Monday 1st June 2020

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of the legendary artist Christo. Known for his monumental works wrapping iconic landmarks in fabric with his wife Jeanne-Claude, Christo passed in his New York City home at the age of 84. He was most recently working on wrapping the Arc de Triomphe, which we believe will still go ahead from September 18 this year. Last year, in issue 14 of 10 Men Australia, we reminisced with John Kaldor about the incredible Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney. John talked then of the lifelong inspiration and momentum that working with them both had given him – and us. Christo was a game changer, a provocateur and a true visionary. Read the story with John Kaldor below:

John Kaldor is sitting in a grassy courtyard outside the Kaldor Public Arts Project offices in the late winter sun, working at a small table with his executive assistant. They are absorbed as it’s only a few weeks until Project 35 – Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects opens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). 

There is still much to do, so much to be sorted: archival material, letters, paperwork, decisions, guest lists… But Kaldor has made time to talk and we are excited to meet him finally. Such a legend. Without him, where would we be? We wouldn’t have experienced the joy of our names emblazoned on the side of the Australian Museum in Sydney for 15 seconds (Project 23: Your Name in Lights by John Baldessari), or experienced the amazing moment when we got up close with Gilbert Bayes’s heroic bronze horses that declared war and peace outside the AGNSW (Project 19: War and peace and in between by Tatzu Nishi), but more of that later. And so we sit outside, moving the table with the sun as we talk about all this history. 

We are compelled to start at the beginning, because it was and is so one word, four letters: EPIC. Christo and Jeanne- Claude. Although, at the time, Kaldor wasn’t even thinking about the future or the existence of Kaldor Public Arts Projects (which received charitable status in 2004 and is a not-for-pro t organisation), it was “definitely an evolution”. Originally, he just wanted the Christo project to happen and succeed. “It was such an enormous undertaking that I didn’t think that I wanted to do a series of projects. Because Christo and Jeanne-Claude were so charismatic they convinced me that, in a way, the most important thing I could do is firstly find them a coastline to wrap [He raises his eyebrows.] and help them to realise it. I was young, I was 33, and the challenges seemed fun. When I look back now it just seems impossible. But in those days, going back 50 years, the whole world was different. And I just wanted it to happen and we made it happen.” 

The documentation of Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney (1968-69) is fascinating. Super 8 footage captures Christo and his team of more than 100 workers battling against the elements to lash the specially made fabric to the 2.4km of coastline and cliff face; the black and white photographs by Harry Shunk capture the incredible scale of it during the installation that took four weeks of wrapping, sewing and roping. “In a way, Christo gave me the courage to see the potential and see the importance,” says Kaldor of what was to become Project 1 and the bedrock of the next 34. “And, after that, I thought it’s just too good to be a one-off, why don’t I try to do some more? In the ’60s and early ’70s the art world was very, very different – the contemporary art world was much smaller and every artist knew one another. They all lived very close by, in what has become known as Soho, which was like a light industrial area and the artists were basically squatting there because it wasn’t deemed residential. But they were always within five minutes’ walk of each other. One introduced me to the other – it was a very small club. It was totally, totally different. It just evolved, really.” 

He first met Christo there in New York. “I saw an illustration of the work he did for a big exhibition in Germany. I really liked it and I went to New York and I got his contact and I rang him up and said can I come and meet you. He wanted me to find a coastline. I found Little Bay – he didn’t care where it was, as long as it was an interesting coastline, because he had tried in California and he didn’t get permission.” 

The success of the project with Christo gave him the courage to start his own business, he says. “And fortunately, my business was successful from the very beginning, so I did projects whenever I liked an artist and whenever I had the time,” he says. “Sometimes I did two a year, sometimes I wouldn’t do something for four or five years. It is basically intuition. Gut feeling but with research, as you put it. In the beginning one artist introduced me to an artist who introduced me to another artist, and so it was very personal. You met them in a restaurant, and you have dinner with them and build… ” 

Naturally not all of them worked out, there are ones that got away. “There were probably eight or nine that didn’t work for some reason. Some didn’t make the trip to Australia, there were some who were willing to come but for some reason didn’t come. A few come to mind, like one of the contemporary artists I collected, and the one I most admire, Robert Rauschenberg, the American pop artist. He almost did it. Almost. In the early ’70s there was an Italian artist, Mario Merz, who wanted to do a really outlandish project that would have been terribly, terribly expensive. We just couldn’t afford it. He wanted to do a series of marble tables in the middle of Australia. Large marble tables – a whole series of them. It’s just what he wanted to do.”

Kaldor has remained in contact with many of the artists, and to invest this much energy and passion, rapport is vital. “Very much so – we don’t bring exhibitions, we bring artists to Australia. That always has been the way we work. The advantage of that is the artist sees Australia first-hand and experiences Australia and can meet Australian artists and something about Australia rubs off, but also Australian artists and Australian curators and the public can meet the international artists. So it’s a two-way street.” 

Half a century later he laughs at the suggestion that he might be any wiser. “No, no, no, absolutely not!” Of what comes next, he says, “I never make long-range plans, because the advantage of an organisation such as ours is that we’re very flexible. For example, we did a project a few years ago with a French choreographer, Xavier Le Roy, and if, 10 years earlier, you had said we would be doing a project with a dancer, a choreographer, I would have said you’re out of your mind! We are about visual art! But I felt that what he’s doing is very, very important in art. So we did it. There are two things that I’m mulling over, but no guarantee. That’s how I go. You know, we did a project [Project 32: barrangal dyara (skin and bones)] a couple of years ago with Jonathan Jones, on Indigenous people. That was wonderful. So I want to see if I can do more with and for Australian artists. That’s one area I am considering what to do. I still feel that it’s important to work with international artists, because it’s important to have a global perspective. And I think education is more and more of a challenge, and I like challenges.” An understatement. “About 15 years ago we added education to our activities, which is also growing very rapidly. I think art education is very, very important. There is not enough at schools, and if you can interest young people and not just explain to them but show them and make them see things, it’s really important.” 

Of the many artists he has worked with, he says, “I’ve found every great artist is very single-minded, focused, hard- working, dedicated. Those are the common denominators of the artists. They have all been very different, but that is the common [thread].” His mission remains the same – “to bring to Australia international artists to do projects that represent the latest developments in contemporary art and also to work with Australian artists who are of international standard, because there’s no such thing as local any more if everything is looked at in a global context.” 

When Kaldor Public Art Projects celebrated its 40th anniversary at the AGNSW, the director, the late Edmund Capon, said to him, “‘John, do you realise you are the oldest contemporary art project organisation in the world doing public art?’ And I said, ‘No!’ I never sort of researched whether we are older than somebody else, but it just happens to be that way.” 

For the opening of the Project 35, Kaldor says Christo was going to come, “but he’s got so many commitments and he’s no longer that young. He’s got a big project next year, the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe [in Paris], so he won’t make it. Michael Landy, who created the exhibition [Project 35], is coming, and Antoni Miralda, who we did a project with in ’73 [Project 4: Coloured feast], is coming and is going to do something very special. And at the very end there’s a finale – Gilbert and George are going to come.” 

We move inside to his office at Sydney College of the Arts in Callan Park. There are small-scale models of some of the projects, a mock-up of the Commercial Travellers Association building that was designed by Harry Seidler as part of the MLC and became the “canvas” for Thomas Demand’s Project 25. There is a small plaster version of Jeff Koon’s Puppy (Project 10) and something that looks like a Brillo box swathed in bubble wrap. There is a small team of staff quietly working away at their computers. Kaldor’s desk is a round table with a neat army of folders fanning out across it. So much history documented here. However, he says, “I don’t look back. I don’t like reminiscing and I don’t like to take myself seriously. People think what I do is important, that’s great. But I don’t take myself that seriously.” If he hadn’t done all this, he adds, “well, I was thinking as a teenager to become an architect, but I didn’t. Maybe in another life… But I’m happy with this one.” 

John Kaldor on Kaldor Public Art Project 1 with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, below: “I suppose my most enduring memory is we were really well advanced, and a big storm came along and, in our enthusiasm to cover the area we didn’t really tie the fabric down. We wanted to cover it and we were tying it down later. Big portions of the fabric ripped away on the rocks, shredded, so it looked terrible. Next morning, we were all broken-hearted because there was very little money about – how were we going to finish, what were we going to do? But Christo and Jeanne-Claude were so charismatic and remained unfazed. They said, ‘Look, if you work with nature, that’s what you have to expect. Let’s just regroup and fix what was torn and get on with it.’ And we did. That was the essence of it. When we were doing it, people asked me whether I thought it was great art. No, I was thinking are there enough sandwiches to feed the workers and where the hell is the rope delivery?! It was like when you’re in the midst of it, it’s not art. It’s a job.”

Kaldor Public Art Project 1: Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, 28 October – 14 December 1969

by Alison Veness

Top image: Christo at The Floating Piers, June 2016 by Wolfgang Volz





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