Modern art + historic cemetery = winning combination.
Each spring, Rookwood Cemetery comes to life. Vibrant contemporary sculptures, soundscapes and interactive artworks pop up among the gravestones for an annual month-long outdoor exhibition — a sculpture walk unlike any other.
HIDDEN is well worth checking out
even especially if you’re not a history nerd / taphophile / weirdo who regards cemeteries as perfectly reasonable, fascinating additions to any traveller’s itinerary like I do/am, why yes, what of it.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, a cemetery is the perfect setting for art. It’s free from snooty gallery attendants warily eyeing you. It’s free from the crowds that congregate to more famous outdoor sculpture exhibitions (Sculpture by the Sea, looking at you). And it’s free, like, literally. Win.
At HIDDEN, you’re free to wander about the 19th-century headstones and take in all the artworks at your own pace, in whatever order you like. The occasional arrow points you towards the nearest piece tucked behind a tree or hidden four gravestones down, but otherwise the path is all your call. Go early enough in the morning (it opens at sunrise) and you may even have this quiet, historic core of this massive, suburb-sized cemetery — and all the artworks it’s bejeweled with — all to yourself.
Rookwood Cemetery: The Sleeping City
First up, a bit about the setting. Because this place isn’t just a cemetery-come-sometime-gallery, it’s a veritable cultural landscape. The stats and superlatives speak for themselves: Rookwood Necropolis (its official name) is the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, the oldest still-functioning Victorian cemetery in the world and the most multicultural cemetery in Australia.
And they weren’t kidding when they nicknamed Rookwood ‘the Sleeping City’:* it’s the final resting place of more than one million people.
Some impressive figures of Australian history are among those interred here. Suffragist, writer and newspaper proprietor Louisa Lawson (also mother of poet Henry Lawson) lays at rest here for one, as does popular 19th-century Chinese-Australian businessman and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart.
The third major burial ground for the city of Sydney, Rookwood opened in 1867 and, 150 years on and counting, it remains a working cemetery today. It really is like its own little Vatican-like island within broader metropolitan Sydney — except that at 314 hectares in total, it’s six times bigger than said Vatican, and has about 29765% more trees. Rookwood has its own sectors, street names, religious and ethnic enclaves,** truly gorgeous gardens, and supposedly its own postcode.*** City of the dead indeed.
One of my all-time-favourite history facts re. Rookwood, nay, SYDNEY overall is this: from the late 1870s to World War II, it served as the terminus of a pretty distinctive railway line. I’ll hand over to the Cemetery’s website:
Rookwood was a significant part of the Sydney rail network, with special funeral trains running from purpose-designed “receiving houses”**** beginning at Regent Street in the city and ending in the centre of Rookwood. Twice-daily services operated and tickets were one shilling each way; however, corpses travelled free.
Yup. You read right. Corpses travelled free.
But enough about the train-riding dead people. Back to the art.
HIDDEN Sculpture Walk: A free Sydney outdoor public art exhibition
Evocative, eerie, colourful and sometimes thought-provoking, the sculptures of HIDDEN use the surrounding Necropolis as both gallery and muse. Some stand tall beside the gravestones, inviting us to notice the monument or read the epitaph, while others float suspended from trees. And then there are the immersive walk-in artworks that play with light, shadow and colour, changing subtly throughout the day as the sun crosses the sky overhead.
The artists switch up every year but often include up-and-coming talent and clever interactive elements: motion-triggered soundscapes that call out to you as you pass, video installations and moving images projected on the walls of historic structures, and walk-through sculptures that seem to unravel and transform around you…
As Rookwood staff told the late Inside History, the aim of the exhibition is to inspire reflection and enjoyment of the Necropolis 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.
Fittingly, the artworks are set amongst some of Rookwood’s oldest sections. Life, death, grief, remembrance, spirituality and memory are recurring themes of the exhibition. And in 2017, when I last attended, there was also FWIW a strong motif of history and of birds. I’m not complaining.*****
There was 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, stood as tribute to Louisa Lawson herself.
A sculpture of a huge skull donning Harris Tweed celebrated the resilience of the weavers of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
Here’s a round-up of some of my favourite works from HIDDEN in Rookwood Cemetery 2017.
They’re all long gone now, of course, but you get the idea. Such is the whimsical beauty and apposite symbolism of HIDDEN — where fleeting flashes of art and beauty are set in the landscape for a short while, soon to be gone forever.
But there’s always more next time around.
*This by far exceeds the population criteria that constitutes a city: 25,000 in Australia, adorably, and 300,000 in the UK.
**I know this is normal/self-explanatory for any large, multicultural cemetery but Rookwood really is something else. Apparently some 80 different religious groups are represented among the burials here.
***So I’ve seen this fact parroted around even on sites as reputable as the ABC, and in documents as authoritative as the Necropolis Plan of Management, but Google keeps telling me its postcode is 2141 aka the same as its neighbour, Lidcombe’s…??? Am I missing something or can we agree this myth is busted?
****The receiving stations where the dead would be ferried off ready for burial are, alas, no more, apart from the biggest and most beautiful one, which was torn down and rebuilt stone by stone in Canberra some 270km south, where it now serves as a seemingly ordinary parish church. What a sentence. True story. You can read more here. The departure point in Regent Street, Sydney, where the corpses and their mourners hopped onboard the mortuary trains still stands though, a real little gem hidden, if you will, in plain sight. I’ve written a long rambling piece about that one too, stay tuned.
*****Written pre-conversion to Crazy Bird Lady-dom. The signs were there.
Tips, Links and Resources
Visiting Hidden at Rookwood Cemetery
What you should know before you go to Rookwood:
- HIDDEN Rookwood Sculptures runs during late August through September every year — except 2020 because, well, you know. COVID. It will return in 2021.
- Price: free. For a gold-coin donation, you can get a program providing more information about the artworks and artists, plus a handy map.
- Rookwood General Cemeteries Trust.
- Tip: Friends of Rookwood run public tours of the cemetery ($15 per person) on the first Sunday of every month, as well as additional twilight tours in select months. All funds raised go towards restoration projects within the cemetery.
Deep dive into the history of Rookwood and the stories of some of its most notable, er, residents, with my nerdy round-up of resources for learning more:
- Rookwood history and timeline.
- Notable burials at Rookwood.
- More on Louisa Lawson from the ADB.
- More on Mei Quong Tart from the ADB.
- For more on the Rookwood Necropolis Railway, see this Dictionary of Sydney entry about Sydney’s funeral trains of yore.
- …and this post from Past Lives of the Near Future.