Par Avion? (detail) 2011?12, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, Installation view,? MCA, 2012

Intellectual scavengers … (clockwise from main) Healy and Cordeiro's exhibition satirises materialism; detail from Par Avion (2001-12), Drunken Clarity (2011); Luck Exists in the Leftovers (2010). Photo: Jenni Carter

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro may be the first Australian artists to take full advantage of the new globalised art world. Over the past decade they have travelled incessantly, undertaken residencies in Europe and Asia, and exhibited their work in museums and private galleries from Kathmandu to Washington DC.

The Museum of Contemporary Art has taken note of the duo's achievements by hosting a compact, mid-career survey that manages to get almost everything into a single large gallery.

This is oddly appropriate for artists who have spent much of their time trying to reduce buildings, aeroplanes and the contents of a room into the smallest possible packages. It entails, however, a reliance on documentary photographs to give some impression of the large-scale projects that have helped put Healy and Cordeiro on the map.

Chief among these was Not under My Roof (2008), which was nothing less than the floor of a moderately sized bungalow hung like a gigantic geometric abstraction on a wall at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art. The work had echoes of the plaster cast of the interior of a London suburban house made by Rachel Whiteread in 1993, and the architectural interventions of New Yorker Gordon Matta-Clark but owed its impact to the way it preserved the atmosphere of an ordinary family home, with each room displaying a different kind of linoleum.

On the wall of a museum this floor revealed its entire history - the life of a family that had grown up in these rooms. Healy and Cordeiro had not changed the floor at all, merely its context. It was transformed from a utilitarian structure into a human document: monumental in scale but intimate in feeling. Where so many large-scale works of contemporary art are inherently bombastic, this piece was only as big as it had to be.

It's a shame that Not under My Roof and another major work, Life Span (2009), exist in this show solely in photographic form, because these pieces owed much of their power to their physical presence. In the MCA's defence, there is probably not a wall in the building big enough to hold the former work.

Life Span was first shown as part of an Australian satellite exhibition during the 2009 Venice Biennale, where it upstaged our ''official'' entries. It is a monolith made up of 175,218 video cassettes, mostly black but with a few teasing flashes of colour. To watch every film would require a little more than 60 years, which was the average human life span in 1976, when VHS was introduced.

The work bears a passing resemblance to the Kaaba at Mecca and plays on the idea of the time we spend worshipping the glowing screen in the corner of the room.

A final piece I was able to see in its first incarnation was Luck Exists in the Leftovers (2010), which was installed in a traditional Japanese house on the island of Teshima during the inaugural Setouchi Art Festival. It consisted of a large-scale replica of a dinosaur skeleton that straddled a mass of furniture and boxes. In the kitchen, the artists had dug a hole and left a telltale bone to support the fiction that the skeleton had been excavated on the spot.

This piece had a self-reflexive element, harking back to the stacked furniture and objects of previous works, and identifying the archaeological aspect of Healy and Cordeiro's activities. They often seem to be gathering items of material culture and rearranging them into neat piles. It's a simple process that allows the artists to undertake a radical transformation of space, as a house or a caravan is dismantled, piece by piece, and reassembled as a dense cube of debris.

There is an absurd logic to this process, as if the world had such a shortage of space that it made sense to reduce everything to a compacted state. But the transformation of house or caravan into a work of art is also an act of destruction that renders the object dysfunctional. To try to put it back together would be even more absurd.

Such transformations have a hint of Dada about them in their wilful desire to take something useful and render it useless. The caravan loses its mobility, the house no longer provides shelter. Rows of books have been cut down to fit a set of narrow shelves, making these volumes into mere decoration - which is probably the way an increasing number of people relate to books nowadays.

The final irony is that these entities trade use value for fetish value, becoming works of art that may be bought and sold for ever-larger sums of money as the artists grow more famous. Eventually, piles of junk may be displayed in a museum like some fabulous treasure.

It would be slightly misleading to refer to Healy and Cordeiro as sculptors. They are better viewed as conceptual artists who arrange pre-existing materials into new configurations. Most of their work has a simplicity and clarity that only requires a moment's attention to reveal an underlying paradigm.

In their orderly accumulations of junk they portray a civilisation drowning in a sea of its own garbage, acquiescent in the ethics of built-in obsolescence. At the same time they are satirising our materialism, the ''system of objects'' that stands in place of a spiritual credo. They play the part of rag-pickers, gathering up the bottles and cardboard boxes that others discard. This reaches its apogee in an installation called Drunken Clarity (2011), in which broken beer bottles have been mended with gold, like precious Japanese ceramic bowls.

Healy and Cordeiro are intellectual scavengers, picking up an idea here, an image there. In the course of a decade they have turned these scraps into an impressive body of work. There are many echoes of other artworks in these pieces, but the entire ensemble has a breadth and depth that requires no excuses.

As virtual nomads, who live between Sydney and Berlin while taking on residencies in different countries, Healy and Cordeiro are fascinated by the worldwide circulation of goods and people. This comes through in a recurrent preoccupation with dwellings, furniture and modes of transport. The MCA show includes a new commission, featuring an aeroplane suspended by scaffolding in front of the building, in a distant echo of the September 11, 2001, disaster. On a wall inside we find a complete Cessna 172 aircraft cut up and turned into standard-size packages, which have been sent by mail to the US, then returned in the same manner.

Aside from the joke of sending a complete aeroplane by air mail, the cut-up Cessna, called Par Avion (2011-12), is a stage-managed disaster. Instead of a plane exploding into random pieces, it has been dissected with surgical precision and displayed in cruciform style. There is a similar thought behind a series of works made from Lego blocks, which reproduce images of the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after take-off.

The curator, Anna Davis, quotes the French philosopher Paul Virilio, who points out that with the invention of new modes of transport we have invented new forms of disaster. This seems about right for the Lego pieces, which show catastrophes turned into items of popular culture by virtue of their sensational, repetitive appearances in the media.

We can hardly tear ourselves away from such spectacles, which are simultaneously horrifying and compelling. It is one of the accepted obscenities of our times that disasters sell papers and drive up ratings.

Healy and Cordeiro have included Lego versions of other famous explosions in Ignition, a commercial show at Gallery Barry Keldoulis. Although the exhibition has officially ended, it will still be viewable for another week or so. The highlight is a new set of works called Autoflakes, which arrange Matchbox cars on the wall in the geometric patterns of snowflakes. Each tiny car is slightly worn and battered, gridlocked into an elegant traffic jam.

Incidentally, this is also Keldoulis's final exhibition in this space, as he has decided to close the gallery and work on occasional projects and fairs while the climate for art dealing is so barren.

It's sad to see one of Sydney's most enterprising galleries take this route, but not all disasters are accompanied by massive explosions. The consumer economy itself, with its painful adaptations to new technology and new ways of thinking; its cycles of boom and bust; its patterns of spending; its ever-changing fads and fashions, often resembles a slow-motion train wreck.

johnmcdonald.net.au

CLAIRE HEALY & SEAN CORDEIRO

Museum of Contemporary Art, until December 2