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By Jenna Lee, Assistant News Editor • July 12, 2024

A space odyssey, both artistic and appetizing

If you’re planning a trip to Mars, make sure to pack Velveeta macaroni and cheese – 40 boxes of it, to be precise.

In a new exhibit examining space exploration through earthly eyes, Australian artists Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy blend statistics, American culture and groceries to create a rendering of the common man’s necessities for a hypothetical excursion to Mars.

The first of Cordeiro and Healy’s displays to make it to the United States, “Are We There Yet?” occupies two spaces at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, using nearly 1,500 common grocery products to create a visual manifestation of human consumption.

Media Credit: Avra Bossov
Patrons explore the centerpiece of ‘Are We There Yet?’ – a mattress with a spacesuit surrounded by common American grocery items. The Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit opens to the public Dec. 3.

“Are We There Yet?” utilizes aesthetically-designed stacks of common, ready-made supermarket items, ranging from Marlboro Red cigarettes to Saltine crackers, to create symmetrical hemispheres that are reflected on the gallery’s gold flooring.

“We wanted to set it up so the objects created half a globe on top of a reflective surface. Once you saw the reflective surface, it would visually become a whole sphere. It’s subtle, but it sort of looks like a globe, or a series of planets,” Cordeiro explained.

The endeavor was as much mathematical as it was artistic. To determine the quantities of each product used in the installation, the artists referred to calculations of the total caloric intake one would need to sustain a 520-day voyage to Mars and back. The calculation amounted to a colossal 1,976,000 total calories, an amount represented by all of the food products combined.

The inclusion of 360 cans of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli, 624 cans of Carnation evaporated milk and massive quantities of eight other featured items provides an astounding visual representation of human consumption.

“They’ve recreated a planetary solar system, a cosmological supermarket,” said Beatrice Gralton, the Evelyn S. Nef associate curator of contemporary art.

Cordeiro and Healy referred to published studies of the top 10 most popular grocery products in America to choose the products that would be included in the artistic display. The brands were primarily chosen based upon their ability to remain fresh throughout the entirety of the exhibit.

The gallery’s insertion of aesthetic mounds of beer cans and cheese puffs inadvertently emits a morbidly comical commentary on the average American diet, but the artists note that the intention of the installation is not to provide a social commentary on health.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a comment [on American health], it’s more just a presentation of what we found statistically and factually,” Healy said.

“It doesn’t need to be too didactic, it just is what it is,” Cordeiro said.

Appropriately, the artists drew inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” when envisioning the spatial layout of the installation. The focal point of the gallery – a space suit donated for the gallery by NASA, laying on a bed – alludes to the final scene of the film.

The presentation arrives at a poignant time in modern culture, coinciding with the recent conclusion of the Mars-500 project and the discontinuation of NASA’s shuttle program.

Marking “mixed feelings” about the conclusion of such ambitious ventures, Healy notes that the quest for space exploration still engages the common man, whose presence is reflected in the mass display of conventional, earthly groceries.

“[The exhibition] is about our mark that we leave on the planet and what we leave behind. We are considering what we consume, but what about the residue after you’ve consumed that thing? Then what happens?” Healy explained.

“Are We There Yet?” is the third presentation in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “NOW at the Corcoran” exhibition series, and will remain on display until March 12. All of the products will be donated to food banks and various organizations after the exhibit closes.

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