National Gallery of Australia orders $14m Ouroboros sculpture – its most expensive commission so far

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A new sculpture by the Australian artist Lindy Lee will be the National Gallery of Australia’s most expensive commission so far, with the four-metre-high public artwork costing the gallery $14m.

Ouroboros, which the NGA commissioned to mark its 40th anniversary, will be made of mirror-polished stainless steel and weigh approximately 13 tonnes, with the artist focusing on incorporating sustainable and recycled materials into the design and minimising its carbon footprint.

The sculpture will stand near the main entrance to the NGA, at the corner of King Edward Terrace and Parkes Place East in Canberra, and form part of the gallery’s sculpture garden renewal project.

As its name indicates, the design is based on the traditional image of a snake eating its own tail. It will be large enough for people to walk through, with light filtering through holes in the sculpture’s surface.

Lee, 67, is a painter and sculptor who has been creating for more than four decades, drawing particularly on her Buddhist faith and Chinese heritage.

She described Ouroboros as being “symbolic of repetition and renewal, of the abundance of cyclical time, eternal flow, unity of the beginning and the end, transformation and alchemy”.

Related: National Gallery of Australia to return 14 artworks worth $3m to India

“During the day its highly polished mirror surface will reflect the imagery of the floating world. The transience of passers-by, cars, birds in flight, and stunning clouds. And at night the Ouroboros will be lit internally, returning its light to the world. It is a dance between something that is solid and something that is just drifting off into stardust.”

The NGA’s director, Nick Mitzevich, said the work would be a “landmark” for the gallery, representing the institution’s aims of being an “equitable, inclusive and sustainable institution”.

“This commission represents a defining moment in our history and aligns with our mission to reflect and respond to contemporary Australia,” he said.

The NGA came under fire last year after Guardian Australia reported that its strategy had shifted to acquiring fewer but more expensive works of art, focusing on “masterworks rather than volume” – a strategy led by Mitzevich since he took up the position as director in 2019.

The public will need to wait some years to see Lee’s work, which is scheduled to be finished in 2024.

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