Feature

In 2019 Kaldor Public Art Projects celebrates 50 years of creating art projects working with significant international artists in public spaces. To commemorate this milestone, Art Guide Australia is launching a series of articles talking to the people behind the projects, exhibitions and events.

Writer Jane O’Sullivan sat down with Penelope Seidler to chat about the first ever Kaldor Public Art Project, Christo and Jeane-Claude’s Wrapped Coast.

It was 50 years ago, but Penelope Seidler still recalls how she got involved in Wrapped Coast, the first Kaldor Public Art Project.  “I can remember John coming back from a trip and he said ‘Christo wants to wrap up a coast, that’s what he wants to do. Do you know anywhere where he could do it?'” Seidler pauses, “I was sort of bemused. I thought ‘That sounds pretty good’.”

A few months later, the architect found herself stepping in as project manager on one of the most ambitious art projects seen in Australia. She and her husband Harry were good friends with John Kaldor, then a young man making his way in the textile business, and art was just one of many interests they shared. When Kaldor left to take a business course in the United States, it was Penelope Seidler he trusted to keep things moving.

“You know, communications were very difficult then. Letters. Well, letters took a week. And the idea of a phone call wasn’t even considered,” she says.

Some of these letters are now held in the Kaldor Public Art Projects archive and are available to researchers by appointment. They document early worries, from decisions about the fabric and rope, to how to anchor it, and logistical issues like security guards and floodlights. None of it had been done before.

It was 1969. Robert Smithson’s major land art intervention Spiral Jetty was a year away. The Sydney Opera House was a construction site. Christo was known (Jeanne-Claude was not at this point) but had never done anything as large as Wrapped Coast. It took 92,900 square metres, or 1 million square feet, of white polypropylene to wrap 2.4 km of Little Bay.

These days, Little Bay is all golf courses and apartments. Back then, it was an unassuming stretch of coast just past Long Bay prison, near to a hospital, a few houses and a garbage dump—although the photos don’t show that. The documentation of the seven-week project is starkly beautiful, focusing on the drama of the draped cliffs. But the experience was something different.

In the book Christo, the Art Gallery of New South Wales curator Daniel Thomas, also a friend of both Kaldor and the Seidlers, wrote about how it felt. “Wrapped Coast was warm and colourful, not cold and grey,” he recalled. “It was a work which made the land resemble the sea, earth resemble water.”

Seidler will never forget it. “It was amazingly beautiful,” she says. “It was something obviously different to anything before. The shape of the coast, it took on a whole new meaning.”

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

For a project that now feels so monumental, Wrapped Coast had an unlikely beginning. Kaldor had seen Christo’s work in a magazine and the next time he was in New York, in late 1968, he walked into Leo Castelli Gallery and asked if they represented Christo or knew who did. Remarkably, he was given a direct number. He walked to the nearest phone box, spoke to Jeanne-Claude, and lined up a visit the next day.

A few months after that visit, in early 1969, he followed up with a letter. Kaldor had worked with artists before, commissioning Clement Meadmore, John Olsen and others to produce designs for textiles, and also founding the Alcorso Sekers Scholarship for sculptors. But he was itching to try something new.

In that first letter, which can be seen in the anniversary publication 40 Years: Kaldor Public Art Projects, Kaldor made a suggestion. “It would be much more interesting for the development of art appreciation in Australia if, instead of sending a promising local artist overseas, we would invite an outstanding young person to Australia,” he wrote.

But Christo didn’t want to give lectures. He’d been making drawings of a packed Californian coast, and told Kaldor that what he was most interested in was the realisation of these plans.  (The shift from the term packing to wrapping happened later, during the Wrapped Coast project.)

Seidler says Kaldor was indefatigable after that. “John wanted to do it and we wanted him to. We were very supportive. The art community was generally onside,” she says. But not entirely.

“The idea of doing a project that would only last a few weeks—that you would only have a photographic record of—was somehow alien to most people.”

Kaldor struggled to find a site. Christo made drawings of a packed Manly Beach before Kaldor finally secured permission to use Little Bay from John Clancy at Prince Henry Hospital. (Indigenous input was not sought. The La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, representing traditional owners in the area, was not formed until 1984.)

Christo was reassuring. In one letter, reprinted in From Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Jeff Koons: John Kaldor Art Projects, he wrote: “Do not fear—dear John—it is such a relief to know that the only real problem is money.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude had funded past projects through the sale of drawings and collages, and planned to do so again. The project was estimated at around $120,000 but is reported to have cost less.

Fifty years on, Seidler downplays her role. “I don’t know that I did all that much because I was a bit concerned that I might do the wrong thing,” she says. “At that stage I had a little baby at home. I was a little overawed by the project but I wanted to help. I loved the idea of being involved.”

She was reticent to place the orders (or receive the bills) for the industrial quantities of rope and fabric. “But I did the groundwork. I was waiting for John to come back and OK all of that,” she says. Kaldor, immersed in his study on the other side of the world, was attentive but calm. “Once you are together with a lot of academics you are starting to take a very philosophical attitude to things!” he wrote to Seidler, just weeks before installation was due to begin.

Despite their confidence in the project, their letters show a recurring concern with labour. At different times, Kaldor and Seidler discuss the training required for the Ramset guns to secure the rope and fabric to the rock, and the progress of the search for volunteers. Seidler had been reaching out to her networks in the Sydney art and architecture worlds, but was uneasy about the slow responses to her letters and phone calls.

They had little to fear. In the end, a team of 110 workers came together for the four-week installation, including mountain climbers, teachers, students and, famously, an 18-year-old Imants Tillers. “Pretty much everyone who was in the art world was out there at Little Bay at the time. It was fabulous,” says Seidler.

“Everyone who worked on it had to wear the Christo badge,” she says. They were Seidler’s job. “I did get them done,” she laughs. The badges had a black-and-white picture of a wrapped button, overlaid with Christo’s name.

But the challenges weren’t over. It was Sydney in September and winter wasn’t quite done. “It was pretty cold when they started work. The winds had come up. And then of course there was a storm and some of it got blown away,” recalls Seidler.

Daniel Thomas, writing in Christo, described how the fabric that hadn’t been secured was torn by the wind, making “vast, terrible, upward-streaming, flame-like banners in the dark rainstorm.”.

Kaldor was heartbroken. “We were broke and had wasted all that time and material,” he said in an interview for the 40 Years publication. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude were absolutely incredible. They got everybody together the next morning onsite to see all that torn fabric, dirt and chaos. They said, ‘Look, we are working with nature, this is what can happen. We just have to repair it, start afresh.’ They showed so much courage and enthusiasm.”

Once again, the project’s survival came down to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s blend of artistic single-mindedness and collegiate way of working. Glimpses of this have been caught on film. In the documentary by Blackwood Productions, Christo is shown being lectured about freak waves. “Yeah, very fast,” he acknowledges, politely, before rapidly steering the conversation back to the installation.

“Christo, you only have to talk to him and you know he’s an artist. The way he moves, the way he talks. He’s a very sincere artist,” says Seidler. Jeanne-Claude she describes as commanding. “She was very influential too. She made things happen. He was much quieter, softer, but very determined.”

Seidler has followed their practice over the years and remains friends with Kaldor. “I see him quite often. We often have dinners together. He’s one of my best friends. I think he’d say the same too,” she says.

She still has a piece of the fabric and rope from Wrapped Coast. “I’ve got a little box at home. I’ve got little souvenirs of a lot of John’s projects,” she says.

For Kaldor, of course, Wrapped Coast was only the beginning. The success not only gave him the confidence to start his own business, John Kaldor Fabricmaker, but also the vision for Kaldor Public Art Projects. And 50 years and 34 projects later, it’s still going strong.

​The Living Archives project is aiming to bring together memories and firsthand experiences of the 34 Kaldor Public Art Projects presented over the past five decades.

To share your story and personal memories visit the Living Archives online. 

​Art Guide Australia is a proud media partner of 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Jane O'Sullivan