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A few years ago, there was a shift in the way galleries and museums write tombstone text. Curators who had once employed the term “mixed media”—a catch-all for artworks involving stuff other than, say, acrylic or marble—began detailing those materials out. By the time the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted its 2008 biennial, every piece of refuse in that recession-themed, garbage-art show was carefully labeled, from Plexiglass and plywood to used socks and disposable coffee cups.
Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s “Are We There Yet?” is the latest show in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Now” program of contemporary art. But the exhibition actually feels kind of “Then,” even as it looks to the future. Take the title piece, whose materials are labeled with rigid accounting. There are 97 boxes of 3L Black Box Chardonnay, 360 15-ounce cans of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli, and 624 cans of Carnation evaporated milk.
The counting and labeling are the point—and beside the point. Cordeiro and Healy selected materials based on a 2009 consumer index of the 10 top-selling grocery items in the U.S. Alongside the 32-ounce loaves of Kraft Velveeta meltable cheese are cases of Marlboro Reds and stacks of Nabisco saltines. Healy and Cordeiro, who are Australian, are giving America what it wants.
Installed on gold anodized aluminum panels that line the floor, these hemispheric piles of crap appear to be spheres, with cans and boxes reflected in the mirrored paneling. That’s in keeping with the show’s outer-space theme: A solar system of assembled Coca-Cola cans and cantilevered boxes of Cheerios could feed an astronaut to Mars and back. The space explorer—or at least a replica astronaut suit, on loan from NASA—is there in the gallery, too, passed out on an IKEA bed, with cigarette butts and empty cans on a nightstand to convey that this pioneer is the everyman astronaut, just like you and me.
It was our most famous pseudo-everyman president, George W. Bush, who wanted American astronauts to touch down on Mars. Healy and Cordeiro’s piece seems to trade in familiar Bush-era critiques: Here is what Americans love to buy. No wonder they’re so fat! In the context of space travel, this installation references Americans at their finest, but in a backhanded way. Americans once walked on the moon, but what have they done for us lately? Mars, truly, seems more impossible—not just because it is so much further, but because something about America has changed. You might say it’s as if the American empire is declining—-which people have been saying long before Healy and Cordeiro started assembling planets of detritus.
The show, which also includes a number of visually striking but off-message Lego sculptural reliefs of the Challenger explosion, would be wonderful work in the early ’00s, but now it feels heavy-handed and vintage. With the rise of China, the collapse of the Eurozone, the raising of various Occupy tent cities around the world, wars in the Middle East, uprisings in the Middle East, suppressions in the Middle East, a filibustered Congress, a debt-locked E.U., and a do-nothing global infrastructure for preventing global climate change, we’re treated to a critique of U.S. waistlines that’s too quaint. To the show’s titular question, the answer’s obvious: Been there, done that.