In the Sydney spring of 1969, a million square feet of polypropylene was draped over 2.5km of craggy cliffs in Little Bay. The material was held down with 56km of rope, lending the coastline the appearance of an enormous package.
In an ABC documentary that aired later that year, one incredulous commenter asks the camera: “In all common sense, what contribution is this making to Australian art?”
At the time, the answer to that question was less obvious than it is now. “In the late ’60s in Australia it was like the dark ages in visual art,” says John Kaldor, the man behind the project, speaking from his Rushcutters Bay office where all visitors are met with a black-and-white photograph of the coastline-as-parcel. “It’s not that they thought they were missing anything – they just thought that maybe nothing was out there.”
Kaldor is one of Sydney’s most recognisable art figures, a Hungarian-born textile businessman whose experience of the 1960s New York art scene transformed him from a collector to an evangelist. It was on his invitation that the internationally acclaimed artist Christo came to Sydney in 1969 for Wrapped Coast, giving Australia a glimpse of the possibilities presented by contemporary art. Through the transformation of Little Bay’s physical landscape, the artistic landscape of the country was altered irrevocably.
In the 44 years since, Kaldor has continued to invite the world’s foremost artistic innovators to create work on our shores as part of the Kaldor Public Art Projects. The Projects have given the country some of its most memorable art events: a pair of bronze-faced and besuited statues hanging around the entrance of the Art Gallery of NSW (1973); a grid of 21 cages arranged on the sand at Bondi Beach (2007); a giant puppy festooned in flowers, sitting obediently in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (1995). Form and tone differ widely from work to work, from operatic visions of fire and water engulfing congregations in a darkened church, to a rainbow-hued banquet whose guests were encouraged to dine on their favourite colours. Some of the remains of these ephemeral Projects are on display at the AGNSW, to whom Kaldor bequeathed his $35 million collection in 2008.
Whatever the intent of the individual works, the guiding philosophy behind the Projects has remained the same: to share with Australia the most forward-looking contemporary art happening in the world. Whether we’re ready for it or not.
“Each project may resonate differently with the public and resonate differently with the individual,” says Kaldor, now 77. “What our mission has been from the beginning – and we stick to it – is to bring the latest developments that haven’t been seen to Australia. Now if, when it happens, the public likes it, appreciates it, then that’s good. But even if they don’t, I don’t mind. It may be that in a month or a in year or five years, they say, ‘Oh, now it makes sense.’”
It’s in this spirit of encouraging discovery that Kaldor Public Art Projects is bringing 13 Rooms to Sydney – one of its biggest and most ambitious projects since Wrapped Coast. It will feature the work of 13 star artists – among them Damien Hirst and Marina Abramović – and involve more than 100 performers over 11 days. Uniquely for the Projects, 13 Rooms wasn’t specially commissioned for Sydney, having first been presented, as 11 Rooms, as part of the Manchester International Arts Festival.
The event has been described by its co-curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, as “a sculpture garden where the sculptures go home at 6pm”, but Kaldor does a better job of evoking the strange aliveness of it: the sculptures in the show are made, he says, not out of stone or marble, but “out of human beings”.
In regular business hours, a white-walled complex – Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay transformed – will open for visitors, free of charge. Each of its 13 purpose-built spaces will contain a performance – each conceived by one of the 13 star artists – that highlights and objectifies the human body in some way: clothed bodies and nude bodies; bodies seeming to defy gravity, suspended in mid-air or frozen mid-fall; bodies pressed into far corners or under low ceilings; bodies dance-marching around the room forming a human revolving door. Some bodies provide less of a performance and more of a ‘presence’; others demand the visitor’s involvement.
“To me it’s one of the most interesting developments in contemporary art – art today is moving very much towards interaction,” says Kaldor. “[13 Rooms] brings together visual art and performance in a totally new way. It’s a completely different mindset. And that’s what excites me.”
Thrilled by the ‘new’ as he is, Kaldor isn’t a fan of labels. In fact he takes in more ‘old’ art than ‘new’ art on his travels and describes encountering great Renaissance paintings in Europe as a “spiritual experience”. Though forever seen to be seeking its cutting-edge, Kaldor says there are only, and have only ever been, two types of art: good art and bad art.
“When the first caveman did those paintings, another caveman turned to him and said, ‘That’s not art.’”
The first art critic?
“Exactly,” he says. “Art was always contemporary.”
This interview originally appeared in Time Out Sydney in April 2013.
13 Rooms is showing at Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay until Apr 21.