History Holding up the Sky

History buffs and architecture aficionado probably know that Walter Burly Griffin and Eric Nicholls designed several groundbreaking incinerators for Sydney during the interwar years. Not me though, I was unaware of these buildings before I received an invitation to John Young’s exhibition, Modernity’s End: Half the Sky – Two Australians in China. As such, I was in for a real surprise when I visited the exhibition at Willoughby Incinerator on Sydney’s Lower North Shore.

Opened in 1934, Willoughby Incinerator is one of seven commissioned and built during the 1930s to process Sydney’s household waste and night soil. After being decommissioned, some thirty years later, most were left to rot. It is our good fortune, therefore, that a vocal community appreciated this building and public sentiment saved it. In 2006 a firm of visionary architects was engaged by Willoughby Council to ensure the incinerator survived and was revived. Stripped of unflattering alterations and most of the mechanical apparatus, it opened five years later as Incinerator Art Space and is now also home to Incinerator Cafe which is well patronised by locals.

The stark concrete building, with a pattern cast in shadows on its vertical edges, steps down the side of a small hill. Its three distinct levels balance the furnace chimney and disguise the building’s original purpose. Its home is a large recreational park where hundreds of colourful youngsters cross the wasteland between the sports ground and car park on weekends. They run ahead of their minders, fall behind to examine spider webs, roll down the slope, skip and tumble, chatter and keep their eyes straight ahead. Immediate interests hold their attention, not the shadow of the past they are walking through.

It is fitting somehow that this relic of modernity has been chosen as home to an exhibition that re-imagines the lives of two remarkable 20th Century women, neglected by history and known to few. In Modernity’s End: Half the Sky – Two Australians in China, John Young entwines concrete facts with shadowy images to tell the stories of Alice Lee Kim and Daisy Kwok so that we can imagine how their lives might have been.

Quoting Mao Zedong, Young reminds us that women hold up half the sky. But neither of these Chinese-Australian women will ever be a household name, no matter how much they have contributed, or what they have pioneered. These are women of the 20th Century who set out to embrace progress, but ended up being crushed by a revolution.

The exhibition includes work by several other contemporary Australian artists: Cyrus Tang, whose delicate incense ash film is mesmerising; Pei Pei He, whose distinctive Chinese aesthetic is intriguing, and Theodore Wohng, whose music surrounds and enlightens those absorbing the lives re-imagined here.


Anyone with an interest in Australian history or women’s place in the world, should make their way to Willoughby Art Space (within the incinerator building) before 3 April 2016 to catch John Young’s exhibition.
Even if you miss Modernity’s End: Half the Sky – Two Australians in China, Willoughby Incinerator is worth a visit.

To appreciate the original vision of the building, walk around the back and imagine gravity and natural light being used to destroy household waste as it made its way from street level to a final resting place in the furnace down below.

To find out more about this building and its history, read Allan Miller’s article in the Berkshire Review for the Arts.