The first Kaldor Public Art Project to involve an Australian artist creating art in Australia will also be John Kaldor’s first Indigenous project. Sydney-based Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi identifying artist, Jonathan Jones is going to re-imagine the Garden Palace that burnt down in 1872 after just three years of Imperial glory in Sydney’s Botanic Garden.
One hundred and sixty entries poured in for his plainly entitled ‘YOUR VERY GOOD IDEA’ project. Admittedly, Kaldor feared that just 20 artists had responded until five hours before the deadline “ when 120 other entries arrived. One “ was it the biggest? – was from Jonathan Jones, a man frequently capable of hitting the zeitgeist with his light-works referring to the patterning of scar-trees in his former tribal country. Both Westpac and AXA Insurance chose him for their office foyers, and he’d earlier taken out the first Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Artist Award in Brisbane for a dramatic work to grace the yawning walls of the new Gallery of Modern Art.
Early on in his career, Jones took me out on a balcony overlooking the Harbour and evocatively conjured a vision of the fires in Eora Nation fishing canoes dotting the deep dark of the Sydney night 250 years ago to explain his enthusiasm for light-works. As the Kaldor Projects press release puts it, Jonathon Jones has sought to represent both the traditional and contemporary by working with a particular site’s historical usage and current vision.
So, what will he do with the Garden Palace, which almost filled the city-side area of the Botanic Garden with its imperial bombast during its brief three years life? Maybe not actually rebuild the Palace to scale “ despite a munificent budget of $350,000 to achieve his dream. And that “ in a work provocatively entitled ‘barrangal dyara’ (skin & bones) presumably in the Gadigal language (?) – is to re-trace the building in sculptural representation animated by spoken word and performance, in order to contrast the proud displays of wool, wheat and gold which gave the Colony its status with the ethnographic collections of Indigenous object from NSW which were displayed and designed to promote the idea of ‘primitive’ man as commodity as well as promoting the superiority of the colonists and legitimising the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands.
All the Indigenous material was destroyed in the mysterious fire, creating an immense vacuum in the cultural landscape of the NSW Aboriginal communities, which is still felt today. But could that fire have been the Country rejecting this image of imperialism?, Jones speculated at today’s announcement of his commission.
Not a comfortable thought for the Botanic Garden Trust today, which has nevertheless welcomed the project with open arms as part of its own 200th anniversary celebrations next year. But Jones clearly spoke to the eminent international panel of judges who chose his work. They were: Nicholas Baume, Director the New York Public Art Fund, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Director of Sydney’s Artspace, James Lingwood of Artangel in London, Jessica Morgan, curator at the Tate Modern, Nick Mitzevich, Director of the SA Art Gallery and John Kaldor himself.
Kaldor is comparing his response to the project to the excitement that went with his first ever public artwork “ Christo’s ‘wrapping’ of Long Bay in 1969. Jones also joins a pantheon of international art stars that includes Gilbert & George, Charlotte Moorman + Nam Jun Paik, Sol le Witt, Jeff Koons, Bill Viola and Marina Abramovic.