A few years ago, businessman, art collector and philanthropist John Kaldor was searching for the perfect coastal site to stage an art project. He found himself in Little Bay, about 25 minutes south of Sydney, staring across kilometres of familiar rocky coastline and imposing cliffs. The sense of déjà vu was palpable.
“I looked at those cliffs and just thought: John, you must’ve been out of your cotton-picking mind. It’s just scary,” he says.
Little Bay is the site that altered not only the course of his life but arguably the course of contemporary art in Australia. In 1969, Kaldor invited then up-and-coming artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to create an art project in Sydney. The resulting work, ‘Wrapped Coast’, was the biggest artwork ever seen in the world at the time.
Working with a group of volunteers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the entire two and a half kilometres of Little Bay coastline with white fabric and rope, creating an otherworldly landscape out of a rugged place. In an age when art was almost exclusively something you saw in a gallery, a work that took a full hour just to traverse and view was enormously controversial. Kaldor and the artists were mercilessly mocked by the local media, and there were even attempts to sabotage the artwork by night-time vandals. Religious figures objected to the work, saying that the resources being spent on it would be put to better use at the struggling local hospital.
"These temporary projects have become part of our cultural memory"
But the scale of the achievement and the magnetism of the artists drew enormous and curious crowds, and a new chapter in Sydney’s artistic life began.
“Basically, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were so charismatic that they convinced me it was the most important thing that I could do,” Kaldor recalls. “And that I took it seriously literally changed my world and gave me the courage to start my own business.”
While Kaldor’s textile manufacturing business was enormously successful, he’s now most celebrated for his art projects. He never planned to make a series, but after the thrill of ‘Wrapped Coast’ he immediately knew he needed to make more. Fifty years later, Kaldor has presented 34 projects from some of the art world’s biggest names to the Australian public. That legacy is being celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW curated by British artist Michael Landy.
“It was a big challenge for Michael and us,” Kaldor says. “Because while I wanted him to put his signature on the whole exhibition, we also have to respect each artist’s project.”
Those projects range enormously in terms of style and form, from Jeff Koons’ enormous ‘Puppy’ sculpture covered in flowers, which stood outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, to Gilbert and George’s ‘Singing Sculpture’ in 1973, in which the pair lip-synced as live sculptures in the entrance foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW for five hours a day. Each project will be represented in the exhibition by an archive box that will be four metres square and three metres tall.
“Obviously some projects were bigger than others, so I wanted to make some boxes bigger and some smaller. But Michael was very democratic,” Kaldor says.
Some of those boxes will be filled with archival material – and you’ll be able to enter and explore – while others will be closed and use sound, images, video and installation to bring the project back to life.
“It’s very hard to do an archival exhibition,” Kaldor says. “People go through it and after the third or fourth go, ‘oh, not another letter’, or ‘not another email’. So we’ve tried to put as much variation into it as possible.”
As well as the physical exhibition, Kaldor is inviting Australians who experienced the projects over the last half-century to share their memories and contribute to a living archive on the Kaldor Public Art Projects website. Kaldor’s one request for the living archive is that the contributions aren’t from typical art lovers, but people who may have discovered one of the projects by accident.
“Something that was temporary – something that becomes a memory – is altered by each person; each person remembers it differently,” Kaldor says. “But that’s one of the things that I’m happiest about; these temporary projects have become part of our cultural memory. What I’m really proud of is that projects that happened 50, 40, 30, 20 years ago, well before the young people of today were born, are being taught in schools.”
That’s no surprise if you look at the list of artists who’ve created work for Kaldor. It reads like a who’s who of contemporary art, although many were only really starting out when they came to Australia to create works that proved pivotal in their careers.
"Our mission is to bring groundbreaking art to Australia"
Kaldor says he’s operating now in much the same way as he always has, which involves travelling and talking to artists, curators and directors to determine who is making exciting and innovative work. The only difference is that contemporary art has exploded and become a much larger industry. “Every town with a set of traffic lights has a biennale and an art fair. It’s very different.”
After launching the retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW, Kaldor is planning to keep the flame burning and launch even more projects with his organisation. But now is the perfect time, he says, to consider how the organisation can be a leader in contemporary art.
“There’s a couple of things I’d like to have a careful look at: that’s working more with Australian artists, because the project with Jonathan Jones [in 2016] was a real eye-opener for me and was very, very successful. And I also want to work more on art education. But our mission is to bring groundbreaking art to Australia. That was the principle from the beginning, and it’s still the same.”
Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects is at the Art Gallery of NSW September 7 to February 16 2020.
Five projects to remember
For six weeks, two and a half kilometres of Sydney’s Little Bay was transformed by billowing fabric. Long-serving Art Gallery of NSW director Edmund Capon said: “If there was ever a defining moment in the story of modern and contemporary art in Australia it was surely the very first Kaldor project.”
Six years after they first met, the sharply-dressed art world power couple performed ‘Singing Sculpture’ at the AGNSW. They lip-synced to a Depression-era song for five continuous hours each day with their faces covered in bronze.
Nobody who saw the American artist’s 12.4 metre-tall Westie puppy peering out over Circular Quay could forget it. The sculpture was covered in 55 tonnes of soil and 60,000 plants, but much to Koons’ fury, one volunteer planted a marijuana plant in the dog’s head.
The godmother of performance art created a series of experiences inside Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, designed to help the people of Sydney slow down. Visitors were invited to participate in such thrilling activities as counting rice, walking slowly in noise-cancelling headphones, and staring at a sheet covered in a single colour.
Using thousands of white spears, the Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist covered 20,000 square metres of the Royal Botanic Garden. The artwork’s footprint covered the site of the enormous Garden Palace that was built on the site in 1879 and burned to the ground three years later, destroying hundreds of important Aboriginal artefacts.
Step outside the gallery
Sydney is home to a vibrant community of street artists, always ready to bring a splash of colour, a touch of provocation, or just the perfect Instagram backdrop to our city’s streets. But as with just about every piece of real estate in Sydney, these unlikely canvases are hotly contested spaces.