Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects

‘It’s surreal that this great project happened here,’ gushed Agatha Gothe-Snape about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast (1968-69), which covered one million square feet of Sydney’s coastline at Little Bay 50 years ago. The contemporary conceptual artist is modestly involved in celebrating it by finding readers to sit in the exhibition each day studying a chosen book. Two artworks from the Kaldor history will also be reprised – first Allora & Calzadilla’s pianism and then Tino Sehgal’s ‘immaterial’ non-performance work in the second half of November. Imants Tillers has re-created the scene on 132 canvas boards. But then it mattered to him more than most; an innocent young architect went down to Little Bay in 1969 to assist in the wrapping, and emerged intent on becoming an artist.

Kaldor Public Art Project 1: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped coast – one million square feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, Sydney, 28 October – 14 December 1969. © Christo © J. Paul Getty Trust. All Rights Reserved. Photograph: Shunk-Kender. Courtesy the artists and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Sydney generally is reliving the legend as John Kaldor – recipient of the Australia Council’s 2019 Arts Visionary Award – has commissioned an exhibition documenting his 34 projects involving 47 artists over the past half century since then. His curator, Michael Landy – who took over lower Martin Place for the 24th Project – admits ‘it was hard work making an archive interesting.’ And one might argue that his 34 living-room sized archive boxes needed their maze-like formation in the Art Gallery of New South Wales basement to achieve what Kaldor enthusiastically called ‘ingenious capsulation’.

I suspect the result will attract more viewers wanting to recapture their experiences of such international art celebrities as Nam June Paik, Marina Abramović, Bill Viola, Gilbert & George, Jeff Koons and Sol LeWitt whom Kaldor has brought to Oz than it will find new audiences for their work. But then finding new audiences originally by placing their works in non-arty places like Little Bay, Broken Hill, Cockatoo Island and Bondi Beach was always a key part of the Kaldor plan.

Kaldor Public Art Project 30: Marina Abramović, Marina Abramovic: In Residence, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay, Sydney, 24 June – 5 July 2015 © Marina Abramović. Photograph: Pedro Greig. Courtesy the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘I’m evangelistic,’ John Kaldor told me earnestly. ‘Public space finds new audiences and offers a new reality – evading elitism. Art today has a very wide definition.’

You can say that again. For when you’ve mazed your way around the 34 boxes, you have everything from a wrapped tree to a mass of nude humans pretending to be animals via the sound of Kimberley birds (and wind), a wall full of words and one of the earliest Western attempts at land art from Richard Long – though, Indigenous peoples have been doing it here for a few thousand years. Sound crops up surprisingly frequently – from Flanagan & Allen singing ‘Underneath the Arches’ for Gilbert & George to puppet, via Allora & Calzadilla playing pianos backwards, to Anri Sala re-interpreting Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. And those birds. Balloons greet you in the exhibition’s foyer. But they should be popped in memory of Charlotte Moorman, who’s naked performances on cellos built by Nam June Paik from radioactive TV sets almost certainly lead to her death from cancer.

No sound at all from project 29 – the enigmatic Sehgal – whose absence somehow fits Kaldor’s broad definition of art.

Asked about his failures – I was thinking of Roman Ondak’s minimal offering of a recreation of his bare balcony at home in Slovakia – Kaldor can only think of the artists that got away. Amazingly, a man known for his persistence allowed Joseph Beuys’s wife to dissuade him from travelling Down Under; while two American giants of post-War Modernism – Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg never made it despite Kaldor’s assiduous collecting of their works.

Kaldor Public Art Project 28: Roman Ondak, Terrace, Parramatta Town Hall, Sydney, 25 January to 14 February, 2014. Photograph: Paul Green. Courtesy the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Intriguingly, Ondak’s work was only ever seen at Parramatta Town Hall – underlining Kaldor’s variety of settings. And a surprising number of other works appeared in Melbourne or Brisbane, not Sydney. But even in Sydney, a work could be almost invisible and still be one of Kaldor’s favourites. The German artist Thomas Demand discovered a building that almost everyone else in Sydney is so familiar with; they no longer see it – the Commercial Travellers’ Association Club, bang in the middle of Martin Place. Inside, the neatness of the club’s slice-of-cake, monastic bedrooms was constantly disrupted by Demand’s images of broken Venetians, unplugged electric sockets and missing ceiling panels; and further disrupted by the fact that all were meticulously made from cardboard!

I have to admit that I wrote about the Demand work in 2012, and Michael Landy’s archival box brought back memories for me, which few non-initiates could possibly appreciate. By comparison, the flower bed surrounding a miniature ‘Puppy’ – which was seen by a million outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in 1995 – will have broader appeal, especially if performance artist, David Capra and his living dog Teena are parading nearby.

They’re a lot more obvious than Ian Milliss’ ground floor to basement string of ropes – another link to Wrapped Coast. Milliss, like Tillers, was an installation veteran who made an artwork onsite in ‘69 from the ropes used to tie down Christo’s material. Describing his wind-blown flights hanging on to that material to transport it down the cliffs, his conclusion that ‘we were all bloody mad’ was rather more vivid than anything Landy is able to offer.

Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and film-making in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 16 February 2020
Sydney