traveller’s itinerary.
By all accounts, Sydney has some particularly fascinating burial places. There’s the downright stunning Waverley Cemetery set atop cliffs near Coogee Beach, for one. Less picturesque in setting but brimming with history is St John’s Cemetery just opposite Parramatta Westfield — an unsuspecting location for the oldest European burial place on the Australian mainland, with the dozens of First Fleeter burials to prove it.
But if you’ve only got the time or inclination to explore one cemetery in this city, for sheer scale alone you’d have to pick Rookwood Necropolis.
The Sleeping City
The stats are in its favour: Rookwood is the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, the oldest still-functioning Victorian cemetery in the world, and the final resting place of more than one million people. Particularly staggering when you consider that Sydney’s current (living) population is about 4.029 million.
Opened in 1867, the Necropolis was once linked to a rather macabre railway service that ran from Mortuary Station in central Sydney, ferrying the dead and their respective mourners westward across the city for burial. (Those in coffins travelled free, in case you were wondering.)
Rookwood is also the final resting place of some impressive names of Australian history. Suffragist, writer and newspaper proprietor Louisa Lawson is buried here for one (also mother of poet Henry Lawson), as is popular nineteenth-century Chinese-Australian businessman and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart.
But even if you’re not one for history/general taphophilia, Rookwood Necropolis is a surprisingly scenic place to visit. It’s a sprawling expanse nearly big enough to be a suburb in its own right, with native tree groves, overgrown grasses and a fair few magpies known to sit ominously atop headstones.
Still not sold? In that case, come to Rookwood for HIDDEN.
HIDDEN Sculpture Walk
This month-long sculpture walk, now in its ninth year, sees the Necropolis brought to life (pun absolutely intended) with 42 colourful, varied and sometimes thought-provoking artworks and soundscapes. Some stand tall beside the gravestones, others float suspended from trees. And then there are the immersive walk-in artworks that play with light, shadow and colour.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, in some ways a cemetery is the perfect setting for admiring artwork. Here, you won’t find gallery attendants warily eyeing you, nor the crowds that congregate to more famous outdoor sculpture exhibitions (Sculpture by the Sea, looking at you). Instead, you’re free to wander and take it all in at your own pace, in whatever order you like, guided only by the occasional orange arrow pointing you towards the nearest hidden artwork. Go early enough in the morning — it opens at sunrise — and you may even have HIDDEN all to yourself.
Fittingly, the artworks are set amongst some of Rookwood’s oldest sections. Life, death, grief, remembrance, spirituality and memory are the standard themes of this annual exhibition, but in 2017 history forms an additional muse, particularly resonant given this year is the Necropolis’s 150th anniversary. (On a side note, for what it’s worth, the motif of birds is also strong at this year’s HIDDEN.)
There’s an installation of recycled timber and metal, dedicated to its creator’s great great grandfather, a sawyer by trade. He was killed on the tracks at Petersham Station and buried within this very cemetery.
A series of abstract stoneware ceramic forms clustered together, in various shades of blue, stands as tribute to Louisa Lawson herself.
A sculpture of a huge skull donning Harris Tweed celebrates the resilience of the weavers of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
As Rookwood staff told Inside History, the aim of the game is to inspire reflection and enjoyment of the Cemetery among visitors:
HIDDEN is a platform for community engagement, and while it remains respectful of its purpose and place, it aims to demystify some of the misconceptions surrounding cemeteries as dark and intimidating settings.
Below are images of some of my favourites from this year. Enjoy!
… And check it out yourself. This year’s HIDDEN Sculpture Walk is on show at Rookwood Cemetery until 24 September, open from sunrise to sunset. The exhibition is free, but do grab a catalogue (gold-coin donation).