Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro have, for twenty years, ambushed global notions of normality to make sculptures and installations exposing the ongoing assault on nature from excessive human design. Their belief in objects established their fame.

What lead to building your new studio?

Claire: Having the luxury of being able to ponder, rather than have a concept in mind or making the work for a particular site. To have an object within a space to crash your big toe into or fall over; just go towards something with a gut feeling rather than the brain. There were many little things we had to consider or hadn’t heard of. With the help of YouTube, we navigated our way around making this studio.

Sean: Yeah, most of our work has been about demolition and inquiries into architecture. So, it’s fitting to actually build a studio to understand what goes into making a building.

I read your first project together was in a Greek Orthodox Church.

S: The hall attached to the Church …

C: We had an opportunity to use Kudos Gallery for Location to
Die For

S: I was living at Imperial Slacks at a time when the whole of Sydney was in pre-Olympics renovation phase.

C: … Like a warzone.

S: A lot of old-school people that lived around Paddington and Redfern were moving out and new people were moving in. It sounded like war, and the movement of people was like war. We decided that we wanted to make a work that riffed on that movement, and also to play with the idea of real estate. We made fake real estate ads for the gallery. A big ‘for sale’ sign outside. Art and real estate punters came to check out the gallery because they thought it was for sale. Inside, the gallery was mapped out as a house, with sandbags and war sounds.

C: It was really fun. There was a number to call for interest in
the property. The answering machine had every war sound you could imagine.

S: And people still left messages on it.

C: And came to the opening interested in the property.

S: There were phrases like ‘New York Style Loft Apartment.’

C: Lots of ‘capitalised’ poster words.

S: I have a friend who’s a civil war recreationalist. He brought all his Unionist mates and they did full on drills in the gallery. It was the most fun opening we’ve ever had.

The perimeter of the sculptures and installations, is that determined before the process of construction or during construction?

C: Both. We’ve always embarked on projects thinking about what it feels like being in that space. With the Cordial Home Project (2003), we planned to sort all the materials of the demolished house into separate polypropylene bags. We didn’t expect the architecture of Artspace (Sydney) to change the space and materiality of what we were working with. Suddenly there was no need to cover the house materials. Whereas Life Span (2009) in Venice, the perimeter of the chapel fresco ceiling (The Ludoteca, Castello) is how the monolithic block of VHS cassettes’ actual size began.

S: Tower of Power (2019) at Sydney Contemporary was quite funny. Scaffolding sizes are completely different between what is safe for a building site and safe for the public. It was originally going to be
2.4 x 2.4 metres high.

C: We had to make the tower six metres higher to widen it.

S: Everything was scaled up, from something that was a small fun tower to a monstrosity. Some dealers were fine with the size, while others said, ‘You basically sabotaged my stand.’ Of course, we wanted to make an artwork, but we didn’t want to piss everyone off. Although it looked like we were doing this really big punk move, it was supposed to be a small punk move.

C: The concept was questioning the act of viewing; what the punter does at an art fair.  We’ve been to art fairs and watched people looking at their phones not the artwork. We thought this would be an opportunity for a charging station at the top of a castle, to look at the art works from afar while charging the phone.

S: We also wanted to evoke medieval warfare, position and sights, like Sun Tzu’s Art of War. That 1980s thing, where warfare philosophy is translated onto business practices, and onto an art fair.

I’m getting the impression you’re both seeking friction from the sculptures and installations.   

S: Friction is a good word. As artists we observe the world. We are not comfortable with it, we’re still trying to make sense of it. Maybe our perception doesn’t quite fit with how things are. There’s friction, in that we either don’t get how things are working, or we’re trying to work through it, or we’re actively opposed to how things are working.

C: It’s true. A lot of our work has been looking at how systems fail upon meeting another system. In Par Avion (2011–12) we went to the post office and got the maximum dimensions of the width, height and girth to send via airmail. Then we cut an airplane up according to those dimensions, trying to grasp this friction within systems that don’t marry up to each other.

With all the sculptures and installations, is there an ideal distance for audiences?

C: It’s really nice when the viewer becomes a part of the work, or forget they’re looking at the work, or there’s a question about if it is an artwork they’re looking at, or is my position within the space something that is the work?

S: We like playing with making things too big for a space. Then you’re incorporating a reality within the space and the relationship
to that object is heightened.

C: But not just the space or scale. We like our audience to consider where they are in a moment of time. Dependent on the object we’re using, it might be familiar to their everyday, to consider their
history or geography.

Are you researching more than one project from the Bangkok trip?

S: Yeah, we’re part of this network called ‘Shadow Places.’

C:; it’s a network of artists, activists, writers, academics that are looking at shadow places in the time of Anthropocene and climate change.

S: We saw the ‘Bangkok boneyard’, a kind of airplane graveyard within a suburb of Bangkok, that has become this hipster tourist attraction. Usually airplane graveyards are in very arid places like Arizona. We’re interested in this idea of international Instagram generations flying into Bangkok, to photograph themselves in mouldering airplanes.

C: We took a crew to shoot footage of these tourists filming themselves for social media. People totally made up with beautiful clothing – these girls taking articles of clothing off and looking quite sexy. Everybody becoming the star of their own movie or marketing their own lifestyle.

S: The idea of a ruin should be centuries or millennia old, now ruins are formed within years and decades.

C: We’re also looking at vehicles of flight; planes and kites, the massive industry of transporting objects and humans across the globe.

It appears transitivity is important, relationship between the subject and the object. How much knowledge of the subject is needed for the construction of the object?

S: When we did Self Storage (2006), for the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), we made a basic greenhouse filled with personal objects stored at my parent’s garage.

C: … We were living overseas.

S: If someone looked at Self Storage, they would’ve asked, ‘What’s going on?’ because it’s opaque in terms of subject and objects. Is it impossible to convey without the blurb? The AGNSW is a repository of culture and culturally significant objects, for us it was a fun punk theme: housing our culturally insignificant objects within
the institution.

C: I find it problematic when the work needs an essay to convey what you’re looking at.

S:  But then how can you avoid that without being really didactic within the work? It’s always this head-trip to make something a bit opaque, ‘what’s going on?’; whether that’s an issue or whether it’s part of the experience of the artwork. For instance, our kites with Japanese Kanji on helicopter or plane parts. At a glance, it’s a kite with some Kanji on it, but once you learn about it, you know this Kanji is about the Yasuda clan Zaibatsu. And the helicopters or planes that were used by the Australian military in the Vietnam War. A fight between Communism and Capitalism. What does that represent? What company did this Zaibatsu own, and how does it relate to our lives? Something that started out as quite an exotic experience becomes an experience consumed within our lives.

The pathos throughout your work is always sprinkled with ironic humour.

S: Sure. I was telling a workmate about a work that we’re making.
She said, ‘when is your generation going to get over irony?’

C: They haven’t yet, have they?

S: It’s a coping mechanism. Doesn’t Australia rely a lot on irony?

C: It’s not necessarily read like that. In Germany, a lot of our ironic humour was just lost.

S: I am thinking of We Hunt Mammoth (2015), this idea of ‘do you own your objects or do objects own you?’ How do we get use to their ubiquity? We see cars all the time, they’re so strange and massive, basically megafauna. If I was to walk down the street and had never seen a car before, what would I think? You hear about First Nation people, their first time seeing a car, like in that TV series Bush Mechanics. What a strange thing. These people are still alive, you can meet them. We Hunt Mammoth questions what are these massive two-ton cars doing carrying a person weighing 120 kilos.

C: … Or half that. It’s become quite normal.

S: Trying to shift that normal, dissecting a car, bringing it back to a pre-industrial period, to think about what that object represents.

C: Using traditional Japanese method of packaging, almost macramé, the car has become this beast hung by a butcher.

S: This ridiculous notion creates the humour.

C: A lot of our work, without sounding too cheesy, is trying to get an understanding of the truth. Life Span was a representation of a human’s life in VHS cassettes. When it came to using ninety tonnes of VHS materials, we were asked by the Australia Council if we could just make a façade, a smoke and mirror of the whole thing so that it looked like what it wasn’t. No. Sean and I always err on the side of what the object is …

S: It’s a personal journey. The viewer can’t tell whether it’s smoke and mirror or not. But Claire and I know. It was a weird experience to think about Life Span as a memento mori. To think about your own lives ticking by: ‘My god, is that it?’

What about the irony in Cloud Nation (2018) at Green Square Library?   

S: Cloud Nation is a lot less ironic than our other works. At an early stage we were thinking about the idea of planes, about immigration and how there’s this mythologisation about First Fleet people. Whereas if your family arrived on an airplane, there’s nothing to it. In Green Square they’re building a new suburb. Most people that are going to live in that suburb will be Asian Australians. And it’s so close to the airport. They will have a different kind of mythology.

C: Cloud Nation took six years to create. There were other ironies that came up on that journey. We were asked quite a few times to make the plane smaller. With a found object it’s not possible to make it smaller. So we clipped the wings.

Another new project you’re both working on is for Japan later in the year?

C: It’s really exciting, the Oku-Noto Triennale, taking place in a fishing villiage on the west coast of Japan in September this year. We’ve proposed to create a massive moon inside a domestic space. For fishermen the moon dictates how they work with the ocean. It’s a controlling factor in all our daily lives. We hope to create an uncanny situation: force of nature has entered the human space.

Does literature play an important part in sculptures and installations? 

C: In different ways – Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Luigi Barzini’s From Peking to Paris; the idea of this liberated individual and this quest for freedom.

S: I think we’re inspired by what we read, but not all our practice is informed by literature or specifically within any particular philosophy.

C: … Although we have been interested in (Paul) Virilio and (Henry David) Thoreau.

S: Oh yeah! There’s a quote from Thoreau which sums up a lot of how we navigate things: ‘which would have advanced the most at the end of a month – the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?’ Our practices are very much like dumb knowledge, experiencing rather than just reading about it. It’s ironic that I’m quoting a book to illustrate the idea.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2019

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro You Are Here
3–19 December 2020
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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