Thinking about the term ‘public art’, the immediate connotations that spring to my mind are: (i) big things (ii) outdoors and (iii) as I’m a Brit, The Angel of the North by Antony Gormley. Thinking a bit further, I wonder about all the statues commemorating various men (mainly) and women (occasionally) standing in our towns and cities. Pondering a bit more, I recall some wonderful works I’ve seen dotted around Folkestone, Kent, the lasting legacy of their inspiring triennials.
But beyond that my references are a bit limited and I’d argue ‘public art’ is a particularly hard genre to reflect upon, by its very nature. You can hardly put a selection of works together in a gallery, and wander past them, musing about the connections between them. Firstly, it’s not physically possible and secondly, it would be totally pointless – divorcing them from the very contexts that make the work work. So the standard curator’s petri dish approach, of gathering some art specimens in a scientific white-walled gallery and learning something from the ensemble, isn’t a thing. As a result, outside of dedicated festivals like the Folkestone Triennial, we generally encounter public art in ‘ones’, as a single item. Quite unlike most forms of visual art. And even those festivals are a specific point in time, how difficult then, to gain some long-range perspective of the evolution of public art.
But this exhibition changes all of that. ‘Making Art Public’ looks back across the 34 diverse and groundbreaking projects, created by Kaldor Public Art Projects in their 50 year history. Cleverly put together by British artist Michael Landy, this exhibition digs back through the Kaldor archives and brings to life a half-century of public art. Not only do we get to consider (i) the canon of public art – what’s in it, how has it changed, etc. but we also get to learn LOTS about (ii) the ‘how’ of public art – the process, planning and making. Landy shares wonderful plans, diagrams and even letters about financial arrangements, all of which are utterly illuminating about what goes into making the public art sausage. It puts the whole emphasis of the exhibition on the verb, on the very action of Making Art Public. And this exhibition does a wonderful job of charting reactions to the works – newspaper clippings, video vox pops and TV coverage. It really is a retrospective of Public Art in the fullest possible sense.
From the start, Kaldor Public Art Projects have always been free to the public. An admirable stance, creating an audience with no vested interest, not self-selecting or specially educated. Perhaps the toughest type of audience. As per the title of the wonderful drawings by Michael Landy at the entrance to the exhibition, ‘Mate, what’s this shit?’. Gliding down the escalator, under these drawings, I was greeted by a kind of art treasure hunt. Scattered throughout the gallery were an array of 34 large scale archive boxes in which Landy had resurrected the spirit of the 34 Kaldor Public Art projects.
You can explore the full exhibition over on the Kaldor Public Art Project’s dedicated page. It’s an amazing resource, with lots of detail on each artist and far better photography than mine! I’ve also written about my favourites below and captured something of how Landy brought the ‘making’ to life. Seeing such a breadth of Public Art at once, really got me thinking about the sub-categories of Public Art. Trying to categorise art, on one hand feels like a fool’s errand, and totally pointless, but my breakdown also gives me a way to navigate this varied genre.
My breakdown comprises of:
(i) INSTALLATION – an alteration to a setting, something to be observed
(ii) PERFORMANCE – there is a performer(s), something happens
(iii) PARTICIPATION – the audience has some agency in making it/experiencing it, actions beyond the artist’s matter
Some works have more than one of these modes, and are captured in the overlapping areas
Looking across this diagram, it is fascinating to see how Installation is by far the dominant mode of Public Art. Performance Art, lags a long way behind this, and Public Art with participation, further behind still. In a way that doesn’t surprise me – as the co-creator of The Body Room – a public art project rooted in participation, I am well aware that designing a project around meaningful interaction is tough (and funding scarce! 😢 )
I was also curious how these modes of Public Art had varied over time. I got geeky and drew out a graph. It was fascinating to see that both the 1970s and the early 2010’s had the most variation in Public Art, while the 1980s through to 2010 are a near monolithic slab of Installation works, punctuated by Vanessa Beecroft’s 1999 Performance VB40. (Note the 1984 project, marked ‘performance’ is probably more conventionally understood as an Installation. I explain my labelling of it as a performance later in this post!
Without further ado – on to my highlights. The numbers given are the project numbers from the exhibition.
001 Christo & Jeanne-Claude – Wrapped Coast, 1969
The project that started it all! John Kaldor was on a mission to bring two artists who were making waves in the US and Europe to Australia. They had an ambitious project, to wrap 2.5km of Australian coastline, in the style of their previous works. During the 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had been wrapping-up objects on an ever increasing scale. Starting with a few paint pots in Christo’s Paris studio, and growing to wrap statues, motorbikes, trees and disturbingly women.
It took them 4 weeks and the help of over 100 assistants and volunteers, to wrap a stretch of coastline just outside of Sydney.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude produce detailed drawings and plans for their projects. The patrons and galleries who fund their projects receive these after the project is completed. The letter below discusses some of this, as well as problems caused by the wind and the challenge of the clean-up operation.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have continued their artist practice of ‘wrapping’ and have a forthcoming project to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2020/21. In idea they have harboured since the 1960’s. They have often been criticised by environmentalists, but rebuff this strongly in a fascinating ‘common errors’ text on their website. It varies from mis-spelling of their names, to environmental impact, to other misunderstandings of their work. In fact their website has a brilliant timeline of their projects to explore
I think my favourite bit of the archives was interviews with volunteers and visitors describing how it made them encounter the environment in a totally different way. The element of risk and trepidation walking on an unknown surface, in a landscape transformed.
British artists Gilbert & George sang the 1930’s depression era tune, ‘Underneath the Arches’, with their faces painted metallic bronze, moving as if they were mechanical pieces in a musical box and swirling a cane.
It’s probably best conveyed in video ….
They performed the song 112 times per day, for 5 hours uninterrupted, for 6 days in a row in Sydney and 5 days in a row in Melbourne in 1973. Their description of themselves as human sculptors is fascinating.
Spanish artist Antoní Miralda had been making various coloured and edible feasts with his then wife Dorothée Selz in Paris and New York. He met John Kaldor through his friends, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Kaldor invited him to make a coloured feast in Australia.
Antoní Miralda’s career has continued to be shaped by a fascination with food and rituals. His digital archive is appropriately called Stomak Digital and is engrossing.
Charlotte Moorman’s and Nam June Paik’s dramatic performances take on the mode of both performance and installation. Particularly the performance which involved Charlotte playing cello suspended from balloons outside Sydney Opera House – a setting altering performance! Their performances continued with her playing a cello made of ice, on a bed of televisions, smothered chocolate fudge ..
For each of these the artists provided elaborate drawings and specific instructions in preparation for the performances.
British artist Richard Long, undertook ‘A straight hundred mile walk in Australia’ in 1977. He documented the walk and shared collected stones and photography in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. Instinctively a performance feels like the right description of this work – something clearly happens and it has a performer. Yet this is also a work which dispella the notion that a performance requires an audience.
The correspondence between Richard Long and John Kaldor is fascinating – discussing where and how the resulting exhibition should happen and the role of gallery trustees
In 1984 John Kaldor curated a show of 3 contemporary Australian artists’ work in New York’s PS1 Gallery. The works on show were paintings and drawings by Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth. Something about the nature of transporting these artists work to the other side of the world, hosting dinners and talks and making a show of them, leads me to think of this project as a performance. It’s striking to think of this as the first major show of any contemporary Australian work in New York.
A 12.4 metre high puppy, covered in flowers and growing plants – colourful, uplifting and slightly surreal. Seen by 1.8m people during its installation in Sydney, and millions more at its later permanent home outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Making Public Art exhibition could rely on this subtle indoor evocation, to remind visitors of this towering work.
Italian-American artist Vanessa Beecroft filled the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with living, breathing nude and semi-nude female models. Drawing on representations of the nude from art history and fashion, she gave the models ‘freedom to move’ within a set of specific and instructions. The somewhat contradictory instructions resonate with ideas about how women are expected to behave and perform in many settings.
Beecroft arranged the models in a standing composition and they mostly just stood there for the 2.5 hour long performance. Occasionally they moved slightly, crouched down, sat, or moved within the group. Their fleshy, living bodies in stark contrast to the stone floors and static pillars. Their gaze impassive and detached as the audience looked on. Both installation and performance in one – a public setting altered with boundary of women as a model, object and performer explored.
A giant rainbow-coloured sign announcing ‘Our Magic Hour’ above the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and an exhibition that included some terrifyingly lifelike clowns with enigmatic titles.
Beyond this, I’m not sure exactly what this exhibition / project was all about, but it gets a mention for the sheer shocking realism of this clown. It really felt like he was quietly slumbering there, as if I could almost see his chest rising and falling with his breath.
016 – Gregor Schneider – 21 Beach Cells
German artist Gregor Schneider transformed a section of Bondi Beach into a caged labyrinth reminiscent of security facilities in Guantanmo or those of Australian detention centres. A bold provocative work, reflecting a climate of security tension and fears of terrorism. Yet the public could also have a day at Bondi Beach in their own beach cell – sunbathing, relaxing, enjoying the shade of a parasol.
Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi created a masterful installation surrounding the two monumental equestrian statues outside the Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney with a domestic scene.
Some video vox-pops recorded at the time heard various visitors saying that they’d barely noticed these huge statues previously. A totally believable scenario which plays into the element of surprise and the feeling of the audience encountering something entirely new. Their eyes opened by the way Nishi plays with scale and context to devastating effect.
The two statues by Gilbert Bayes are called Offerings of Peace and Offerings of War.
022 Santiago Sierra – 2010
The title of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s project almost explains the whole work – ‘7 forms measuring 600 x 60 x 60 cm constructed to be held horizontal to a wall’ . The exhibition, and I would argue performance took place at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane for 1 week.
The seven blocks in question were supported by 14 workers who were paid the minimum wage and rested the blocks upon their shoulders.
American artist John Baldessari offered participants if not their 15 minutes of fame, at least their 15 seconds of fame, illuminating their names above the Australian Musuem in Sydney. 100,000 participants took part!
024 Michael Landy – Acts of Kindness, 2011
As well as being the curator of the Making Public Art exhibition, British artist Michael Landy also created his own project for Kaldor Public Art Projects back in 2011. He collected stories from the public about acts of kindness they had witnessed or been party to in Sydney and then used these to reimagine a map of Sydney oriented around these human stories.
027 13 Rooms – Curated By Klaus Biesenbach and Hans ULRICH Obrist
In 2013 Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist curated a show incorporating the installation of 13 self-contained rooms within a huge warehouse space, which they gave over to 13 artists to create a performance within. A who’s who of big-hitting contemporary artists and some newer names. The audience moved from room-to-room encountering a very different artistic response in each space. Almost a platform or host for installation, performance and participation public art.
At the Making Public Art exhibition, I was utterly underwhelmed to the representation of Tino Sehgal’s project – in place of an archive box, populated with documentation there was just a square marked on the floor.
Reading up about his artistic practice later, I have discovered that he forbids all documentation of his work – hence the square! In an age where it can feel like everything is relentlessly documented, I can understand the appeal of this, for both artist and audience.B He describes his work as ‘constructing situations’ it sounds fascinating and highly participative.
Members of the public were initiated through a series of exercises and experiences, artists participated in a residency programme with Abramović makking new performance work in and around the city of Sydney.
031 Xavier Le Roy – Temporary Title, 2015
A new performance made by Xavier Le Roy in Australia working with local artists, performed entirely naked. A series of open rehearsals was held, which were open to the public.