By Terry Ingram, on 22-Sep-2016

The decision by Kaldor Public Art Projects (KPAP) to commission a (temporary) installation/ conceptual work by Wiradjur/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones for the creation of its signature Biennial Project of 2016 in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney shows a new dynamic at work in the market in Indigenous Australian art.

The auction market in Aboriginal paintings may be challenging – except for the occasional trophy work of course- but spending on the installation and conceptional art is being well sustained.

The decision by Kaldor Public Art Projects (KPAP) to commission a (temporary) installation/ conceptual work by Wiradjur/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones for the creation of its signature Biennial Project of 2016 in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney shows a new dynamic at work in the market in Indigenous Australian art. (Photo: Peter Grieg)

Recent commissions, especially overseas, have added millions of dollars to the estimated totals on this particular genre this year.

The patron of KPAP, Mr John Kaldor, said at the launch of barrangal dyara (skin and bones) which is the title of the project, was the most costly of any of the exhibitions mounted since the Biennial projects began in 1969.

The project involved the involves the laying down of 1500 shields within an outline of the Garden Palace, an exhibition building that was built for the 1879-89 Sydney International Exhibition and burnt down in 1892 *.

Mr Kaldor declined to give any approximation of the cost but the support of over 50 sponsors was obtained, blowing it out substantially.

Explaining the unusual material for a Kaldor Art Project, Mr Kaldor said it retold the local history from an Aboriginal perspective “giving new light to the Garden Palace’s history while also speaking to cultural tensions still present in contemporary Australia.”

The concept submitted by Jones was “the most exciting of many submitted by Australian artists this year invited for the first time to vie for the commission. Part of its strength was its very simplicity and the importance of that of its message.”

It is the first commission to an indigenous artist and represents a new equilibrium in local and international art.

The commission was a surprise given Kaldor Projects commitment to ground-breaking overseas contemporary art. Mr Kaldor made no apologies – if any were needed – for the organisation’s “belated” adoption of an indigenous themed project.

Mr Kaldor said that when the projects began there was considerable lack of familiarity in Australia with the overseas contemporary art developments. He might have added that at that time Aboriginal art had not ascended to the great triumphs of the Central Desert dot paintings one of which made £461,000 this week.**

In the 1970s, works by artists such as Gilbert & George, Charlotte Moorman & NaJune Paik, Sol LeWitt and Richard Long, which came or were executed in Australia with the support of KPAP helped establish new audiences for contemporary art.

Ugo Rondinone, Gregor Schneider, Bill Viola, Urs Fisher, Michael Landy, Thomas Demand, Roman Ondák, Tino Sehgal and Marina Abramovi?, followed and projects such as Jeff Koons’s 'Puppy', John Baldessari’s 'Your Name in Lights' and the 13 Rooms exhibition - continued the emphasis on overseas art to the delight of the public.

The commission has helped bring Aboriginal art into the mainstream of contemporary world art.

The latest, 32nd project has been prefaced by several overseas commissions which suggest that it is to some degree in line with KPAP’s past almost exclusively international emphasis as much is happening overseas, from Sotheby’s establishment of an auction centre base in London to the proliferation of projects in France in particular.

The project follows hard on the heels of activity in the museums of Monaco and the Rhone Valley in France. It also takes up a big slice of Sydney parkland, which has also given up space to a monumental endeavour adjacent to the War Memorial.

The funding helps offset the decline in production of moveable culture which had found followings in superannuation funds or among punters planning to donate collections for profit or personal glory down the track.

The number of local auctions has been sharply reduced with slow moving and adverse processing of export permits for protected items also casting a shadow on the market.

The activity may have a useful conditioning impact as well as alerting to our rich vein of indigenous culture that goes back thousands of years before European settlement.

Most of the work produced is not going to come back onto the market. Lorries and cranes would be required to move it – and the shields are unlikely to tempt the souvenir hunters.

The aesthetics of the current KPAP which closes on October 3 also makes one field distinctly uncomfortable.

It is not a pretty sight. The shields strewn around the gardens are ashen bone in colour compared to the originals which were burned and would have been in the warm and friendly of traditional colours of Aboriginal Australia.

They reflect the grief felt by their culture at the loss of a sizable part of the heritage of the Aboriginal Australia in the fire which it has been conjectured was an act of arson, possibly by someone who objected to having the Garden Palace in their line of sight.

Unlike Melbourne’s solidly built Royal Exhibition Building erected for a similar exhibition eight years later, the Garden Palace it was made of wood and glass, and by all reports beginning to look decrepit. The accidental loss attracted little published distress at the time whereas it could be compared with some of the deliberate destruction of sacred monuments in the Middle of Far East in recent times.

That 50 to 58 project sponsors were involved this marks a very substantial budget depending on how you define the various entities backing the event. This could certainly make it the most costly Kaldor project yet. Many of the overseas artists who were selected to create works for the previous Biennials had global star status. Meanwhile, another non-Kaldor project, a dramatic new sculpture, opposite the Anzac Memorial, is a tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.

The monumental multi shell shaped Yininmadyemi thou didst let fall is the personally heart felt work of Tony Albert.

The Australian: Defending the Oceans, At The Heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art display is part of the larger Taba Naba — Australia, Oceania, Arts of the Sea People exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

The display includes a  rooftop stencil, called Turtle Mating and Nesting Season by Alick Tipoti, a Badu Island-based contemporary printmaker and performance artist, is responsible for the rooftop installation. It covers 670 square metres of the roof of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and is one of the largest works ever made by a Torres Strait Islander artist.

With directional imput from Paris gallerist Stefane Jacob and Brisbane gallerist Suzanne O’Connell, the project received the largest grant in the first round of the Federal Government's new Catalyst program, with the project's $485,000 grant (out of a $540,000 total) of the 'Defending the Oceans' $1.24m budget.

Jacob, project manager of the exhibition, expects around 600,000 visitors to the exhibit, which will run until the end of September.

Skin and Bones expects only 500,000. The figures are ambital, of course.

*The 560 lot auction of the John Lancaster collection by Mossgreen in Melbourne on October 18 must be the most extensive accumulation of ephemera relating to such exhibitions ever put together. It highlights the great importance for such exhibitions to Australia.

**Michael Nelson Jagamara’s Five Stories, 1984, sold for £401,000 (AU$ 687,877), more than doubling the pre-sale high estimate of £150,000-200,000 at Sotheby’s sale of Aboriginal art in London on September 21. From the collection of the late Melbourne dealer Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Five Stories had an extraordinary rich exhibition and publication history making it one of the greatest trophy paintings in Aboriginal art still in private hands.

About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this days. Terry has also written two books on the subjects