Scientists have disproved the old adage about lightning never striking the same place twice, and John Kaldor has confirmed their findings. In 2009 the Art Gallery of NSW hosted the exhibition 40 Years: Kaldor Public Art Projects. Today the AGNSW’s major exhibition is Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects.
The story of how a Hungarian immigrant who made his money in the textile trade became Australia’s most dedicated promoter of international contemporary art, is told in Samantha Lang’s new feature-length documentary, It All Started with a Stale Sandwich. Suffice to say, the really daring and difficult bit was Project No. 1: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast of 1969. More than 100 people would spend over a month wrapping Little Bay with one million square feet (92,900 square metres) of fabric. The public reaction was sharply polarised, and the media lapped up the controversy.
By the end of the year Australian artists had enjoyed a first taste of the international avant-garde, and Kaldor had started his own textile business. He also had a new raison d’etre. The shows that followed, with Gilbert and George as The Singing Sculpture in 1973; or Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik in 1976, are almost as legendary as Wrapped Coast.
From 1977 to 1990 the only Kaldor project was An Australian Accent (1984) which took the work of three Australian artists – Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth – to New York. In the current exhibition this project is represented by newspaper clippings, photos and film footage, suggesting that Kaldor’s chief objective was to increase the global visibility of Australian art. The show got a positive response but a flash of good publicity did little to alter our marginal status.
Kaldor had made an earlier attempt to draw Australia into the wider world of art in 1971, with his second
project: a sponsored visit by Swiss guru curator, Harald Szeemann. The great man would work his way through numerous studios but showed no inclination to include Australian artists in any of his big Euro exhibitions. The moral of the story seems to be that with grandiose art projects it’s easier to be an importer than an exporter.
By the time of the 40 Years survey Kaldor had initiated 19 projects, including a piece by Tatzu Nishi staged simultaneously at the AGNSW. Over the following decade he would accelerate, adding a further 15 projects. Some of these, notably 13 Rooms (2013), and those by Marina Abramović (2015) and Jonathan Jones (2016), have constituted major feats of organisation.
If the 2009 show felt more like an archive than an exhibition, the 2019 version is wilfully archival. Knowing that he had to do something different from the standard, chronological museum display, Kaldor enlisted British artist, Michael Landy, as guest curator.
Landy is best known for a performance called Break Down (2001), in which he systematically destroyed all his personal possessions over a number of days. In 2011 Landy was responsible for Kaldor project no. 24, Acts of Kindness. The idea was to collect stories of good deeds and post them on the streets of Sydney, along with a large map in Martin Place, showing where each could be found.
As an artist with well-established anti-materialistic credentials, Landy knows what it means to pull off a long sequence of eye-catching but temporary projects. As a natural socialist he was concerned not to play favourites by giving undue prominence to some artists over others. Even allowing for this ideal sense of equality the show is inevitably front-loaded in favour of the earliest events. With the works of later years it’s easy enough to distinguish the hits from the misses, the major from the minor.
Taking the archive box as his model for the exhibition Landy has allotted 34 cube-like rooms for the 34 projects. These cubes are arranged seemingly at random, giving the display the feel of a maze rather than an orderly procession.
Within this schema he has not been dogmatic. Santiago Sierra’s ‘room’ has been transformed into a freestanding sculpture propped against the gallery wall. Jeff Koons’s Puppy (1995), has returned as a small Scotty dog camped in a square flower garden. The show is introduced by a large, busy drawing by Landy that reappears in fragments throughout the exhibition, usually pasted on the floor.
Although Landy has had more to work with than the curators of the 2009 show, it’s still a big task to make an engaging show from documentation rather than the art itself. Where an original project might have required the viewer to occupy space in a particular way or interact with a performer, in this exhibition we take a more passive role. In Xavier Le Roux’s Temporary Title of 2015, for instance, viewers sat around a room watching naked performers who would occasionally crawl over and engage them in conversation. In this show one simply watches fragments of the performance on TV monitors.
The elaborate time-based rituals Marina Abramović required visitors to undertake in her project of 2015, are reduced to one simple fragment. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Jonathan Jones’s barrangal dyara (skin and bones) was to make us aware of the vast size of the Garden Palace Building that dominated the Sydney skyline until it was burnt down in 1882 and promptly forgotten. Spatial sense and layers of meaning are casualties of the archival approach.
By their very nature the Kaldor Public Art Projects were site-specific, and virtually impossible to reconstruct in the context of an exhibition. The show conveys only the barest impression of some remarkable works but it would be futile to complain. Some cubes are better thought-out than others, but in every instance we are looking at souvenirs of an all-encompassing experience. Making Art Public is an event to inspire curiosity and admiration, but it doesn’t ignite the sense of wonder. As admission is free this need not be a deterrent.
Despite the curator’s best efforts the show is hardly more than a sketch of a program that for half a century has brought contemporary art before a public who have responded with surprise, shock and often delight. The succès de scandale of Wrapped Coast has given way to a sense of eager anticipation. Sydney audiences have embraced each new Kaldor extravaganza
while remaining sceptical of the City Council’s expensive schemes for permanent public art works.
Because every ‘cutting edge’ piece is blunted by time, in a world dominated by digital technology it may be that the best-received public works will be spectacular but ephemeral. What we see at the AGNSW is hardly more than a reliquary of such projects that will conjure up memories for some visitors, and remain oblique to others. The show reminds us how art can reconfigure our view of the world, but to recapture the excitement these projects generated at first appearance requires a strenuous leap of the imagination.
Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Art Projects
Art Gallery of NSW, 7 September, 2019 – 16 Feb. 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September, 2019