Curator Anna Davis reflects on the artistic practice of Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro

Anna Davis, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 3 Oct 2012

If space junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junkspace is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.
~ Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro are Australian artists who reclaim and transform the fallout of consumer society. Combining a playful sense of humour and an engagement with art historical precedents, their work is characterised by the deconstruction and reinvention of prefabricated structures and the assemblage of accumulated objects into extraordinary sculptures and installations.


Healy and Cordeiro’s practice reflects a preoccupation with the dynamics of global mobility – the networks, standards and financial systems that enable and restrict the movement of people and goods in the modern era. Creating tensions between order and disorder, their works are shaped by traditional sculptural concerns such as mass, form and scale, however they also incorporate the expressive potential of motion, speaking to the way things move and change over time.


Working as a collaborative duo for over a decade,2 Healy and Cordeiro have spent much of their artistic careers travelling. These shifting locations, and the experience of constantly moving and uprooting their lives play a central role in their work. Drawing on their mutual autobiographies and the narratives of other intrepid travellers, a number of their sculptures trigger feelings associated with being ‘on the move’. While some works evoke a sense of self-reliance and adventure, others interrogate the practicalities and emotional upheavals of storing and transporting material possessions. These highly condensed gatherings of personal belongings bring to mind the less glamorous realities of packing, unpacking, sorting, storing and freighting associated with a contemporary nomadic lifestyle.


Travelling and relocation inevitably brings with it powerful memories of home, and the question of what constitutes home today is a major theme in Healy and Cordeiro’s work. Inviting us to look at how we live in new ways, their projects explore domestic space in terms of its symbolism, functionality, affordability, construction and decay. Enormous in both size and ambition, two of the artists’ key works have involved the acquisition, demolition and re-contextualisation of family dwellings – a condemned suburban house in Cordial Home Project, 2003, and a derelict Queensland farmhouse in Not under My Roof, 2008.3 In both projects, ‘home’ is rendered uninhabitable and its promise of permanency and security undermined. Instead, the vacant structures are transformed by the artists into new compacted forms that speak to both the inequities of home ownership and the dense layering of memories and personal histories embedded within long-term residences. The roving artists are also fascinated by the social and political implications of impermanent living arrangements; other works have utilised caravans, trailers, huts, sheds and even a Mongolian yurt, to explore the increased mobility and compact lifestyle afforded by these provisional structures.


The aesthetic quality of Healy and Cordeiro’s work is one of its most striking features. Every aspect of their sculptures and installations is carefully orchestrated and subject to a rigorous process of formal organisation. Grids and geometric contours are used as frameworks to consolidate collections of disparate objects, while colour, repetition and texture are employed to create visually balanced and satisfying compositions. Other systems of categorisation are intermingled with these aesthetic and sculptural concerns. These schemas are unique to the particular project at hand, however they are frequently related to the logic of mobility, in particular ideas of international transit and storage. In Wohnwagen, 2006–2007, for example, the dissected elements of a once intact mobile home are placed on top of each other like four painstakingly constructed layer cakes. Balanced on top of Euro palettes, the standard unit for European international freight, the caravan’s raw materials have been analysed, broken down and stacked with a careful eye to their aesthetic composition. They are also ordered in terms of their most economical spatial arrangement, a taxonomy that mirrors the concerns of global consignment in which things are packed to strict regulations in order to save money and take up the least amount of space. The relationship between transport, commerce and aesthetics is not lost on the artists, who have spoken of their work in terms of its response to the practicalities of living in-between countries and participating in the global art market.4 As artists, they argue, it is necessary to devise modes of existence and working that are both economically viable and creatively productive. This is a delicate balance, which involves periods of living and working overseas in order to take advantage of residencies and other exhibition opportunities.5


Deceased Estate, 2004, was created at the site of an artists’ residency in a warehouse located in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Arriving to find the space occupied by someone else’s junk, the artists decided to make an installation from everything they found inside. Held together by bright orange rope, the resulting conglomeration of domestic objects is strangely beautiful. Defying gravity, it overflows with unexpected juxtapositions and surprising relationships between incongruent forms. Like an exploding universe of over-consumption, the precarious ball of stuff also induces unpleasant thoughts relating to chronic hoarding, and people so hemmed in by their possessions they are physically and psychologically unable to move. Do our belongings define us? the work seems to ask. Do they tie us down? There is nothing like moving countries to heighten your awareness of your material possessions and what it is you actually need. Henry David Thoreau’s classic text Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854, in which the author lived for 6 months in a small remote hut with only the bare necessities of life, has become a touchstone for the artists. Its core philosophical question ‘How much is enough?’ is raised repeatedly in their work.6

In Hamper (9 months and an hangover), 2006, the artists combined the remains of a farewell party they held at the end of a residency at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, with all the printed matter they had accumulated there. Layering the waste materials to fit under a red plastic picnic table, the artists draw attention to the vast amount of refuse we generate, even after only a temporary inhabitation such as a party or an artist’s residency.7 Healy and Cordeiro associate the notion of the picnic with the rubbish we leave behind. The debris from the party and the mountain of superfluous paperwork stuffed under the picnic table echo the more pervasive wreckage of modern consumerism that proliferates on the planet in the wake of human habitation.


In the developed world, it is not only our material possessions that are multiplying at an alarming rate but also our collections of virtual belongings. Inventories of digital photos, music and videos are being created and stored at levels unimaginable only a few years ago. In recent decades we have witnessed a profound shift in the audiovisual landscape moving us from the analogue to the digital age. These technological changes have had numerous repercussions on people’s daily lives, influencing our social behaviour, work practices, leisure activities and domestic interactions. On a design level, even our home furnishings have changed. Mass produced entertainment units once made to hold square television sets, video decks and VHS tapes have been replaced by those designed to fit flat screen TVs, digital recorders and DVDs: and it probably won’t be long until these too are rendered obsolete. Relegated to the dusty realm of technologies past, the once pervasive VHS videotape is now an object of nostalgia. Video shops were once the purveyors of home entertainment where you might bump into friends and neighbours. They now face extinction in the wake of the digital download, a much more introverted activity usually performed at home or in the solitary bubble created by headphones and a mobile screen device.


Healy and Cordeiro’s Life Span, 2009, a solid stacked block of 175,774 used VHS videotapes, sits at the intersection of these issues relating to home, sociality, design and obsolescence. Enormous in scale, the shiny black edifice is a monument to our shared technological past, evoking ideas of mortality and time passing. Described by the artists as a ‘memento-mori’, the imposing sculpture contains 60.1 years of viewing material if each tape were watched consecutively. This represented the average human life span in 1976, the year that the VHS tape was released to the public.8


First exhibited in a deconsecrated chapel in Venice, the monolith has a mystical energy that may stem from the vast amounts of inaccessible data it contains. Looking up at the massive form, notions of consumer excess, audiovisual noise and landfill also come to mind. The artists gathered the almost inconceivable collection of tapes over a long period of time, with some donated by friends and colleagues and others obtained from defunct video stores and recycling organisations. Like house bricks, the videotapes are a predominantly uniform colour and size. The clean lines of the huge rectangular structure reference the austere forms of Minimalism and the severity of Modernist architecture, while also speaking to the practicalities of storing physical objects around the home and issues of data accumulation. Movie titles and handwritten notes on the tape labels offer glimpses into the relationship between technology and our personal lives.9 Laden with history and memories, Life Span is also a cultural database, creating networks of crisscrossing associations that allow viewers to drift between genres and across time.

The dream of infinite movement through time and space is a theme that emerges repeatedly in Healy and Cordeiro’s works. Sameday Service or Sooner, 2008, is a humorous take on Dr Who’s fictional time machine the TARDIS,10 a police telephone box that appeared in the popular British TV series and enabled the science fiction character to travel anywhere in the universe within any time period. In the sculpture, the distinctive blue box is dismantled; its component parts are bound together and leant against a wall as though ready for shipping. The absurdity of flat-packing this fantastical transportation device – and thus destroying its powers of mobility – is characteristic of the artists’ playful approach to form and function in their work. Highlighting the economic structures that influence the way we transport objects, it draws attention to the hazards of blindly imposing one regulatory system onto another.11


In other works, the artists look at the present through the lens of the future. Sifting through time, they perform a kind of speculative archaeology that raises questions about what will define humanity in years to come. In Future Remnant, 2011, a strategically composed stack of partially-assembled IKEA furniture and accessories props up a life-size replica of a Monolophosaurus dinosaur skeleton. Held together with bright orange strapping, a utilitarian packing material that reoccurs throughout their work, the sculpture takes on the guise of stylised archaeological remains. The accretion of IKEA products beneath the dinosaur fossil suggests the layered debris of a culture obsessed with home wares and the sedimentary accumulation of material purchases over time. Yet while the multi-coloured stockpile speaks of over-consumption in the present, the plastic dinosaur (also a superfluous product of the petrochemical age) suggests a time long before humans and shopping existed. Like a display in an anti-evolutionary Christian theme park,12 the incongruous grouping is both humorous and disturbing.


In Dust to Dust, 2008, 3 pulverized coffee tables from a low-priced IKEA furniture range are displayed in glass showcases like rare prehistoric relics. Destroyed by the artists in their Berlin living room, the tables are completely unrecognizable. On close inspection though, tiny flecks of colour, the remains of their formerly smooth MDF surfaces, can be seen in the circular mounds of sawdust. Beginning with a violent act of annihilation, this reflective work highlights the inbuilt obsolescence of products built for mass consumption, their environmental impact and the frustration of knowing that although they are cheap, they will not last. By presenting the ruined tables as pseudo-historical artifacts the artists invite us to imagine our enduring legacy on the planet.


IKEA is recurring presence in Healy and Cordeiro’s works, its standardised forms highlighting the dynamics of global distribution and society’s increasing homogenisation. Speaking about their practice, the artists have described the notion of ‘generic comfort zones’, places that are designed to make travellers feel relaxed and at ease no matter where they are. They point out that consumption is the driving force behind these insidious units of uniformity, which are largely tailored to middle-class needs.13 Part of the massive global industry that encourages people to purchase things that will make them feel ‘at home’, IKEA is perhaps the quintessential model of this all-encompassing sameness that is rapidly spreading across the world, infiltrating our public space, homes and workplaces.

The wall-based sculpture I Hope Tomorrow is Just Like Today, 2008, is constructed from a number of pieces of IKEA furniture that have been combined and mis-assembled.

Recalling the abstract colour blocking of a Piet Mondrian painting, its uneven surface is engraved with an image that amalgamates pictograms from various IKEA instruction manuals with a design originally placed onboard Pioneer spacecraft in the early 1970s. Referred to as the ‘Pioneer Plaque’, this bizarre line drawing of a naked man and woman surrounded by esoteric symbols was an attempt to send a message about humanity to extraterrestrial life. It aimed, as IKEA instruction manuals do, to communicate across distances, times and cultures without using words. Interested in the tension between these two dubious systems of ‘universal’ communication, the artists superimpose the stirring optimism of the Space Race with the mundane realities of assembling contemporary domestic furnishings, a strategy that raises some interesting questions regarding society’s changing hopes and aspirations. As they articulate:

When the Pioneer was launched, society was concerned with change and encouragement for advancement. Now we are living in a time where … there is a longing to hang on to the status quo and create a universal sameness.
Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro

Continuing their interest in the symbolism of space exploration, Where we’ve been, where we’re going, why, 2010–2011,15 evokes the catastrophic flipside of this optimistic thrust into new frontiers. In this series of works the artists use LEGO to recreate photographs of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, in which 73 seconds after lift-off the spacecraft exploded, killing all seven crew members including the first private citizen to travel into space, American school teacher Christa McAuliffe.16 These images are familiar to millions of people around the world. Broadcast live on television, the forked formation of swirling smoke in the sky is seared onto our collective memory. LEGO’s uniform rectangular shapes and bright minimal colour palette, imbues Healy and Cordeiro’s wall-based sculptures with the pixelated quality of the original television broadcast. Their blocky aesthetic is also reminiscent of the jagged distortions we commonly associate with highly compressed digital files, reflecting the way disaster images are now transmitted around the globe and their continued existence in society’s new memory bank – the internet. By using a well-known children’s toy to recreate the iconic photographs, the artists play out the sudden loss of innocence associated with the shocking event.

To invent the sailing ship or steamer is to invent the shipwreck. To invent the train is to invent the rail accident of derailment. To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway. To get what is heavier than air to take off in the form of an aeroplane or dirigible is to invent the crash, the air disaster.
Paul Virilio

A key point of reference for Healy and Cordeiro, French theorist Paul Virilio is perhaps the most eloquent commentator on the intrinsic relationship between progress and catastrophe. Virilio argues that technological accidents ‘are not chance events’ but integral to the machines we invent and, as such, ‘an increasingly present cumulative reality’.18 In aesthetic terms, Virilio also points out that while accidents such as the Challenger disaster are horrific, their imagery is strangely compelling. As the common saying goes, we cannot tear our eyes away from the scene of the crash. Two of the artists’ recent sculptures employ aeroplanes to imply narratives of aeronautical disaster; however these open-ended works leave it up to viewers to imagine the cause or potential outcome.

While journeys into space are generally considered the pinnacle of aviation, flights in small aircraft represent another peak in the history of human enterprise. Highly evocative machines, small planes are capable of stirring up passionate feelings of wanderlust and the romance of travel. They are also symbolic of a particular kind of fearlessness and an individual will we often associate with the long solo voyage.19 Inspired by tales of journeys on small aircraft,20 Healy and Cordeiro have created a new work titled Stasis, 2012, for the MCA exhibition. This temporary installation on the Museum’s front lawn consists of a Beechcraft Travel Air suspended in a cube matrix of metal scaffolding. The bright orange plane is held aloft by the scaffolding system, yet also appears to have been captured mid-flight. Positioned with the plane’s nose pointing towards the MCA, its angle of trajectory suggests an ominous result. While the work is immobile, as its title suggests, the suspended plane embodies the velocity of flight and a virtual image of movement remains. Poised indefinitely on the brink of disaster, in Virilio’s terms, it foreshadows its own accident. While small aircraft tend to conjure far less agonising narratives, the work brings to mind the unforgettable images of 9/11, a horrifying incident that will forever be linked with planes flying near buildings. As the artists describe, ‘Stasis reflects on the fleeting, momentary qualities of recent events that have shaped history and imprinted themselves into the psyche and memory of society’.21


While Stasis arrests a plane mid-flight, seeming to prevent an imaginary disaster before it occurs, Par Avion, 2011–2012, presents a broken and reassembled plane on the gallery wall, evoking the time after a catastrophe. Virilio has described this kind of imagery as ‘the autopsy of an accident’,22 where the wreckage of a machine is laid out piece by piece in an attempt to find clues from its shattered remains. The portions of airplane in Par Avion are not the result of a disaster, however, but rather the product of a calculated act of destruction by the artists that allowed them to mail the aircraft from Australia to the United States and back again. To create the work Healy and Cordeiro acquired a Cessna 172 from a scrap plane yard in Queensland; they then disassembled the plane and cut it into 70 small pieces, so that each portion would fit within the maximum permitted size for airmail parcels set by Australia Post. Using gaffer tape to cover the metal edges, post and customs documents were attached directly to each piece and the destination address written by hand onto its metal surfaces. The plane was then sent piece by piece via airmail to Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern, San Francisco where it was arranged on the gallery floor (December, 2011). For its display at the MCA, each piece was carefully re-labelled and airmailed to Sydney adhering to the standards set by the US Postal Service.

The cracked and misshapen entity we see installed on the MCA gallery wall is a much more speculative structure than the original plane, its once sleek form full of irregularities, unexpected gaps and spatial distortions. Like the blueprint of a machine once capable of flight, it suggests a tension between the human desire for mobility and the global systems – economic, social and political – that restrain it. In Stasis these systems are symbolised by the scaffolding, which elevates and supports the plane but also restricts its movement.23 In Par Avion, the postal service represents an infrastructure that hinders the plane, preventing it from flying in its usual sense, but allowing it to travel greater distances via airmail than its original design ever intended.


Inviting us to assemble and reassemble things in our minds, Healy and Cordeiro’s works present alternate views of the world: tracing trajectories through time and space and reimagining our relationship with the objects and systems that surround us. Using found materials, generic products and mass-produced structures, their open-ended works reach into the future and back through the past. In this way they excavate shared memories and find beauty in the imaginative potential of sculptural form, revealing gaps between our grand aspirations and everyday reality.