A naked woman is pinned against a stark, white wall, her splayed legs recalling a crazed entomologist at work. Elsewhere, a group of dancers create constellations with a military precision that masquerades as grace, a deception that’s so seamless that it’s impossible to look away. But this sensation doesn’t translate to the man pleasuring himself beneath satin sheets. If you lock eyes with him, you become a recruit in a game of brutal intimacy, an intensely private moment that’s couched in deep unease.

‘Living sculpture’, a neat catchphrase widely assigned to Kaldor Public Art Projects’ new exhibition 13 Rooms, does nothing to address its curatorial audacity or its ability to turn the laws of spectatorship on its head. The show – which features work by art world luminaries such as Joan Jonas, Marina Abramovic and Damien Hirst and is curated by Han Ulrich Obrist (co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery) and Klaus Biesenbach (director of MoMA PS1) – signals a bold new chapter for Kaldor Projects and its knack for combining the immediacy of performance art with a legacy of galvanising emotion on a public scale. [fold]

When we visit Kaldor Projects’ headquarters in Rushcutters Bay, it’s clear that the space is a physical tribute to this legacy. The walls are adorned with images of British iconoclasts Gilbert & George and Puppy, the 1995 Jeff Koons installation that helped put the organisation (and director John Kaldor) on the international contemporary art map.

But Kaldor had been quietly spearheading Sydney’s cultural evolution long before Koons’ vast ode to happiness stood guard (at a whopping 12.4 metres tall) at Circular Quay. The former textile magnate and art collector established Kaldor Public Art Projects in 1968 and spent the next three decades inviting iconic artists to re-imagine public spaces across the country.

“When Kaldor Projects first started out, it was a very different landscape,” says program manager Sophie Forbat. “At that time, art was presented inside museums, mainly by local artists, and original works were never commissioned or created the way we were going about it. When you read the reviews from back then, it’s obvious that people’s responses to contemporary art has completely changed.”

It is safe to attribute some of this change to works such as Your Name in Lights. Commissioned by John Kaldor in 2011, the project saw Californian conceptual artist John Baldessari illuminate the names of 100,000 participants on a Vegas-style billboard – a playful takedown of the cult of celebrity that powerfully resonated with Sydney audiences.

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Forbat believes that 13 Rooms offers another striking example of Kaldor’s “extraordinary ability to seek out the new and different” and champion public art projects that are transformative, rather than ornamental.

“Internationally, this project is at the forefront of a whole new movement in contemporary visual art and performance art. Klaus Biseenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist first curated the exhibition in 2011 for the Manchester International Festival and then staged a newer incarnation, 12 Rooms, at the Ruhrtriennale in Essen, Germany in 2012 and then again for us in 2013,” she explains.

Unfolding over 11 days, the exhibition will see white rooms serve as canvases for performance pieces shaped by individual artists. The line-up includes a powerful meditation on war by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, Joan Jonas’ iconic Mirror Check (1970) – a piece credited with dismantling ideas of the body, object and self – and Marina Abramovic’s unsettling Luminosity (1997), alongside new work by Brisbane-based collaborative duo Clark Beaumont and the aforementioned John Baldessari.

“The idea is really about transforming the way we experience performance and contemporary visual art when you enter each room. When you open the door, you immediately become engaged,” says Forbat.

The transformation of Pier 2/3 in Sydney’s historic Walsh Bay into a gallery space is central to the exhibition’s success. Luckily, Kaldor Projects has this covered.

“We’re working with Harry Seidler architects to construct a museum environment around Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay. It’s a terrific contrast, given the pier’s historical background and the small, white cube spaces,” Forbat says with a smile.

Of course, Kaldor is no stranger to using Sydney’s history – and geography – as a vehicle for curatorial ambition. In 1969, he invited environmental artists Christo and Jean-Claude to shroud two and a half kilometres of the city’s coastline in fabric. The result, Wrapped Coast, was both the largest single artwork ever made and a defining moment for Australian contemporary art.

“I’m so proud of that history. And even today, people come up to John after talks and tell him that they remember Wrapped Coast. It influences so many people and it’s something you only really see the impact of after many, many years,” Forbat says.

“We certainly try and continue this with our projects and do things that are going to have an ongoing impact. We believe that 13 Rooms, just like Wrapped Coast and Puppy, will be remembered for a very long time. It’s very much a part of our mission to create different types of projects and change the way people perceive contemporary art.”

13 Rooms runs from April 11 to 21 at Pier 2/3, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay.