T+85_red&yellow, part of the “Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro: Are We There Yet?” at the Corcoran. Photograph courtesy the Corcoran Gallery of Art
There’s something brilliantly simple about the fusion of art and science on display in “Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro: Are We There Yet?” The exhibition, the third in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series, opens tomorrow, and presents a playful yet sobering meditation on human existence by the two Australian artists. “Look at what we’ve achieved!” the show seems to scream, in one thought. “We’ve sent men to the moon! We’ve explored the meaning of the universe!” At the same time, it offers the profound, moderately depressing realization that to many, the greatest achievement man will ever realize is the Cheeto.
The exhibition features two parts: “Are We There Yet,” a site-specific installation designed for a gallery on the second floor; and “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why,” a display of works in the Corcoran’s atrium depicting the 1986 Challenger disaster, crafted entirely from Legos. The medium may sound daft, but it has to be seen to be believed; there’s something about the fragility of the Lego “canvases” and the limited range of colors that creates an astounding range of texture and movement. From a distance, the works offer whirling, organic shapes that appear to be birds, or clouds, or other natural phenomena. But up close, they’re methodically crafted, childlike, and deceptively innocent. And when you take into consideration the awful catastrophe Healy and Cordeiro have rendered, it becomes a remarkably moving series.
Upstairs, walking in to “Are We There Yet?,” the viewer's confronted by an unusual sight: a floating planet crafted from family-size tubs of Utz Cheese Balls. And as you enter the room, you see more enormous piles of food, drink, and “necessities” (Velveeta cheese, Carnation condensed milk, Bud Light, Marlboro Reds), all reflected in the gallery’s golden floor, as well as the feet of a mysterious figure sticking out from a bed in the middle of the room. The figure is a spaceman, who lies face down, partially covered by a duvet, next to a tray of empty cans, half-smoked cigarettes, and other detritus. Is he dead? Comatose? Blackout drunk on Bud Light? Suspended in the middle of the room, he’s both the master of the universe and the victim of it.
Healy and Cordeiro came up with this specific installation on a trip to the US last year, when they became fascinated with two beloved institutions: the National Air and Space Museum, and Costco. The juxtaposition of high science and low culture on display in “Are We There Yet?” is both sublime and ridiculous—it’s a study on the wry ironies of our endless quest for innovation and discovery and our simultaneous base depravities of overconsumption. Among the inspirations for the piece is Kubrick’s 2011: A Space Odyssey, which prompted the artists to compile all the high-calorie, energy-dense foods an astronaut would need to endure 520 days in space. Said foods are studded throughout the gallery, and the results are strangely poignant—and surprisingly small. Is this really all we need to survive? the show seems to ask. Processed cheese, wine in a box, and saltines?
As an exploration of consumption, the work is both thought-provoking and quiet in its loneliness (and viewers worried about waste can rest assured that after the exhibition, the artists are donating the food to a food bank and the alcohol to Corcoran students, in a nicely altruistic gesture). While we know that the spacesuit—donated by NASA, by the way—has no astronaut inside, his frozen existence in the room is still vaguely spooky, reflected in the otherworldliness of the gold floor and the gallery’s endlessly high ceilings. This is his universe, and it’s also ours, titled with the plaintive cry we’ve all given during an endless journey at one time or another.
“Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro: Are We There Yet?” is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through March 11. More information is at corcoran.org.