It would be fair to say that, in 1969, Sydney’s Little Bay had an international profile befitting its name.
A picturesque coastal indentation north of Botany Bay, Little Bay offered sheltered waters for bathers (it was popular with the nurses of the nearby Prince Henry Hospital) and had been briefly significant as a quarantine station during the smallpox, bubonic plague and Spanish flu epidemics. In real estate parlance, it was – and to a large extent remains – the proverbial “hidden gem”.
But all that changed with the arrival of the Bulgarian-born, New York-based artist Christo and his French partner and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude.
Equipped with over 90,000 square metres of plastic fabric, 56 kilometres of polypropylene rope and more than 100 workers and volunteers armed with bolt guns, Christo and Jeanne-Claude transformed Little Bay into a colossal work of art – which was then the largest single artwork that had ever been made.
Titled ‘Wrapped Coast – one million square feet’, the project captured the attention of the world’s media and profoundly influenced the course of contemporary art in Australia, inspiring a small but influential movement of conceptual and avant-garde artists making post-object, ephemeral works.
Christo – who died on 1 June aged 84, a decade after Jeanne-Claude – never offered explanations for his work. Instead, he showed us monumental sculptural forms in spaces that were not usually used for art – bridges, buildings, an island – and helped us see in new ways. “We create a gentle disturbance for a few days,” Christo said in an interview in 2011. A few years later, he told The Sunday Times, simply: “We make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary.”
The genesis of Wrapped Coast lay in plans Christo developed for a section of Californian coastline in 1967. But in 1968, Christo and Jeanne-Claude met Australian collector John Kaldor in New York.
“That meeting changed my life,” said Kaldor in a statement released in the wake of Christo’s death. “The scheduled short meeting turned into an afternoon during which they asked me to find them a coastline to wrap. Their enthusiasm and charisma convinced me that that was the most important thing I could do on my return to Sydney.”
Back in Sydney, the plan was met by a perplexed and skeptical officialdom. “It wasn’t an easy task to find a coastline close to Sydney and get permission to wrap it,” Kaldor recalled. “The reaction was mostly disbelief and ridicule.”
But with the influential support of director of the Prince Henry Hospital, Dr J.R. Clancy, Wrapped Coast got the green light.
“At that time, I just wanted the project to succeed,” Kaldor said. “But the success of Wrapped Coast made me realise the importance of opening the eyes of the Australian public to the latest developments in contemporary art.” It was Kaldor Public Art Project’s foundational piece, described by the organisation as “the first large-scale public art project presented anywhere in the world and the first time an international contemporary artist had created a major new work in Australia”.
It also made $2,000 for the Prince Henry Hospital, the beneficiary of the 20c admission fee to the site.
Among the volunteers working on the three-week project was 19-year-old architecture student Imants Tillers, now one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists. It was not, he recalls, the easiest job – or the safest.
“I was using a Ramset gun to secure clips into the rock for the fabric and I was injured when a nail deflected off the rock and went straight into my foot.”
Tillers didn’t get to know Christo during the creation of Wrapped Coast but they became friends later, when Christo returned to Australia in 1978 to give a lecture.
“He was quite proud that one of his workers had become inspired to be an artist,” Tillers says. “I went to New York the following year and he invited me to stay in his guest apartment. He was so busy you had to make an appointment to see him, but he was always friendly and it was a fantastic introduction to the city and the art world.
“I feel like they mentored me from a distance, which was remarkable, really. They always maintained an interest in my own little trajectory.”
Tillers went to see Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin in 1995. “It was one of the great works of the twentieth century,” Tillers believes. “Christo always said that his work was to entertain people but it was incredibly political, too.”
Their most recent meeting was in New York in December 2019. “He didn’t seem frail at all, just incredibly passionate and keen to get on with his next drawing,” says Tillers. “So it’s been a shock to hear of his death so soon after that.”
Ian Milliss worked alongside Tillers on Wrapped Coast in 1969. Already a practising artist, Milliss was exhibiting at the same gallery as Christo and worked with him curating an exhibition of Harry Shunk’s photographic document of the making of Wrapped Coast at the Central Street Gallery.
“He and Jeanne-Claude were very glamorous,” Milliss says. “And really, she was as much a part of the project as Christo. She was a very forceful personality. They would fight all the time but she was the organiser. There was a very clear division of labour: he was up in the studio putting it all together in his mind, but she made sure everything happened on the ground.”
Watching them work together on Wrapped Coast opened Milliss’s eyes to the complete picture. “I got to understand the whole process of making an artwork,” he says.
“Little Bay wasn’t just a beautiful object in the landscape. It was a total work. You looked at it like you look at the Pyramids, as a huge piece of embodied labour and organisation. To me that was the thing that was most impressive about it – more than the scale of it, more than the beauty.”