Whether it’s exploding sheds, steamrollering silver or chopping up guns, Cornelia Parker’s ability to transform the plain into something poignant is what defines her as one of the most internationally acclaimed contemporary artists of our times. A full range of her work dating back over the last thirty years is on display at the Tate Britain this summer (19 May–16 October 2022), offering an entertaining day out even for the less-artsy – you don’t need to know a matisse from a monet to enjoy the work of Parker. In fact, it is this accessibility of her work that makes her so popular.
The exhibition showcases Parker’s most eminent works – Cold Dark Matter (1991), Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) and Double Negative (2015) – as well as her more intricate and obscure creations such as Precipitated Gun (2015) and Poison and Antidote (2010). The exhibition spills across a maze of rooms and has been curated to keep visitors on their toes – one minute you’re immersed in a large-scale interactive installation, and the next you’re watching a video projection in a snug, dark room. This disorderly feeling created mirrors the feelings we experience when taking in Parker’s works. Bouncing between multimedia formats of contemporary art and size scales ensures that the “wow factor” from the more installations doesn’t wear off too quickly. There are short artist statements that accompany every piece and these are written by Parker herself to give context to the pieces – without reading these the exhibition can easily pass over you.
Opening with the largest scale installation Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) sets the tone for the exhibition by leaving the observer with a list of questions – Parker’s works are aimed to make us think beyond what meets the eye. Suspended on wires from the ceiling, an array of twinkling trinkets hover just 102mm above the ground as if about to fall and scatter everywhere. The 1116 silver-plated objects include cigarette cases, candle holders, cutlery and even musical instruments. Since a child, Parker has been mesmerised by the act of flattening objects; from coins on a railway track to using a steamroller to flatten these pieces of silver, ultimately her fascination resides in what’s left of objects once they have been destroyed or eroded. She never fails to remind us of how devastatingly cruel the world can be by presenting the remnants of objects following destruction, but also that there is value and beauty within the destroyed and broken. This is possibly a reflection of her own life and struggles, she has managed to resurrect herself and objects, channelling her suffering into something meaningful. Like an enthusiastic child in the playground collecting broken twigs and buttons, she brings these obsolete objects to us in hope of blowing life and meaning into them through acknowledgement.
In an interview with ABC Australia, Parker said: “I had a bullying father and schizophrenic mother – a father who didn’t allow me to play. I worked all the way through my childhood… The idea of not being able to play or if I was playing, I would have to sneak off to do it. This is why art school seemed so attractive because it felt like you were just playing.” Her formative years have certainly shaped her experimental style and techniques – if we weren’t to know these artworks came from Parker, they could easily be passed off as the aftermaths of an intelligible yet unruly teenager without supervision. When we couple her background with the artworks, we can see how mentally and physically cathartic it must have been for her to create them.
The ways in which Parker’s repressed play in childhood emerge in her smaller pieces is particularly spiteful like a bullied child. Let’s take Shared Fate (1998) for example. Enclosed in a plastic coffin, helplessly lies an Oliver Twist ragdoll with feathery red hair that peeps out from underneath his denim blue flat cap. His freckled face squalls in agony at his “shared fate” – he has been sliced in half by the same guillotine used to decapitate France’s last queen Marie Antoinette. Although at first, it may sound like something out of a child’s nightmare, there is certainly something comical about it. It reminds us that throughout history, whilst the world has been full of violence and suffering, we can still find moments of humour and lightness. This dark humour is also very telling of Parker’s character – one of the reasons she is so adored is that she serves everything with a side of satire.
Whilst violence is a prevalent theme throughout almost all of Parker’s works, it isn’t vulgar or gory – instead, she plays with violent acts and objects in a child-like way – she calls this “cartoon violence”. In the same MCA Australia interview, she explained the use of violence in her work: “Well, it originally came from cartoons, Road Runner, for example, suddenly running over a cliff and then thinking, “oh ok”, and then falling. So it’s comic, it’s comic in that respect, as it references cartoons or early silent movies.” Her go-to techniques include flattening, chopping up, slicing and exploding objects, and then rebuilding them in a way that freezes time as if the action was happening over and over again.
For example, Cold Dark Matter (An Exploded View) (1991), arguably one of her most well-known of her works and the poster picture of the exhibition, this exploded garden shed imitates the explosions present in almost all comic strips. Owing to her fascination, she longed to replicate this. But it’s important to note, Cold Dark Matter is not an impulsive daredevil decision to blow up everyday household objects, each item was carefully selected from her own possessions, including those of friends and then special pieces found at car boot sales, all over the course of three months. This project illustrates why reading the artist’s statements is essential for this exhibition and understanding the sentimental value of each artwork.
Parker often plays with themes of duality in her works – light/dark, death/life and upper class/lower class. Considering that this is retrospective and created sometimes over twenty years ago, this theme of life, death and resurrection that she wanted to imitate in her pieces has taken on a new life of its own. Let’s take my personal favourite from the exhibition – Breathless (2001), which consists of 54 brass band instruments suspended on wires in an oculus shape in a large, white cubic room. For Parker’s show at the new British Galleries, it was created to fit the open space that had at the time just been created between the two floors of the Galleries – it was intended to be viewed from above and below, one side tarnished and the other shiny to show that opposites can coexist. Even though she has been given a completely different space to work with at the Tate Britain, she has done a commendable job at making use of light and shadow to recreate a similar viewing experience – as you move around the piece that hangs in an oculus shape, you see different elements and sides to it. The shadow silhouettes also make for a fun, interactive viewing experience.
Throughout her career, Parker has never been one to shy away from politics, but in recent years, this feels much more urgent. “It’s a very inexplicable world we live in at the moment, and I’m always trying to understand it in some kind of way,” she affirmed in an interview with ABC Australia in 2019. “I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing with all my work recently, trying to unpick something a bit hard to swallow”, she says. Her ability and desire to delve into political themes using art as a capsule is certainly one of the reasons why Parker was selected as the UK’s first official General Election Artist back in 2017. With Election Abstract (2017), Parker followed the Snap Election campaigns by collecting 1,500 images and films from Instagram. As the first female to be granted this title, she also gained access to the House of Commons where she based her other two political film projects Left Right & Centre (2018) and Thatcher’s Finger (2018).
Since 2009, film has been the medium that Parker typically tackles political issues with as it leaves less room for rumination – all you simply have to do is watch. For her first ever film, she interviewed renowned philosopher Noam Chomsky on US politics and ecology, Chomskian Abstract (2007) can be watched just outside of the exhibition in the 1780 room. Another film of Parker’s, Made in Bethlehem (2012), hints toward the Middle East’s complex political landscape with a special focus on Palestine-Israel and the inability to find peace. In the film, Parker films Muhammad Hussein Ba-our and his son weaving thorn crowns for Christian pilgrims albeit their Islamic faith. Whilst the video may not explicitly signify Parker’s opinion on the Palestine-Israel conflict, her desire to bring the issue to the forefront and use art as a way to digest difficult topics is what sets her apart from other contemporary artists and keeps her work relevant.
One of the main criticisms of Parker’s work is that her work is too simplistic and lacks traditional technique. In an interview with MCA Australia, Parker explains why: “Doing painting for half of my degree, I missed the induction courses of the sculptural techniques, and so I just decided I was going to use techniques out in the world”. This non-conformism that has defined her style and has made her works so distinguishable. At first, what might appear as simple ideas, there is a whole family tree of ideas rooted behind them, which is why it is so essential to read the short artist statements next to her works at the Tate to fully appreciate the art.
Although Parker’s works may not always be the most artistically skilled, this fusion of ferocity and lighthearted play that she encapsulates in her work is what sets her apart from other contemporary artists and makes this exhibition worthwhile. Unlike the traditional gallery visit, which may be associated with snobbery and stuffiness, she managed to reinvent the Tate Britain as a playground for adults. By taking mundane, everyday objects, she breathes life into them through boundless, artistic exploration, and urges our political apathy through her filmmaking. If you leave everything you ever learnt at art school at the door, you will enjoy adventuring into the child-like, ever-curious mind of Parker.
All images are by me.