This year is the 50th anniversary of the Kaldor Public Art Projects, a testament to the persistence of a Hungarian migrant who needed to share his obsession with an entire city, if not a country. The birthday celebrations will continue to spread the Kaldor gospel via an unorthodox retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and a feature-length documentary titled It All Started with a Stale Sandwich.
There have been 34 projects in total, the first being Christo’s Wrapped Coast of 1969, widely viewed as the event that launched the era of contemporary art in Australia. The most recent, in May this year, was Asad Raza’s Absorption, which consisted of 300 tonnes of specially curated soil lovingly tended for a fortnight.
Samantha Lang’s documentary devotes a lot of attention to these first and most recent projects. It begins with John Kaldor and his team talking with Asad Raza on a video link from the USA, when he announces the title of the project. “Sounds very interesting,” says Kaldor in his characteristic monotone, “very utopian”. We’ll hear the word “interesting” on numerous occasions over the next hour-and-a-half. It may be the all-time favourite euphemism for those who don’t want to commit themselves to a value judgement, but with Kaldor it denotes an attempt to keep an open mind. After 50 years he is ready for anything, “Art is an experiment and one has to accept failure,” he says. He has also learned the value of being non-committal.
Kaldor’s process over the years has been to invite an artist to Australia and let him or her develop the concept for a work. The Kaldor organisation provides the funding, usually with the assistance of private and corporate sponsors, although many an idea has been shot down because it was deemed unfundable. This includes the first three proposals British artist, Michael Landy, came up with when asked to undertake Project No. 24 in 2011.
Landy is now curator of the exhibition at the AGNSW, and the film shows him struggling to work his way through the Kaldor archive, searching for a final plan. His scheme is for each of the 34 projects to have its own box-like room, as if the archive itself has grown to monumental size.
The preparations for the exhibition are one of the threads that run through this documentary, along with an episodic biography of Kaldor that includes his early exposure to the museums of Paris after the war, his arrival in Australia as a refugee in the 1950s, and his work in the textile business. The sandwich of the title was served during his first visit to Christo’s New York studio in the late 1960s, although there’s no mention of its state of preservation. It’s strange if Christo didn’t know how to wrap a loaf of bread.
Lang is content to skate on the surface and not go into detail about anything that doesn’t relate directly the public art projects. The documentary is conventional in style, relying on interviews with a succession of talking heads – including me, if that’s worth admitting. Nobody has anything critical to say, except perhaps Mike Parr, who tells us how furious he was when Kaldor suggested he stop drawing self-portraits. It’s the one discordant (and very funny) moment in an otherwise celebratory account. When Parr said: “I like him…” it caused a ripple of laughter in the audience.
Lang makes a connoisseur’s selection from the 34 projects, starting with Christo in 1969; jumping to Gilbert and George (1973); Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik (1976); An Australian Accent (1984), which brought the work of Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth to New York; Jeff Koons’s Puppy (1995), Marina Abramovic (2015), Xavier Le Roy (2015) and Jonathan Jones (2016). That’s less than a quarter of the total.
It would have been monotonous to include everything but one might have hoped for a a slightly broader coverage. The decisive factor may have been the amount of historical footage available. The material relating to Christo and Jeanne-Claude is priceless – a time capsule of the late 1960s that dominates the first third of the film. There’s also excellent coverage of Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculpture, and the media-magnet antics of Moorman and Paik.
These dips into the vaults are so fascinating one might wish the documentary spent less time in the present. A scene drags on too long in which artist, Agatha Gothe Snape, tells Kaldor about a high tech gimmick he might use in the AGNSW show. There’s also too much time devoted to discussions of indigenous issues by Christian Thompson and Jonathan Jones. It’s worth noting that Kaldor never seems to have given a thought to indigenous art until 2016, when Jones’s Barrangal Dyara (Skin and Bones), opened his eyes to the deeper history of this country.
We may be thankful for that awakening, but it was a late development. Jones’s work was project no. 32, and to hear him speak for six minutes gives a disproportionate weight to the indigenous theme in the context of an enterprise that has lasted half a century. (Some might also argue that the projects have featured too few female artists.)
Nevertheless, Jones has probably the best line in the entire film when he says: “Sometimes it does feel that Australia has been wrapped up in someone else’s story.” One thinks immediately of Christo’s wrapped coast, and all that followed. For an indigenous artist the procession of projects by international invitees was“someone else’s story” right up until 2016.
John Kaldor, the former refugee, has worked tirelessly to bring the best of international art to Australia, but paid little attention to the art that had been here all along. It was a threshold that had to be crossed if the Art Projects were to be as all-encompassing and open-ended as initially envisaged. The public art projects may have begun with a stale sandwich, but the great challenge has always been to keep them fresh.
It All Started with a Stale Sandwich
Written & directed by Samantha Lang
Australia, rated M, 94 mins
Published in Artist Profile 48, July 2019