process, 2003. photograph by Liz Ham.

house

process, 2003. photograph by Liz Ham.

process, 2003. photograph by Liz Ham.

 

installation, 2003. materials: entire house. photograph by Liz Ham.

 

detail, 2003. photograph by Liz Ham.

 

Solids and Solutions
David Burrows

 

It is a hot and humid summer afternoon in Sydney but the real estate agent from Potts Point is taking ten steps to the dozen, hurrying towards his 2.00 o’clock. It is not everyday that he is invited to value a house with a view of the harbour in Woolloomooloo, a property that, furthermore, stands virtually opposite the W Hotel. The address, ‘Artspace 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road’, was a little perplexing. A minor complication though which soon evaporated as the estate agent calculated his percentage of a future transaction. And then his excitement doubled as he realised the address he had been given corresponded not to a three bedroom house but a fucking three storey building. He took one last gulp of his orange barley water, draining the bottle, and then entered through the glass doors.

“I thought you wanted a house evaluation?” the agent exclaimed and was surprised when told that this was indeed the case and that the house could be found in the large gallery space on the left. And to his left he found a compact stack of wood, bricks and tiles. He realised that each layer of this dusty lasagne had once belonged to a house that had served as somebody’s residence; now the pile of stone, timber and metal could only play host to small rodents and bugs. A minute’s silence passed which was followed by a loud belly laugh. The estate agent was not a man who angered easily and he enjoyed a good joke, even when it was made at his own expense. The penny dropped and he realised he was standing in an art gallery looking at art. He smiled sheepishly, wished everyone good luck with the project while handing out his card - you never know he thought - and then made to leave. But these guys were serious, they wanted to know how much he thought the house was worth.

The estate agent circled the four corners of the stack and passed judgement. “Well in my opinion it is worthless, even as scrap, though it is nicely arranged and ordered. As art, well I’m no expert but I read that a sculpture of a giant pregnant woman sold for $900,000 the other day. This is just an ugly pile of debris and it smells foul but it is very big. One thing it has going for it is its size. Maybe it is worth a twentieth of what the museum paid for the pregnant women, I don’t know. Now if the house was still standing - in this location - then we could make some real money. We’d be talking six figures, possibly seven depending on the condition of the interior.” And this is how the Cordial Home Project, an art-work consisting of the elements of a house arranged in a rectangular block between the wooden pillars of Artspace, was priced at $950,000.

Or at least that is how I imagined a sale price could have been agreed for the Cordial Home Project. Perhaps this fantasy is not too far fetched as the cost of an artwork is abstract and fluctuates just like the market price of real estate. But to dwell on the economic value of the Cordial Home Project, despite economics being of some concern to the artists Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, would be to frame that work as a Duchampian gesture. Something that I do not believe the artists intended.

For the Cordial Home Project is invested with much symbolism, an investment that plays on the irony of Cordeiro and Healy finding themselves in a situation familiar to many of their generation: they are unable acquire a home of their own, a fact they have been keen to state throughout the project. And for some people, to never attain the status of ‘home-owner’ is to never quite achieve the status of being grown up; owning a home is the very least every middle class parent expects for their offspring. The irony is that the only way the artists could acquire a home was by taking possession of a house due for demolition and dismantling it piece by piece; an act which did not require any financial exchange but that made the newly acquired building homeless. Artspace only provided a temporary abode for the project and during the exhibition the home was only one step away from the scrap heap.

But there was more to the Cordial Home Project than a slice of real estate realism. The colossal effort of installing the ‘Home’ was a bigger task than Cordeiro and Healy could manage on their own. Many hands assisted the two artists. Much was made of the help given by family and friends when the exhibition opened. And in a ‘Zeitgeist’ newspaper article Claire Healy was interviewed as a representative of a generation that would never experience the joys of owning a property and therefore banded together with their peers to rent and share accommodation. In various ways, the Cordial Home Project is symbolic of collaboration, partnership and community that the artists value and rely on in their daily lives.

All this made me think of something I read over a decade and a half ago, an angry paragraph written by Jean Baudrillard about a young generation who ‘practised solidarity with the greatest of ease’ and who were no longer ashamed of or troubled by capital and its accumulation. I realised that he was writing about my own generation and those people a bit older than me. In fact I came to think of the generation that practised ‘solidarity with the greatest of ease’ as those artists often cited as yBa. The solidarity symbolised by Cordeiro and Healy’s project is of a different kind, formed from a shared feeling of disempowerment and the knowledge that for certain ambitions to be realised collaboration and community is necessary.

The complexities of the processes involved in constructing the Cordial Home Project and its attendant symbolism and themes has its precedents in the work of other artists. Dan Graham’s analysis of housing in Homes for America comes to mind, as does the work of Rachel Whiteread who cast the space of an East London house, a monumental example of her practice of negative formalism. However, it is Gordon Matta Clark that I first thought of when I encountered the Cordial Home Project. Matta Clark trained as an architect and thought of his practice of slicing and cutting up buildings as a critique of a kind. The artist only selected buildings that were uninhabited and due for destruction, he was not happy with the architectural practices of his contemporaries who ignored the life span of buildings and also that many structures did not out-live either their designers or inhabitants. What struck me when I first saw the documentation of Matta Clark’s work was that the act of carving and slicing, as beautiful and as breath-taking as the results were,

seemed to express the artist’s dissatisfaction with things. Not exactly a violent protest but a statement of his desire to re-draw the Euclidean space of a building and that building’s relationship to its exterior and the space of the city.

It is at this point, when I made the comparison with Matta Clark, that I begun to consider what might be found beyond the symbolism of the Cordial House Project. I should come clean and say that it is not the expression of dissatisfaction that interests me in an artwork but the form of that expression. What excites me about art is not an allusion to the state of things but the suggestion of what does not exist. This is what I value most in Matta Clark’s work. My concern for the form of an expression might be considered old fashioned by some but it is an approach I apply when encountering all works of art.

The Cordial Home Project was perhaps not much to look at and the details of the building and its contents, clues to previous owner’s life and times, were hidden in the interior of the structure; but this was something I welcomed as it avoided any suggestion of the humanism evident in Rachel Whiteread’s work which sentimentalises the traces of time passed in a domestic space. It was the weight of the piece that impressed most, a dirty mass of second-hand building materials presented in the useless state of an artwork.

The impression was one of a negative expression.

Except I remember that the artists stated that they wanted to discover the essence of a house. I am far too skeptical to believe that a house can have an essence or for that matter, to believe in essences much at all; but I liked the idea that the artists wanted to reflect upon the status, comforts and security offered by a house, even if this interest in essences was at odds with the artist’s declared project of deconstructing the home. But it is the title of the piece that opens up the work, that suggests that the material exhibited by Healy and Cordeiro could be anything other than an inert mass of junk that reflects a dire circumstance of everyday life.

‘Cordial Home’, of course, implies not just a warm and welcoming ‘Home’ but a condensed substance that can be reconstituted as a place to dwell in. A solution of some sort is needed for that reconstitution to occur but what that solution might be remains elusive. It is not just a question of pumping mortar or air into a collection of bricks and wood. This is where the real interest and impact of the work lies, with the work’s missing ingredient. That no solution is suggested by the artists and that a solution is difficult for the viewer to imagine makes the Cordial Home Project less of a proposition and more of an allegory about the need for change. I have a feeling that the negative aspects of the work outweigh the other elements such as collaboration, an aspect of the work celebrated by the artists. But then whether solutions can be found for the concerns raised by the Cordial Home Project is not necessarily for Cordeiro and Healy to say to but something for society at large to confront.