Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro: “Par Avion”
Frey Norris Gallery
Art AsiaPacific May/ June 2012

By Jessica C. Kraft

As the United States’ and other national postal systems head towards obsolescence, one would think that the practice of mail art, an avant-garde movement that began in the 1960s and culminated in the early ‘90s, would also be nearly defunct in today’s digital age. Yet the dying art form was reinvigorated, if briefly, in “Par Avion,” where an entire disassembled Cessna aircraft was mailed to Frey Norris Gallery from Australia, by postal carrier plane, as part of an installation by the Sydney-based artist duo Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro.

The large-scale installation Par Avion (2011), the centerpiece and namesake of the artist duo’s first US exhibition, is named after the phrase commonly stamped on international mailing labels. For Par Avion (meaning “By Plane” in French), the aircraft was broken down into 69 pieces and mailed sans packaging, where each fragment was instead secured as mail-able objects, with official orange and yellow postal labels, and the destination address written on the objects by hand. Upon arrival in San Francisco, the pieces were arranged across the gallery floor and walls to replicate the shape of a plane. The plane was acquired from a scrap dealer, which was then carefully dismantled into pieces that were each no more than three feet in length. In their artists’ statement, Cordeiro and Healy concede to the gimmickry of sending a plane by airmail: “We think that it is apt that such postal etiquette should be placed upon the small parcels that once comprised a vehicle of air travel.” Yet beyond this somewhat juvenile notion, the duo also encourages viewers to find other layers of meaning in the staged dismantling.

For Par Avion, the pair drew inspiration from late 19th- and early 20th-century travel literature, such as Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and Luigi Barzini’s non-fictional Peking to Paris (1908), which told of an era in which human horizons were greatly expanded by newly invented methods of transportation. But for contemporary travelers, the carefree pursuit of wanderlust is no longer an untainted ideal. The layout of the installation, in which each piece is laid out like evidence from a plane wreckage, evokes the highly securitized environment of air travel in the wake of the September 11 attacks, with the fear of terrorist attacks never far from a traveler’s mind. Par Avion plays with the fundamental ambivalence that we feel towards aviation: it is the ultimate escape from earthbound responsibilities that always carries a potential risk of physical endangerment.

For the exhibition the duo also created a squadron of paper airplane-shaped sculptures made from jet scraps. Affixed to the walls of the gallery, the installation evoked the simple Japanese paper-folding technique that inspired its title, Origami Airplane (2011). These smaller pieces were a whimsical counterpoint to the grounded plane display, referencing an object of grade school classroom hi-jinks. The sculptures of Origami Airplane looked like they flew head-on into the wall, piercing its surface. The playful association with childhood games is at once compounded with the notion of potential risks of air travel. As with Par Avion, Origami Airplane explores the sensitive relationship we have with the wondrous possibilities and inherent dangers of aviation.

In the past, Cordeiro and Healy have dealt similarly with large-scale projects that comprise the disassembly and reconstruction of evocative objects, such as Legos, IKEA bookshelves and processed foods. But this exhibition marks the first time the duo involved another professional service in the creation of an installation. One can only imagine the mail carrier’s reaction to Par Avion, as they brought piece after piece of the dismantled Cessna to the gallery. In an era of e-communication, did the installation validate the necessity of incorporating postal delivery as part of the project, or were the aircraft pieces just a baffling burden? “Par Avion,” in addition to its amusing homage to air travel, by mailing an entire plane via another plane, explores the delicate balance of promise and risk inherent in flight and aviation.