Ever since Christo and Jeanne-Claude put Little Bay under wraps in October 1969, John Kaldor has enjoyed a reputation as one of Australia’s most innovative art patrons. The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is both a survey and a celebration of the projects that Kaldor has initiated over the past four decades. It is an impressive list, although the residue of former glories conveys little of the excitement they once generated.
Forty Years: Kaldor Public Art Projects is barely an exhibition at all. It is more of an archive, in which works of art are hardly more important than the accompanying documentation. The art component is to be found in the nineteenth – and current – Kaldor project: Tatzu Nishi’s War and peace and in between, which consists of two specially created rooms for the equestrian statutes by British academician, Gilbert Bayes that have stood out the front of the AGNSW since 1926.
Like many artists on the international circuit, Nishi has found an idea that has very broad applications. While the basic concept remains the same, no matter where a work is installed, it is subject to infinite variations. Nishi applies the same procedure to his own name. He was born Tatsuro Nishino, but has exhibited under a succession of aliases, none of them too different from the original.
In the British city of Liverpool in 2002, Nishi – or Tatsouro Bashi, he was then called – enclosed a bronze statue of Queen Victoria inside a facsimile hotel room. Viewers were able to book a night’s accommodation, sharing the space with the sculpture. He did something similar for a bronze of Captain Cook last year in Christchurch; and has repeated the trick with the Bayes statues, although these makeshift enclosures are not functioning hotel rooms.
One monumental figure, The offerings of war is repositioned astride a couple of double beds, like an apparition in a film by Luis Bunuel. In the other room the rider in The offerings of peace becomes a coffee table ornament while his horse’s head pops up in the cupboard.
Very witty Wilde, or Nishi, or Bashi, but is this anything more than a gag? The rationale is that a change of context obliges us to take a fresh look at works that have become all but invisible through long familiarity. Bayes’s sculptures, created while memories of the First World War were still raw, portray peace and war as close cousins rather than polar opposites. They are both warriors on horseback, suggesting that the pursuit of peace requires no less martial vigilance than war. What is “in between” is art, represented by the AGNSW itself.
However we interpret the statues it is startling to see them at close quarters, with or without bedroom furniture. One becomes acutely aware of how profoundly taste in art has changed over time, to the point where we no longer expect public works to inculcate timeless, universal values. Today’s typical public artwork is a temporary affair, to be enjoyed for a few weeks or a few months. Those monumental works that are still being constructed are often highly ambiguous – being exercises in abstract form, or figures so generalised they may be seen as veiled social critiques.
Increasingly, there is the odd expectation that a sculpture must “do” something rather than simply occupy a space. This has resulted in a growing number of pieces that incorporate video screens, neon lights, electronic sensors, and so forth. Aside from problems of maintenance and vandalism, such works tend to date more rapidly than those old-fashioned sculptures that stand serenely on a plinth. The same might be said about much recent architecture, where the vogue for brightly coloured facades suggests an attachment to fashion rather than longevity. A century from now those classically styled buildings of the Victorian and Georgian eras will retain their stately ambience, while most of today’s multi-coloured masterpieces will not exist at all.
In a sense this is the way latter-day capitalism works, in ever diminishing cycles of creation, destruction and renewal. The public image of a company, a city or a government department must be constantly remade to give the appearance of up-to-the-minute relevance. Nobody could care less about those once-proud boasts of firms that were founded several hundred years ago. Like aging celebrities, companies are becoming cautious about saying anything that reveals their true antiquity.
John Kaldor can boast that he has spent forty years promoting contemporary art, but it has been forty years of utterly ephemeral activities. Christo and Jeanne-Claude set the scene nicely with the construction of Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-69, which occupied more than a hundred volunteer workers for two months. This grand but useless gesture was a convincing demonstration of the power of art to capture the public imagination. As the largest artwork in the world it put Australia on the map at a time when international art was considered to be something done in Europe and the United States. It also opened the door for a homegrown avant-garde, who became aware of a new spectrum of possibilities.
One can see how far Australia was from the rest of the world when one looks at Kaldor’s second project: a strenuous two week visit by Swiss über-curator, Harald Szeemann, in 1971. Despite being dragged around private collections and artists’ studios in Sydney and Melbourne, culminating in a specially selected group show, Szeemann still failed to include a single Australian in the 1972 Documenta exhibition in Kassel, over which he had complete creative control.
Two other early projects that made an indelible impression on the local art scene were the visit of Gilbert and George as The Singing Sculpture in 1973; and the antics of Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman in 1976. In the first case, the deadpan twosome who have gone on to superstardom, covered their faces and hands with bronze greasepaint and mimed to a recording of Underneath the arches for five hours at a stretch.
The 1976 project was focused on the buxom Moorman, who played the cello in various stages of undress: completely coated in chocolate; suspended above the Opera House by helium balloons; wearing a bra made from miniature TVs; or sitting naked, bowing away for three hours at a slowly melting block of ice. This was, if you’ll pardon the cliché, a publicist’s dream, giving Kaldor’s projects an extraordinary visibility.
The downside is that Charlotte Moorman died of breast cancer in 1991, at the age of 58. Her illness can’t have been helped by her intensive exposure to cathode rays, all in the name of art.
In 1977, Kaldor initiated two relatively low-key projects, featuring Sol LeWitt and Richard Long. There followed a thirteen year hiatus before he sponsored any more artist visits, although he got behind An Australian Accent of 1984, which took the work of Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth, to venues in New York and Washington D.C.
Kaldor restarted his activities in 1990, with the return of Christo and Jeanne-Claude for a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Since then, the projects have continued to arrive at regular intervals, with the outstanding success being Jeff Koons’s Puppy, installed in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995. Two other memorable events were Gregor Schneider’s wire cages on Bondi Beach in 2007; and the 2008 screening of Bill Viola’s video works at the Church of St. Saviour in Redfern.
The exhibition at the AGNSW provides an overview of the entire set of art projects but the effect is rather like rummaging around in someone’s attic. It is partly a way of saying thank-you to Kaldor for the April 2008 bequest of his private collection of contemporary art, which comprises some 260 works, and is valued at $35 million. The AGNSW will be showing its gratitude in more concrete terms by the creation of new exhibition spaces for the collection due to open in 2011.
What is chiefly remarkable about Kaldor is that while he has made his fortune in the textile trade, he has never been among the ranks of the super rich. He simply had the vision and the interest to buy works by leading international artists when they were still affordable. Figures such as Packer, Lowy and Pratt could have trumped him a thousand times over, but they never showed the slightest interest in contemporary art.
The public art projects have been Kaldor’s private passion, but also a shrewd way of keeping his name in lights. His activities have been beneficial to the national culture and tax-effective to boot. Like Charles Saatchi, he provides a case study of what can be achieved by a moderately wealthy businessman armed with shrewdness and determination. The X factor has been his love of art and artists. For forty years Kaldor has enjoyed the rare pleasure of reaping the benefits of an investment that has been emotional as well as financial.
Forty Years: Kaldor Public Art Projects, The Art Gallery of NSW, October 2, 2009-February 14, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 2009