An art exhibit caught between the moon and a jug of cheese puffs

Entering a new exhibit in Washington, DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art is like walking into a movie mash-up of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and National Lampoon's Animal House.

In the centre of an ornate room stands a bed on a raised platform. Crashed face-first under the sheets lies what looks like an astronaut who slept through the alarm and missed his spacewalk. It's a pressurised spacesuit, on loan from NASA, surrounded by empty beer and soda cans, crushed-out cigarettes, and junk food. Only after viewers enter and approach the sleeping figure does it become clear that this spaceman is clutching a plastic jug of cheese puffs, as if holding a lover.

The exhibit is called Are We There Yet? and it provides a startling juxtaposition of mankind's greatest dreams and our less-stellar reality.

Orbiting the bed in this room-sized work are nine "planets" represented by stacks of food and beverages. These provisions were chosen by their popularity here on Earth rather than their appropriateness for a space flight. One cluster consists of 40 boxes of Kraft's Velveeta cheese. Another is made up of 360 cans of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli. And still another by 95 cases of Coca-Cola.

The artists, Australian pair Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, even counted up the calories and made sure it was just enough to sustain a team of astronauts for the 520-day voyage to Mars and back. The slick packaging of the well-known brands take on an unearthly glow under the museum lights, seeming to exert a kind of gravitational pull of their own.

The artistic duo has collaborated since they met in graduate school 10 years ago at the University of New South Wales, and they are now enjoying a growing worldwide reputation. They now split their time between studios in Sydney and Berlin. Much of their work involves culture jamming - reconfiguring consumer and found objects and making nods to popular culture as they go. Their work was chosen for the 2009 Venice Biennale, and in addition to the current exhibition, they are about to open a show at Frey Norris gallery in San Francisco.

The exhibit's curator, Beatrice Gralton, said she first encountered their work when strolling along Australia's famous Bondi Beach. The artists had mounted a "sculpture by the sea" consisting of an army tank with a front porch attached and a Weber grill and lawn ornaments nearby. Gralton said she was impressed by their playfulness and ability to respond to different locations. The gallery decided to invite them to make a work as part of its NOW series that highlights emerging and mid-career artists.

As Cordeiro and Healy led a walk-through of the Washington exhibit at its opening this week, they explained that the idea for the show arose when they first travelled to the U.S. to do a site visit of the gallery. During the trip they made stops at both the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, home to pieces of NASA history such as the Apollo 11 command module Columbia from the first lunar landing, and at Costco, the giant wholesale store known for selling goods in bulk. "They're both monumental spaces," Healy said.

She said the work is not meant as a jab at the U.S. space agency, which recently ended its shuttle program. "I have mixed feelings," she said. "It's really important for humans to have these aspirations, but what do you do when we're in such economic strife?"

On display downstairs at the gallery is another dark yet playful take on space travel. A series of wall-mounted works recreate photographs of the 1986 Challenger explosion using Lego blocks. Some of them seem merely abstract bursts of colour, but several are immediately recognizable as a pair of rocket boosters hurling off-course. The works also recall the schoolteacher aboard that fateful flight, who was along for the ride as part of an educational outreach program.

Both artists are now in their late 30s, so were themselves children at the time of the shuttle disaster they depict. Somehow, using the childhood blocks to recreate images of the explosion does not cheapen the event, or even undermine the gravity of what took place. Instead, this unexpected combination, like the artists' other mash-ups, is at once personal and provocative.

Are We There Yet? by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro will be showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until 11 March 2012.

This post originally appeared on New Scientist. Top image via The Corcoran Gallery of Art.