Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia. The most important piece of avant-garde art ever made in this country, or the the work of a madman? Both views got plenty of traction at the end of October 1969, when Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009), undertook the monumental task of wrapping part of the Sydney coastline with 90,000 square metres of synthetic fabric and 56.3 kilometres of polypropylene rope. They didn’t do it alone. Along with engineers and professional climbers, there were more than a hundred assistants involved, mainly art and architecture students from Sydney University.
Some of those helpers such as Imants Tillers, would go on to forge careers as artists. They found working with Christo to be an exhilarating, empowering experience, even though the actual wrap was a struggle with the elements. For the first time ever it felt as if Australia had pushed itself to the forefront of international contemporary art, rather than waiting patiently for the next big movement to arrive from Paris, London or New York. With Wrapped Coast, Australian art embraced a new sense of possibility, and things would never be the same again.
Christo was a Bulgarian refugee who had made his mark as an artist in Paris, where he met his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude. In 1969 he was only 34 years old but had already established a worldwide reputation with a series of wrapped storefronts and an 85-metre-high air package, shown at the 1968 Kassel Documenta. Even in those days all works were jointly authored by Jeanne-Claude, but until 1994 only Christo was credited. From that year onwards – and backwards – they shared the kudos.
Wrapped Coast was initiated by John Kaldor, a Hungarian refugee in Sydney, who had become successful in the textile business. Kaldor was an aspiring collector who wanted to do something really big, something that would make his adopted country sit up and take notice of what was happening overseas. He visited Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York, cut a deal, and returned to Australia to start making arrangements, having no idea of the logistical nightmare he had embraced.
Last Year, Kaldor Public Art Projects celebrated 50 years, and another 33 projects, but none of them was ever so difficult, so groundbreaking or controversial as Wrapped Coast.
The story is told in detail in Samantha Lang’s 2019 documentary, It All Started with a Stale Sandwich, which samples the media coverage the project generated. Wrapped Coast was loved and hated, celebrated and mocked. For every man-in-the-street who cried: “That’s not art!”, there was another who thought it was marvellous. Christo and Jeanne-Claude polarised their audence and got people talking, which is the ultimate goal of every avant-garde artist. It was, at the time, the largest work of art ever made – and it was made right here in Sydney!
Even the greatest Aussie phillistine could appreciate the fact that, once again, we were leading the world. Not only did we have the best barrier reef, the biggest rock, the best cricketers and surfers, we also had the biggest work of avant-garde art.
It may not have been quite so simple, but there’s no doubt that Wrapped Coast is looked back upon with great affection. Many have seen it as a tipping point in Australian culture – an event that signalled our coming of age as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan society. Only three years earlier Australians had been admiring themselves and laughing at their own insularity in the film, They’re a Weird Mob (1966), now they could feel part of the wider world. We owe it to Christo, with a bit of help from Jeanne-Claude and John Kaldor, that we began to realise art could be more than a picture hanging on a wall; it could be experienced in many different ways, and belong to everybody. No visitor to this country, within a few short weeks, has left such a unique legacy.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June, 2020