The 8m silver Leyland Worldmaster bus that has landed nose-up in central Parramatta is based on a toyshop model no bigger than 12cm, but the legend it evokes is somewhat larger than life.
At the 1981 rugby league grand final, the Parramatta Eels claimed their first premiership from the Newtown Jets and in the ensuing celebrations fans set fire to the club’s grandstand at Cumberland Oval. Eels coach Jack Gibson, whose victorious team was now without a home, bought a former public bus to serve as the Parramatta meeting room and drove the team to two subsequent premierships in 1982 and ’83.
Artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro have immortalised this piece of history with their bus sculpture called Place of the Eels, a scale replica cast in 7.6 tonnes of steel and polished aluminium.
“It was such a Parramatta story,” Cordeiro says. “It feels like it’s not a time that exists any more. Can you imagine today if a bunch of fans got together and burned down their own stadium?”
Healy and Cordeiro, partners in life and art, have made their reputation across the past two decades by making works about the impermanence and ephemera of life, and also that capture meaning and cultural resonance in public places. They’ve been described in notices about the bus sculpture as western Sydney artists, although that’s only half correct.
Cordeiro, the son of Singaporean migrants, was born at Penrith, in Sydney’s far west, while Healy grew up in Sutherland Shire to the south. They live and work in Blackheath, rather further west in the Blue Mountains.
Neither is a football fan. But their sculpture Place of the Eels, while celebrating a piece of rugby league history, also contains references to other local stories. The bus includes panels that honour people such as Lebanese migrant Rosie O’Brien (anglicised from Broheen) who arrived in the region in the 1890s, and also residents of the former Parramatta Girls Home.
Another story, evoked in a panel on the side of the bus, is that of the Flying Pieman, William Francis King.
“He would start at Circular Quay and sell pies to people going on the ferry,” Cordeiro says. “Then he would run with the pies from Circular Quay and he would meet that ferry and sell pies to the same people. It’s such a weird story. He was known for these crazy feats of endurance.”
Healy and Cordeiro first began working together when they were students at the College of Fine Art at the University of NSW (now UNSW School of Art and Design). Their partnership flourished when they were part of the group of artists who took up residence at the Imperial Slacks building in Surry Hills, a site for art-making and wild happenings in the early 2000s. They are evidently partners, in the sense that they finish each other’s sentences and frequently speak over each other.
As well as the Eels sculpture, Healy and Cordeiro have shown their work at the recent Sydney Contemporary art fair at Carriageworks, and have an exhibition opening at their new gallery, N. Smith, on October 5. They are also the subject of a new monograph, published by Formist, that presents two decades of their projects, including their 2009 Venice Biennale contribution, and their solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012.
Their work is concerned on the one hand with public art and placemaking – such as the Place of the Eels in Parramatta – and also, somewhat paradoxically, with the impermanence of life: its transience and residue. Their Venice project, Lifespan, comprised a monumental stack of 175,000 VHS cassettes whose combined playing time was equal to the duration of an average human life.
For Sydney Contemporary they remounted a sculpture made for last year’s Oku-Noto Triennale in Japan: a 2m papier-mache moon called Sorry I’m Not Straightforward. The papier-mache was made from paper torn from the pages of a particular genre of manga comic known as “boy love” (the storylines, written for female readers, are about young gay men).
Sorry I’m Not Straightforward was installed in a tiny cafe in Suzu, a small coastal city known for its fishing industry. It was intended to evoke the changing moon and tides – if not the littoral regions of human sexuality – that are familiar rhythms in the maritime region. Because the moon was large (2m in diameter) and the cafe small (the door just 66cm across), the sculpture was made in 16 parts, shipped to Japan and assembled inside the cafe.
When it was installed in the vast post-industrial space of Carriageworks, the paper moon looked somewhat isolated and lonely, compared with the impact it would have had in the rather more intimate Cafe Anan. Still, the artists aren’t telling how they produced the sculpture’s near-perfect spherical shape, or how they put it together from 16 parts.
“It was a beautiful old cafe with really ’70s decor,” Healy says. “We wanted to create this really tight, uncanny situation with this giant moon. To get inside and view it, people had to squeeze their bodies around it. It was like a ship in a bottle.
“That’s the great thing about sculpture – it’s nice that there is magic about it, and that it can just appear.”
Healy and Cordeiro both practise meditation, rising at 5am to spend an hour in quietness every day. They have also attended, about 10 times each, the Vipassana retreat near their home in Blackheath – a kind of meditation boot camp where attendees go 10 days without speaking and meditate for 11 hours a day. Healy is also a long-time practitioner of Iyengar yoga.
They describe meditation as a pathway to equanimity and quietness of mind when they are engaged in the painstaking, repetitive work of constructing some of their sculptures – whether making a paper moon or unwrapping tens of thousands of VHS cassettes. The philosophical ideas of impermanence and non-attachment that are associated with meditation practice also inform their installations, which often involve found and discarded materials – the ephemera of human existence.
“Western society is so funny – everything has to be permanent, trying to make things that last,” Cordeiro says. “It’s always trying to hold on to things, there’s aversion to change. That kind of meditation practice is really good for just trying to understand the nature of change.”
“On another level,” Healy adds, “you really reap the benefits of the practice by doing more meditation. It’s all about the work. And I think that comes up in our art practice: it’s going to be daunting, there’s a lot to do. But the Vipassana has been really good to help us not be too overwhelmed or daunted by the tasks at hand. Bit by bit, you get through something.”
While the pair are reticent about revealing too many trade secrets, the hardcover monograph includes photographs of them and their artistic process. These pictures are contained in a perforated “sealed section” that can be opened.
In essays and pictures the book documents projects such as The Cordial Home Project from early in their career, Lifespan from the Venice Biennale, a sculpture comprising 121 Honda car parts wrapped in bamboo and jute, and their aircraft works including Cloud Nation, involving a Beechcraft Travel Air with a Lilliputian landscape on its wings, installed inside the Green Square Library in Sydney.
“We have always been very precious about the end work, and keeping away the fabrication and all the details about the process,” Healy says. “But this time we have gone into the process, and I think Formist have done a great job with the process and source imagery being printed in gold. It’s a big part of the work, but it’s never revealed to the public.”
In Parramatta, Place of the Eels is about to be officially unveiled, and will be one of Healy and Cordeiro’s most public of public sculptures to date. They hope that, like the Beechcraft at the Green Square Library, the inverted bus will become part of the local vernacular, a place where people meet.
“In the end, the work becomes part of the fabric of the community and people who live around there,” Cordeiro says.
“I think that’s really nice, like the way that artworks become part of people’s homes – not just in museums, they are part of the fabric of the house. I think it’s similar to the way public art works.”