Art

In looking back at the 34 works commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects over the past 50 years, Making art public captures neither the energy of this medium nor the debate about its value. By Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung.

Making art public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects

An installation view of the archive box for Jonathan Jones’s ‘barrangal dyara (skin and bones)’.
Credit: Jenni Carter

Public art is divisive. To some, it’s a welcome shock, presenting people with a chance to engage with an experience that is otherwise absent in stagnant plots of public space. It’s an example of art extending its catchment, too, capitalising on the chance that passers-by may casually, yet more meaningfully, engage with it.

To others, however, public art offers anything but thoughtful engagement in the digital age. With the anchoring of social media to everyday life, many contend that public art exists primarily to be uploaded. Framed as such, public art is utilitarian: a transaction that fulfils audiences’ desire to be seen as part of the spectacle. A tool one can use to mine likes, shares and comments.

These two factions wrestle in debates about the accessibility of contemporary art. And while there is no end in sight as to whether it is populism or meaningful engagement that will win the battle, new questions need to be asked as to what role public art has in Australia’s cultural life.

If we agree that public art is important for its democratic value, but is at the same time deficient due to its tendency towards superficiality, then to what extent can we strike the right balance? Making art public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is the 35th Kaldor Public Art Project, assembled by returning British artist Michael Landy, who was also commissioned for the 24th project. Rather than creating an exhibition of new work, Landy has taken a more reflexive route – drawing inspiration from the projects’ 50-year history to create a walk-through archive at the gallery.

Making art public is thus presented through 34 room-sized “archive boxes” that distil what Kaldor himself calls “the essence of each project” that came before. From Jeff Koons’s Puppy (1992) installed in front of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to John Baldessari’s Your Name in Lights (2011) on the Australian Museum facade, these projects have undoubtedly steered the discourse about what public art looks like in Australia. In many ways, then, Landy’s exhibition is a memento to the blockbuster moments in Australian public art, as well as to the eponymous patron himself, John Kaldor.

At the entrance to the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a scattered sea of these archive boxes. They are numbered according to their chronological order in the Kaldor project dynasty but curated separately so that we experience the show without any linearity. The experience of moving from a room documenting the third project immediately to one archiving the 26th is initially disorienting, but this feeling inevitably fades. Instead, a slipperier sensation emerges – one that gives the chance to ask what kinds of work have the most substantial impact on public engagement and foster critical discussion.

This feeling begins when I encounter the archive box of the first Kaldor project, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia (1968-1969). Here, the artists wrapped two-and-a-half kilometres of Sydney’s Little Bay coastline with fabric and rope, transforming the terrain into a monument masked by a billowing white sheet. A curtain was effectively thrown over the landscape, making what was at the time the largest single artwork ever made. The archive box contains an assembly of letters between the artists and Kaldor in the lead-up to the event, alongside newspaper clippings, archival footage and fragments of the fabric used for the project. Much like a traditional museum display, these artefacts are arranged with a didactic undertone so that those who did not bear witness to the original event can conjure a vivid imagining of it for themselves. The overall impression given to us by this archive is that we ought to be awed by the sheer scale of the work, and the project management behind organising such a spectacle. But I’m left wondering what meanings lie in throwing a white sheet over the Australian coast. If Kaldor’s inaugural project is seminal, surely there is conceptual rigour behind its execution – if not, what makes such a spectacle artful beyond its facade?

Kaldor Public Art Projects states clearly that their projects only “endure via the materials left behind and the memories of those who encountered them”. Perhaps, then, I’m searching for an explanation that cannot be shown – that the raison d’être of public art is to exist only in a discrete moment in time. Yet if we opine Landy’s archive box as an indication as to how we are meant to remember and engage with Wrapped Coast – that we should remain absorbed by the spectacle of it all – then it seems uninspiring, and hardly relevant or engaging.

To a similar extent, there were aspects to the documentation of the 8th project – An Australian Accent (1984) – that felt jarring. For this project, John Kaldor curated an exhibition in New York that featured Australian artists Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth. An entire wall of the archive box shows pictures of an evening at Rupert Murdoch’s Long Island residence, where he and his then wife, Anna, hosted a dinner to celebrate the exhibition’s opening. It felt odd to see these photographs – private moments of the elite knocking back cocktails – in an exhibition on public art. One may well divine that behind public art lies an aristocratic vision, which makes the supposed democratic value of the medium a farce, with public art serving only the tastes of those with enough money to fund it in the first place. It’s an idea of consumption that is more subtly given to us in Kaldor’s fourth project, Miralda’s Coloured Feast and Coloured Bread (1973), which has been remade for the current exhibition. Coloured Bread is exactly what its title describes: an edible artwork of dyed bread. Amid the pungent scent of yeast, I can’t help but think the work is kitschy and obvious: an offbeat sight that both Miralda and Landy know we want to devour.

The twofold desire for public art to retain a high degree of conceptual resolution as well as be democratic in its implementation is a tension perhaps best resolved by projects such as Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones’s barrangal dyara (skin and bones), commissioned by Kaldor in 2016 as their 32nd project. In this work, Jones redrew and marked the perimeter of Sydney’s now-vanished Garden Palace with thousands of bleached white shields. Originally inside the Royal Botanic Garden, the Garden Palace burned down in 1882, losing with it countless First Nations objects stolen and collected by British colonisers. The blaze became a traumatic spectacle of cultural loss, reimagined by Jones using the spectacle of public art to comment on the resistance and survival of First Nations cultures. The archive box representing this work is a portion of barrangal dyara itself, though it inevitably lacks the gravitas the work originally had. Here, on the gallery’s floor, it appears as a scattering of white shields confined inside a rectangle, sadly castrated from their context.

When barrangal dyara was first displayed, I remember being floored by how Jones responded directly to the botanic gardens. As the shields wove their way between running fountains and flowerbeds, they shone with great intensity as the sun beat down upon them. At times, we were forced to look away from this chorus of white because the glare became too much. This is an experience that has not, and indeed cannot, be replicated in a box in a gallery.

Where Wrapped Coast fails in cementing an evocative rationale, barrangal dyara succeeds in doing so. However, in an exhibition such as Making art public, both works of art are let down by the inherent structure of the archive box: audiences aren’t given a full understanding of the aesthetic and intellectual power that public art can bring. If the power of public art is contingent upon balancing the spectacle with a focused conceptual agenda, then Making art public demonstrates neither. Instead, Landy’s archive is but a survey of things that have come before – one that snuffs the original aura of the works it sets out to distil.

In the end, Making art public teases us by showing how the balance can be struck to deliver good public art in works such as barrangal dyara, but the exhibition itself falls short in this execution. Beyond Landy’s archival efforts, the gallery has commissioned new performance artworks by Alicia Frankovich and Agatha Gothe-Snape, an installation by Ian Milliss and a painting by Imants Tillers. While these works are new, all but Gothe-Snape’s work seem to recapitulate the superficiality that Making art public and the history of Kaldor Public Art Projects have offered us.

Gothe-Snape’s work Lion’s Honey (2019) consists of a different performer reading to themselves for the duration of Making art public. Aged 19 to 80, the performers of the work change periodically. It’s a noted tonal shift to the exhibition as the work draws its power from quietness and meditation – less about a flashy spectacle than about the restorative act of reading. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if Kaldor’s future public art projects will depart from what has come before. It remains to be seen, more importantly, whether the project will continue to champion artists such as Jonathan Jones who skilfully navigate the tension between producing spectacle and conceptual resolution, or whether one will be sacrificed for the other.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Shadow boxes". Subscribe here.

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung
is an art critic based in Sydney.