Phil Brett introduces the art of Cornelia Parker.
I was only vaguely familiar with the artist Cornelia Parker, when in 1998, Steve, a good friend of mine, suggested that we visit the London Serpentine Gallery for an exhibition of hers. At the time, I wasn’t in a good emotional place, so I might have expected a pub rather than a gallery, but nonetheless I agreed. It was a good choice. What I saw entranced me. I sat on the floor, staring in wonder at Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989). The silver plated cutlery had been flattened by a steam roller and hung by wires. They shimmered in the light, floating mid-air, casting shadows on the wooden floor, with the elegance of an Alexander Calder mobile.
My unfamiliarity to Cornelia Parker was due to my lack of knowledge, rather than any obscurity on her part. Rising alongside, but not essentially a part of, the wave of Young British Artists, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who gained prominence from the late 1980s, Parker has become a major contemporary British artist. She has benefitted from the explosion in the global art market (which in 2015 was estimated to be worth £63.8 billion). This year, has seen the publication of a monograph (Thames & Hudson) on her, a major installation at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a documentary by the BBC arts programme Imagine and her curatorship of an exhibition at the London Foundling Museum. Her work includes installations, paintings, drawings, photographs, even embroidery.
That she is not as well-known as either Emin or Hirst is perhaps due to the fact that generally she has avoided the jeering of the tabloid media in their self-appointed role of guardians of ‘what is art?’ Not that she has escaped completely. Whilst the new may not shock very often, it can provoke sneering. This, they did to The Maybe (1995) which had actress Tilda Swindon sleeping in a glass box. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described common sense as being the ideas of the ruling class; the tabloid media have appointed themselves as defenders of the ‘common sense’ view of what is art. She also received a dismissive reaction from such quarters with her 2003 piece The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). This was Rodin’s The Kiss, wrapped in string. The concept was to show the “claustrophobia of relationships”, how they can bind and protect, but also constrain and restrain. Such thoughts weren’t accepted by some, with a group of art students cutting off the string. It insulted great art, they said. Missing the irony that Rodin himself had been so accused in his time.
The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). (2003)
Freedom is a theme found often in her work. Generally, she is not regarded as a ‘political artist’ as Mona Hatoum or Jeremy Deller might be. Parker herself has said that she is merely, “a human being trying to negotiate the laws of the land” but that said, she also believes that “being an artist is a political act”.
Looking at how one aspect of her work has evolved is instructive. She is perhaps best known for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) where she got the British Army to blow up a shed full of household objects and then hung them around a lightbulb. The effect of the hanging broken domesticity and their shadows is stunning; questioning the familiar and making them cryptic. Looking at it makes me feel like I am prying into someone’s private world. The art being suspended, allows the viewer more freedom to observe it, from a variety angles; more than you could a painting, where generally, the onlooker is prepositioned. With this you can circle it. Again, one gets the sense of snooping. This is one of my favourite pieces of art – I find it to be at once, static but also changing, every-day but mysterious. But to be honest, I find it difficult to explain clearly why I like it so much. Perhaps that is because as Marxist art critic, John Berger, wrote, “All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.”
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
In 2004 and Parker used in a similar way, the remains of a church which had been burnt down in a forest fire. Both its title (Heart of Darkness) and its composition, she said, was a deliberate metaphor for the right-wing politics of the USA.
Heart of Darkness (2004)
A year later and she developed the theme in Anti-Mass (2005), with a church, this time not burnt down by nature, but a black congregational church which had been fire-bombed by racist bikers. Assembled as a cube it looks like an abstract painting, yet it stands as a very concrete and physical condemnation of racist violence.
Who Parker works with is interesting. Marx wrote that when Milton was writing Paradise Lost he was an unproductive worker; he was just like a silk worm producing silk, but when he had sold it he had become a dealer in a commodity. The position of some of today’s artists (Hirst for example) is further complicated by the fact they employ teams of people to create their art. They are employers. Art as a money-making commodity can at the very least be a strong counter pole of attraction to producing silk for the sake of it.
Parker does employ others to aid her in her art but they are an important part of their meaning. She chose the British Army to blow up the shed as a challenge to her view of authority, in her words, a touch of “sleeping with the enemy”, and simultaneously questioning who an artist should work with. I also think it is a clever choice – because in modern wars armies don’t just blow up military targets, but civilian ones. The shed represents people’s homes, their lives, their memories.
To celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta, The British Library asked Parker to create a piece of art. She decided to embroider a Wikipedia entry on the document. She did some of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) herself but she also chose 200 other people to help her for different bits. Again, she chose carefully, as well as thirty three prisoners, individuals were asked to embroider particular words, such as Julian Assange (freedom), Doreen Lawrence (justice) and Edward Snowden (liberty) – feeling that by doing it, these people physically creating these words, the art was given more power.
Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015)
In the Imagine, programme she told presenter Alan Yentob that she feels that she is, “increasingly more political as I get older”. This is obvious with Magna Carta (An Embroidery) but also War Room (2015) which she created in the Manchester Whitworth Gallery; a chapel-like room is made out of the red sheets which rememberence poppies are made from. One enters it in a hush, looking at the mass of red, but with the empty holes somehow capturing the lost lives of a futile war.
War Room (2015)
Possibly, her most explicitly political piece is a video instalation, Chomskian Abstract (2007). This is an interview by Cornelia Parker of Noam Chomsky, the Marxist historian, social critic and activist. Her voice is edited out so you only hear the answers, thus the viewer is free to insert their own questions, as Chomsky silently listens, before you hear his articulate answers. The topics range from power, the environment, foreign policy and capitalism. She was intrgued by Chomsky because of his “clarity, cutting through the McCarthyist fug of Bush’s America”.
The links to the three-part interview are as follows:
The art of Cornelia Parker always interests and often moves me. For me, she fits how John Berger finishes the earlier quote, “Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.”
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.
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