I got to know artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro in late 2008, in the early stages of preparing for their Venice Biennale work the following year, Life Span, as part of Felicity Fenner’s off site exhibition Once Removed. The opportunity arose for me to collect used video tapes for their installation. In the thick summer heat I clearly remember first meeting the artist duo out in Silverwater where the white summer light contrasted savagely against the boxes of thousands of grimy VHS tapes. My delivery of 500 tapes in the back of the COFA ute, to the former barn where the artists where working (as part of the Olympic site residency program) was small in comparison to the thousands of tapes the artists had already collected for what was going to be a mammoth structure. From the beginning Claire and Sean were grateful, generous, modest, funny, welcoming and happy to talk about their artistic process. We ended up working together, with five other COFA students under the guidance of Felicity Fenner, on and off for the next few months and eventually ended up assisting the artists build the work on site in Venice for six weeks. It is credit to Fenner and the artists that they were open to having students onboard during this process. As a masters student I could not have dreamt of a better work experience.
Once Removed was staged off-site in the Ludoteca, a former convent on a busy Venetian street. The deconsecrated church with a small collection of classrooms attached is normally used as a children’s after school centre for the local Venetian population. This site formed the basis of Healy and Cordeiro’s site-specific installation. After visiting the site with Fenner in March of the previous year, Healy and Cordeiro engaged with the theological aspect of the deconsecrated church as well as the site of Venice. Their choice of material, the humble VHS video tape were, as I said, collected, then cleaned and stacked to form a five metre high and four metre wide towering memento mori. Over 170,000 tapes were neatly built into the structure, the exact number being the amount of tapes needed to record the average human’s life span, when VHS entered the market in the 1970s. The video cassette tapes as a material symbolise many aspects of the Australian family home from the 1980s and 1990s. The weekly fights over who will tape what and the family favourites who get pulled out to be watched over and over, until the data slowly disintegrates and the screen becomes grainy. Healy and Cordeiro have carefully chosen a material that also represents the societal changes and technology advancements which have no regard for their environmental impact. The environmental waste created from these mass consumer upgrades (from VHS to DVD, from mobile phone to iPhone etc) contributes to much of the waste culture in the west.
Healy and Cordeiro’s practice often involves the recontexualising of everyday objects. In their work, The Cordial Home Project, which was shown at Art Space in Sydney, the demolition of a bungalow house was the premise for the re-ordering of all the materials from the home into manageable and aesthetically tuned stacks. This work, along with Wohnwagen (flatpack/Past Times), where the artists similarly deconstructed a caravan into square metre cubes of materials, show a refined understanding of materiality and metaphor.
A year on from the Venice Biennale show, Life Span and the two other works from Fenner’s exhibition Once Removed opened last week at Campbelltown Arts Centre - and with it there was a reuniting of friends who had worked hard together and shared something incredible. I am terribly lucky to have been part of the unique and inspiring process that Fenner, Healy and Cordeiro as well as COFA and the Australia Council for the Arts made possible. These opportunities build links between those of us just beginning on the journey through contemporary art and those who have traversed it’s many varied waters for some time and understand some of its complexities.
What is the best thing about being an artist for you both?
Sean: I guess that the most obvious answer is ‘making art’! But beyond the pleasure of creating work, there are other great fringe benefits like travel and alcohol consumption that are related to the vocation.
Claire: Keeping my own hours, having no day job, the absence of someone looking over my shoulder. The joy of finishing a work and seeing how it relates to past practice, current events and the world we live in. The opportunity to see beauty in things that others disregard.
When did you start collaborating and what drew you to this?
[C+S] Our first collaboration was back in 2001. We had booked in a show at COFA’s student gallery – Kudos. What brought on our collaboration was the space itself. We had individual work that we could have put into the space, but it’s such a nice broad, blank space, we thought it would be much more fun and interesting to create an installation within it. We were naturally lead to create a work about space invasion, as living in pre and post-Olympic inner-city Sydney was all about that.
In the 2009 Venice Biennale you represented Australia in Felicity Fenner’s exhibition Once Removed, the off-site venture of the Australia Council which sat alongside Shaun Gladwell’s MaddestMaximas pavilion work. What was it like to represent Australia? Did you feel pressure to create a nationalistic or even anti-nationalistic work in response to the model of national pavilions?
[C+S] It was an odd situation, we guess a lot of artists dream about representing their country in Venice. But the Australian pavilion is a tough space to work. So in a sense, we were kind of disappointed and happy at the same time to show off-site. It was an amazing opportunity, the resources and assistance and exposure that was offered was gigantic! But with any big production there is a loss of control in some respects, and also the fact that although we were part of the artist crew, we were actually just a part of a much bigger juggernaut!
We didn’t really feel any pressure to create a work that was nationalistic. We guess that most of our work deals with issues that we see as universal rather than fixed to a particular culture. Perhaps this is a result of us spending part of the year on either side of the equator for the last five years.
How do you feel about a site-specific work, such as the mega Life Span being shown in a new environment, such as Campbelltown Arts Centre? Does it become a new work – is it reborn?
[C+S] In a way, Life Span worked with the site, and the site lent the work a reading that would not be possible in most other spaces. We are unsure about how Life Span is going to translate into a gallery situation but we are sure that the work definitely is capable of holding its own space! I guess that we are just happy that people who were not able to see it in Venice can view the work in Oz.
What influences your work? And I suppose less broadly, how do you choose what to make each work about? Do you feel that your practice is a linear chain of ideas? Or do your ideas just come from left of field?
[C+S] The way that we live influences our work a lot – change and movement, economics and ecology, a morbid interest in ruin and destruction – it all fuels our practice. Our ideas don’t tend to follow a single flowing narrative, we hope that
What do you feel has been your biggest achievement as Australian artists?
[C+S] Biggest achievement… That’s a tricky question… We are happy that we have had some really good opportunities to show in some great spaces. Of course Venice was a big experience, but there were also other shows that were real standouts for us, like exhibiting our work next to Rachel Whiteread’s in London, or taking out that central atrium void with our work Not Under My Roof in GOMA Brisbane, or our six day 130 000 LEGO piece install in Lyon. But we really hope that this is just the beginning to a long and enjoyable career.
You have just been in Japan completing a 10 week residency, how is your art making practice affected by residencies and new environments?
[C+S] It really depends on how you approach situations and what kind of outcomes you wish to have. For instance, our last residency in Japan was really like entering some kind of monastery or something. We were in the mountains of Yamaguchi, miles from anywhere but we had a very specific project that we wanted to complete. We didn’t really see that much of Japan on that trip at all. That may sound perverse but we have already spent 15 months in Japan and we will be back there in June… Having said that, we think residencies are great! And we wanna do more, more, more! Staying in one city to see how it works, checking out new takes on art, operating in different cultures, in different languages, is great.
We haven’t been on THAT many residencies but all the ones that we have done so far have been great. Tokyo can be lonely but a great place to hang, Berlin is so chilled out it can be stressful. IASKA was fun but we had to look after a flock of sheep and one died…
What do you believe residencies offer emerging artists?
[C+S] Residencies offer emerging artists the chance to leave their safety zone. Of course we are very connected in this day and age and we can see art from all over the world just by clicking around on the computer. But there are few things as exhilarating as exploring and working in a new city!
What advice would you give emerging artists about ‘succeeding’ as an artist?
[C+S] What? You’re asking us? Ok. Never get a full-time job. Become part of a crew. Work hard. Schmooze hard. Document your work well. Enjoy what you do.
Was there a particular event or moment where you decided to pursue being artists as a full time career?
[S] Being a full-time artist was something I never dared to even dream about… I always thought that I would have to have a job to support my artistic urges… But it has turned out that we can spend ALL our time doing this. I could tell you about the moment I decided to become an artist, but it’s kind of embarrassing….
[C] It’s not really a decision you can make, it’s something you hope for and maybe it just comes to you. Living in Berlin exposed us to many contemporaries who were artists full-time. Maybe this showed us that it was possible. It’s a lot about getting a lucky break.
Once Removed is on show at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, until August 8th, 2010.
For more information on Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro visit: