60 Pages, Publisher Artspace
Visual Arts Centre Ltd
For their 1984 essay ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’ Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan incisively examined the complex and complicit relationship between contemporary art and real estate.1 The writers drew attention to the situation in 1980s Manhattan, where the run-down Lower East Side was being overtaken by development, first by artists and galleries, and then by wealthy home-owners, pushing out local residents and carving up communities. Artists were eventually summarily displaced themselves, as the rents shot up and studio spaces disappeared into loft apartments, agents, in a sense, of their own downfall.
Artists everywhere are subject to similar forces, with the fundamental need for space plunging them deeper into the hearts of cities in their search for places to live and work. In the process, as artists do, they transform their environments – the lofts, the buildings, the neighbourhoods. Rendering these zones fashionable, they are then often priced out of the market, necessitating moving to more marginal areas, where the cycle begins again. Arising from their own experiences as artists living and working in inner-city Sydney, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s work investigates the functions, processes and life-cycles of buildings: construction, marketing, buying and selling, shifting tenancies, garbage removal, demolition, decay. The materials and contents of buildings provide the stuff of their art as much as the exchanges, histories and meanings imbued within them.
Cordeiro’s interest in agit-prop and political Pop art is a rich complement to Healy’s concern for physical and institutional structures and how they operate in the world. Together they form a seamless collaboration of shared formal, conceptual and political interests. For their ambitiously conceived and immaculately produced installations, Healy and Cordeiro recover the materials and objects of consumer society and transform them into startling works of formal rigour and beauty. The elegantly ordered strata of Cordial Home Project (2003) rendered a demolished suburban house as a massive sculpture of almost archaeological significance, while Deceased Estate (2004) bundled the contents of an abandoned studio into a monolithic ball, a monument both to waste and to the precarious and ambiguous social status of artists, marginalised from yet necessarily part of the dominant culture. As Cordeiro puts it, the work is ‘a testament to the paradoxically high standard of living artists enjoy in the west and their chronic lack of housing stability.’2
As befitting a practice that questions the nature of buildings and institutions, Healy and Cordeiro also often work in the public arena, including those contexts that are not generally sanctioned by the mainstream art world. The critically derided and wildly popular Sculpture by the Sea and Sculpture in the City exhibitions have provided the platform for some of the artists’ most powerful works, including the domesticated army tank of Package Tour (2003); the eerie cabin of Raiders of the Lost Ark (2003) (which featured copulating lovers surrounded by taxidermied beasts in the middle of Martin Place); and the backyard swimming pool of Healy’s Oasis (2001), placed prominently on the beach at Tamarama. The safety zone of the art gallery effectively neuters any sense of subversion or surprise; it is in these public sites that the artists best demonstrate their ability to play with expectations and value systems. Healy and Cordeiro’s works retain the hermetic nature of art (you can’t enter their buildings) while rehearsing the operations of exchange, construction, and renewal that function in the wider world. Their skill is in demonstrating that these endeavours are not mutually exclusive.