A massive groundbreaking work that engaged huge audiences both in Sydney and internationally. An art process that took effect not in a studio or gallery but outside on the land, and then disappeared. Decades later, this is how art historians and critics have described Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast.

Rebecca Coates, Director of the Shepparton Art Museum, argues in The rise of the private art foundation: John Kaldor Art Projects 1969-2012 that Wrapped Coast was a key cultural moment. The significance of the awe-inspiring work that briefly covered the Little Bay coastline lies partly in its relationship to the public. In this sense, the realisation and aftermath of the project can be seen as part of the work itself.

The journalism around Wrapped Coast is evidence of some of the public response to the work. It’s also a glimpse into the specific time and place in which it was produced.

As John Kaldor himself recalled in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) in 1990, it took months to secure the site, after the Liberal government refused access to government land. Prince Henry hospital agreed to provide access to several kilometres of coastline.

Kaldor issued a press statement in June 1969. In a letter to Christo, Kaldor explained that a lot of the early coverage had ridiculed the project. It’s a “wonderful opportunity for stupid uninformed columnists and commentators to make stupid comments” but the serious critics “have been very strongly in your favour,” he wrote. (This letter can be viewed on the wall of the Wrapped Coast room in the current ‘Making Art Public’ 50 years of John Kaldor Public Art Projects’ – John Kaldor to Christo 30/1/69)

After Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived in Sydney, there was almost daily media coverage. The Australian Women’s Weekly did a double-page spread and even Life magazine sent an international critic to cover the project. There were also cartoons.

The sexist and conservative journalist Ron Saw, who wrote a regular column in Murdoch’s Daily Mirror, admitted knowing “absolutely nothing about art”. He not only ridiculed the project but also the Little Bay community which he suggested “could do with a bit of packaging”. “Stray fisherman, lazing nurses and an occasional sad leper – wrap them all in string”. This is highly offensive to the whole community, including the Aboriginal community who have occupied the area for many thousands of years. (There was a “male lazaret” at Little Bay that is now regarded as a significant site of oppression of the Aboriginal community.)

The Reverend Roger Bush railed against the project on radio and is reported to have suggested those sponsoring Wrapped Coast should be boycotted. Reflecting deeper social rifts, these hostile attitudes probably helped make the project even more exciting to young people.

The Sydney Morning Herald took the project most seriously by assigning reporter J.A.C. Dunn to produce “The Christo Chronicle.” Dunn was not an art reporter, and although initially sceptical was eventually captivated by the sheer physical scale, the level of cooperation from hundreds of students and workers. He was later described by an American colleague as never taking notes and having perfect recall, which probably means his accounts should be treated with some caution.

SMH, October 8, 1969

Together his stories provided an account of the obstacles and risks faced by Christo and his hundreds of paid and unpaid helpers, as well as the mounting excitement at the site. One volunteer fell down a rock face. Christo dislocated his shoulder. A “southerly buster” blew the fabric off the cliff leaving the fate of the project briefly in doubt. Slivers of rock flew off the rock face while the fabric was being hammered on. One is left wondering whether the whole project would have even been allowed to happen in today’s much more safety conscious society.

There is one story that reveals Dunn’s more arrogant side. Not long after Christo and Jeanne Claude arrived, he visited their apartment. Describing Jeanne-Claude as a “pretty wife” and Christo as having a body “built like a fence rail” and hair like a “mop in the throes of electrocution”, Dunn peppered them with questions about the purpose of their art. In response, Christo is “inarticulate, gazing into the distance” and “shrugging an eloquently uninformative shrug”. Displaying breathtaking insensitivity, Dunn is frustrated by Bulgarian born Christo’s “embarrassingly mangled words,” communication “made more difficult because he held his hand over his mouth.” He dismisses Christo’s explanations as “intellectually barren bones” and suggests that he is making “handsome” money out of the project, which appears on the evidence to have been unfair.

Showing more insight, Dunn ends by conceding that “wrapping attracts interest in what is concealed” and that the energy scoffers and sceptics expend “betrays their preoccupation with their target”. This he sees as an “invisible arrow” in Christo’s quiver and accepts that Christo believes that what he does is just as validly art as painting. In another story, he went up in a helicopter to capture the enormity of the wrapped coast with tiny figures scurrying across the massive billowing fabric, headlining it, “The Alps on a surf-washed Australian Pacific Shore”.

SMH, October 25, 1969

The ABC’s Brian Adams made a video which is available for watching in the Kaldor exhibition. This video and the photojournalism of the Australian press photographers and German photographer Harry Shunk documented the ephemeral work and deserve a whole story of their own. These visual records live on as works in their own right and convey more information about experience at the site at the time than 50 year old print records can ever do.

Back then even the tabloid press treated art criticism more seriously. The critics also wrote for art magazines and were often art practitioners or curators themselves.

Art curator, historian and Sunday Telegraph critic Daniel Thomas was very supportive of Wrapped Coast. The Melbourne Herald sent its art critic Alan McCulloch to Sydney. McCulloch reported that “every taxi-driver knows the way to Little Bay and the roads from the city are packed with tourists”. 250,000 people visited Wrapped Coast.

However, not everyone in the art world embraced the project. McCulloch also later reported in Art International that painter Albert Tucker “accepted the role as defender of the national innocence from attacks by ‘the paranoiac out-riders of the extremist international fashions’”.

But of all the critics, it was the SMH critic Donald Brook who embraced the concept of the work. He began: “A tempting way of taking Christo’s work is to think of it not as an object but as the incidental product of action; to think of it as a gigantic ephemeral happening, with public participation on a scale that outstrips even the theatrical.” Brook, who died last year at age 91, was an educator, critic, philosopher and sculptor who saw it as his duty to reform “contemporary attitudes and practices in the visual arts that seemed abominable.” He wanted to break the “nexus between [market] value and practice”. He despised the idea that the history of painting was the only intellectual discipline suitable for artists. Along with Marr Grounds, Brook founded the Tiny Sheds at the University or Sydney. His approach to art criticism put some establishment noses out of joint and in 1972, he was sacked by the SMH. Posters appeared calling for his reinstatement.

Poster protesting sacking of Donald Brook from his position of critic in 1972

Journalists look for angles and points of conflict. During the 1960s, support for nature conservation was growing rapidly in Sydney as remnants of bush were threatened by roads and housing estates. Some conservationists were worried that the massive fabric cover could damage plant and animal life, particularly fairy penguins. Eventually several “experts” examined the site and said they were satisfied that no wildlife would be damaged. I was therefore surprised to read in an article written by John Kaldor for the SMH in 1990 about “fairy penguins who stole bits of the fabric to line their nest. Instead of being endangered, as the environmentalists had feared, they were seen to thrive in their new, more comfortably sheltered surroundings.”

SMH, July 20 1969

As an older female journalist viewing the coverage of Wrapped Coast from the present, the representation of women and their absence from the art scene strikes me in a way it may not have done at the time. The feminist art movement was a strong part of Sydney’s second wave of feminism, and was only stirring in 1969. It would blossom in the next few years and was part of the experience of a whole generation of radical women. There had always been women artists but they struggled to get exhibition space and were mostly ignored by art historians. In the case of Wrapped Coast, the artist, the collector, the project manager, the critics, the filmmakers, the voice overs and most of the reporters were men. The gendered nature of the media representation and its project was typical of media at that time. but an awareness was growing. At the beginning of the project, Christo helper artist and co-editor of Exta Extra Ian Milliss remembers student volunteers – described by The Australian as “long hairs and hippies”- being divided into two groups. Women were given giant needles and the men ramjet guns to put the massive, specially manufactured pieces of fibre together and attach them to the rocks. But after looking at the video and photos today, I think the gender roles may have broken down during the process.

Sexist is the only word to describe the coverage of Jeanne-Claude. She was described as “cute and charming”. Her role was defined as supporting her husband. Later, in 1994, Christo recognised Jeanne-Claude as an equal author; it was well known that she organised the sales and financial aspects of the projects but he explained that her creative role in developing their concepts, which could take decades to realise, had not been recognised.

Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009 was well covered by the international press. Obituaries are a form of journalism that can bring the benefit of hindsight to narratives. It was only when reading the Wall Street Journal while researching this story that I learned that in 1968, the year before they came to Sydney, Jeanne Claude was wrapping a fountain and a medieval town in Italy at the same time Christo was wrapping an art museum in Switzerland. There was no mention of this in the SMH of 1969. But you can see glimpses of recognition of her important role in their mutual creative vision in the 1969 record, despite her positioning as a “pretty wife”. George Gurney, the Smithsonian’s deputy chief curator was quoted as saying, “She couldn’t draw, but she collaborated aesthetically on every other decision. It was always a joint endeavor.”

All of which goes to illustrate yet again that journalism’s “first draft of history” only tells a bit of the story which may be distorted or misleading. No journalists seems to have thought to ask the Aboriginal community at La Perouse what they thought about the covering of their land. Like history and art, journalism needs to be read in the context of its time. A future work of journalism can provide a more accurate and fuller record of events, which in turn leads to new understandings and stories.

Like art and history, the field of journalism is diverse and constantly contested and changing. In researching this story, I’ve only touched the surface of the available record, let alone interviewed those who were present. John Kaldor’s plan to bring two extraordinary outsiders into Sydney was successful in attracting huge media and public attention. The record shows that Kaldor, Christo, Jeanne-Claude and hundreds of helpers put huge effort in accomplishing their vision. But the project also needs to be seen in a broader international and local context in which artists, students and educators were actively striving to reshape an arts scene that was controlled by an establishment comfortable considering art as objects in galleries with a potential market value.

SMH, June 22 1969