Driven By Curiosity: Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain (2022)

To my mind, one event from Cornelia Parker’s difficult childhood stands out as especially relevant to the course of her later career. This was when she put coins on train tracks to see what happened to them. Standing back as they were crushed and remade into unique objects. Transformed and reborn to feed her nascent imagination, the manifestation of a deep curiosity.

Despite the attendant danger and being terrified of trains, such a prank must have been a source of wonder to the fledgling artist; not just in terms of art, but also as testing nerve. Not knowing what could happen, either to the coins or herself. Beginning as she says ‘a long relationship with squashing’ and demonstrating courage and commitment to seeing a good idea through, no matter what the difficulties or tensions might be.

This current exhibition of Cornelia Parker’s art at Tate Britain is comprehensive and spans her entire career. As Laura Cumming recently pointed out, it is a show easily 20 years overdue. Arranged and presented to set Parker’s practice into context, offering the artgoer a chance to engage and confront several of the most significant peices of recent contemporary art by one of this country’s most astute and innovative artists.

The Exhibition Design

‘Cornelia Parker At Tate Britain’ consists of nine galleries; each examining a particular aspect of the artists’ practice that together, present an ‘up till now’ account of her overall output. We also see a selection of films made by the artist- works that in my opinion, are worthy of an exhibition in their own right. Included in the show are two new pieces, created especially for Tate Britain, that consider how we memorialise war. Examining the symbols used in our society to acknowledge such things and ultimately asking questions about the assumptions and conditions that facilitate conflict.

As far as this article is concerned, I hope that the following selection of works gives the reader enough of an incentive to visit, because this is a fine exhibition of an artist at the peak of their powers. Yes, they are my personal choices, but I have tried to include a wide range of different examples, in order to demonstrate Parker’s expansive approach to making art.

Broadly Speaking

Cornelia Parkers’ significance as a artist has arguably been overshadowed by her more famous contemporaries. So despite a number of high profile works and numerous commissions, she is still a bit of a secret and has- to an extent- for some years remained an artists’ artist. To people who have actually seen her work- at least those whom I have spoken to personally- there is an almost universal respect. An acknowledgement of her oblique approach that finds poetry in the everyday and uses this to touch on deeper truths. On the other hand, certain works have provoked a negative response. From the Stuckist movement for example, who several years ago took umbrage at her wrapping a version of Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ in string. Choosing it as an embodiment of the things they thought wrong with contemporary art. This was a flawed analysis in my view, but you can judge for yourself as the 2003 work, entitled ‘The Distance (A Kiss With Strings Attached)’, is on display in the current exhibition.

After the Stuckist incident, in which those involved actually cut the strings from the sculpture, these were re-tied by the artist. Making it in my opinion a new and in some ways more interesting work. All art has a finite lifespan and the knots used added an extra dimension to ‘The Distance’, marking the event and becoming a part of its history. Highlighting its temporal nature that then becomes fixed into the poetry of the piece.

Characteristically, ‘The Distance’ begins with something already possessed of a history and therefore able to be co-opted by the artist (‘The Kiss’ being a sculpture many people are familiar with and feel a connection to). Parker has subtly altered the work to express something about the power dynamics apparent in relationships. The inspiration for the piece coming from one of Parker’s self confessed ‘heroes’, that king of conceptualism himself, Marcel Duchamp.

In 1942, Duchamp filled a New York gallery with 16 miles of web like string for a ‘part art, part prank’ installation sometimes called ‘Duchamp’s Twine’. Despite it’s seemingly jocular nature, with children being encouraged to play and cause mayhem amid the threads, he was in fact making a serious point about the chaos and suffering of a world war raging far away, around the world at that time. Likewise, in Parker’s art, serious issues are expressed through apparently abstract, cryptic or even humorous forms.

Duchamp’s practice also included heralding everyday, but very specific things as works of art (in the name of the artist) and defacing or deforming existing works of art. Activities that were fundamentally democratic in intention, offering artists a way beyond style. All ideas that are manifest in Parker’s work.

‘The Distance’ can be seen as a clever sculptural intervention, whose full title is a witty pun. Parker’s titles are intriguing and necessary to establishing the theme, narrative, scale and subject of a particular piece; something often achieved in a cryptic manner. Adding to a work layers of meaning and associations that enhance and contextualise, beyond that which is immediately visible. Sometimes they are deceptively simple. One word or a compound can be enough to speak volumes.

‘Not Quite’ An Object’

Some of the works on display have their root in phenomena Parker has encountered or discovered. When visiting the city, the artist heard about ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’- a condition sometimes experienced by Pilgrims. This is when something like a stain on a surface, cracked pavement or wall can evoke a holy or sacred image, such as the face of Jesus. ‘Spilt Milk’, ‘Old Stain’, ‘Broken View’ and ‘Cloud Burst’ are 4 photographs from 2012, derived from such experiences.

The context of works like ‘Avoided Object- Photographs Of The Sky Above The Imperial War Museum’ (from 1999) is what make them powerful. A series of black and white photographs showing clouds, personallly taken by the artist in the recent now. But the thing is, Parker used Rodolf Höss’s camera- the same one he had when Commandant of Auschwitz. Leading us beyond the work itself in order to focus upon that which is barely comprehensible. Context also applies to the transformation of materials. Videotapes of pornography, confiscated by British Customs are transmuted into ink, which are then used to make inkblots suggestive of female genitalia. Or snake venom mixed with black paint, applied together with white paint made with the corresponding antivenom. An abstract battle that could so easily have become a dry exercise, is instead as visually interesting as it is conceptually.

Parker’s art can sometimes be intimate and deceptively minimalist- as evident in her beautiful pocket sized sculptures and works on paper. In terms of ingenuity and execution, exhibits like ‘Embryo Firearms’ from 1995, demonstrate how Parker’s creative process can result in works manifesting abstract qualities, whilst still retaining visual characteristics recognisably of this world. Of such subjects she says ‘If I could somehow plumb their depths, tap into their inner essence, I might find an unknown place, which by its very nature is abstract… both representational and abstract at the same time’. Such is the case with these embryonic guns- arrested during their production process- that permanently hold off the possibility of becoming instruments of death.

‘We Know Who We Are, We Know What You Have Done’ was produced in 2008. A significant year. The more we are watched as citizens is probably inversely proportional to how accountable are those doing the watching. Parker’s ‘Medal Of Dishonour’ was produced for the British Museum and has the back views of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, looking forwards. The implication being that we see what they are doing over their shoulders and are therefore in some way complicit- a difficult truth to acknowledge. It is worth considering that in ancient times, it was the rulers’ image on money that legitimised both their authority and the value of the currency. Prior to the time this work was made, vocal groups had been rallying to say ‘not in my name’ over the wars and regime changes, implemented by America and Britain in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Larger Works

‘Thirty Peices Of Silver’ is a collection of polished silver plate objects that have been flattened by steamroller. These have then been meticulously arranged into 30 evenly spaced separate circular clusters, horizontally suspended a few centimetres above the gallery’s wooden floor using fine wires. Each one is lit from above, so that they all lie in their own ‘pool’ of light. This light causes delicate and shifting shadows to be cast, as any breeze gives them a tiny nudge. However, when this happens they do not move out of their set patterns, only shimmer slightly.

Parker was inspired to make this installation by the violent but amusing ‘cartoon deaths’ of the ‘Roadrunner’ variety- imagine an anvil falling off a cliff and flattening a cartoon character (if under the age of 35, something you may need to familiarise yourself with).

Following on directly from this idea is the fact that ‘Thirty Peices Of Silver’ consciously sits upon the border between two and three dimensions. Posing the question that when something with volume is ironed out, made to be so flat, does it actually cease to be a ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense? By extention, reducing a previously three dimensional series of objects into two dimensions, suggests a certain liberation in getting rid of volume and taking up less space in the world of things.

Whatever the case, ‘Thirty Peices Of Silver’ is certainly a beautiful work, whose Biblically inspired title implies some kind of trade off. An example of how, deprived of their original fuction, the made becomes unmade or remade.

The above work is accompanied by ‘Thirty Peices of Silver (Exposed)’ 2015. A recent series of Photogravures, based on glass photographic plates for a Spinks auction catalogue, that the artist found by chance at Brick Lane Market years before. Each is a mysterious ghostly image, complementary in some way to the surrounding installation.

‘Perpetual Canon’ was orignially made for a circular space, with a domed ceiling that had captivated the artist. The name referring to repetition of a musical phrase.

The work consists of a mixture of flattened silver wind instruments arranged in a spiral, hanging from the ceiling at torso level and having had any possibility of musical sound squeezed out of them- presumably again by the steamroller: ‘their last breath’. Each are suspended on fine wires vertically- in contrast to ‘Thirty Peices Of Silver’- which means that when you approach from the edge of the work head on, they are nearly without substance and almost as thin as cardboard, yet cast fully defined shadows on the wall, because of a light bulb high above.

The artist talked about how the work had evolved. Thinking about how each of the instruments would have originally had ‘thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime’.

Parker’s most famous installation is called ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’. Not only does it take centre stage in this exhibition, but has been extensively used for promotion.

This single room based installation consists of a bare lit bulb in the centre of a sea of fragments, filling most of the available space from floor to ceiling. These are carefully suspended- not touching foor, ceiling or walls- by tiny wires to suggest an explosion stopped.

More than any other, ‘Cold, Dark Matter’ was the piece that came to represent Parker during the 1990s. Typical of the period, opinions as to the merits of this particular work were divided between those who engaged with its many profound themes- which reflected among other things scientific and philosophical ideas, not to mention notions of beauty and relative value- and those who couldn’t really accept that a reconstituted blown up shed could be seriously considered ‘art’. Verbally justifying your work to a mostly disinterested world being the tedious remit for many a contemporary artist, Parker nevertheless eloquently discussed her motivations. On the one hand explaining that ‘Somehow the idea and imminence of the ‘explosion’ in society seemed such an iconic thing. You were being constantly bombarded with its imagery, from the violence of the comic strip, through action films, in documentaries about Super Novas and the Big Bang, and least of all on the news in never ending reports of war.’ The army was asked to detonate the shed and the resulting fragments were reassembled. This gave Parker another view of the project. ‘As the objects were suspended one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated, in limbo. The light on inside the installation created huge shadows on the wall, so the shed looked like it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again’. Parker goes on to explain how she came to view ‘Cold Dark Matter’ not as an explosion, but rather something contemplative. For me, this was how I felt when looking at the work on display at Tate Britain.

Now, indulge and forgive me for a moments’ subjective digression, whilst I mention that there’s a great bit in Terrence Malik’s film ‘Tree Of Life’, in which the primordial Earth and Solar System are depicted with no overt fanfare or drama. Just lots of endless rocks, floating in space, presumably for a vast period of time. ‘Cold, Dark Matter’ also suggests an environment in a perpetually static and ordered state, however breezes (from one knows not where) enter the gallery and occasionally animate individual components, thereby shifting the shadows on the walls.

The bulb at the centre of this installation doesn’t only suggest a star (pretty obvious), but also something more artificial and human made- evocative of the clutteted interior of Aston’s room in Pinter’s ‘Caretaker’ or the crowded nostalgia wardrobe in The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’ video by Tim Pope. An image some might find claustrophobic, but I don’t.

Finally, it is important to mention that although these many fragments appear to be randomly distributed (by the original explosion), they are in fact carefully arranged- with the same attention paid to composition and harmony as in any other artwork. This naturally extends to the aforementioned shadows that are cast all around the gallery.

Politics & Parliament

When appointed official artist for the 2017 UK General Election, Parker used her work to engage the public in the national debate about our political, social and environmental futures. Caring enough to put her head above the trench and speak her mind politically, as someone acutely aware of the problems facing both this country and the world in general. However, rather than lecturing the audience, she explored these issues using poetic and associative means. Not in order to obscure the directness of message, but rather to enhance it. Using art to make plain the complexity and extremes of the early 21st century world and it’s many dichotomies. Seeing the pivotal role it can play in addressing humanity’s place in the Anthropocene Era. Parker says: ‘This is the time we all need to politically engage. We need art more than ever because it’s like a digestive system, a way of processing’.

Such an analogy- although recalling Solzhenitsyn describing the Gulag- suggests a biological conception of art as an essential component of the body politic, elevated within society to a value greater than its current status as an ‘optional extra’. Each work becoming a catalyst, helping individuals to ‘process’ information and ideas. Thus enhancing the collective wisdom of the community.

Films

Parker has been making films since 2007 and each engages the viewer politically, using a variety of approaches.

In both ‘Left, Right and Centre’ and ‘Thatcher’s Finger’, a desolate and enpty House Of Commons appears threatening and malevolent. A place that hints at dark and hidden secrets. We see newspapers blowing through the chamber like a toxin unleashed, all very ’28 Days Later’ in the absence of people; as if something has gone terribly wrong. Any lighting comes only from the camera, as if this film might be a discovery. In ‘ Thatcher’s Finger’, the revolutionary PM’s looming presence is felt from beyond the grave; her statue revered and reviled in just about equal measure. Pointing the way ahead to her chaotic and unstable future.

The thing that struck me first about ‘War Machine’ (2015) was the sound. Echoing from outside the gallery, it was naked and repetitive, as I initially tried to work out what the factory process depicted on screen was all about. Once this becomes apparent, the film invites the viewer on the one hand to associate impersonal stages in the manufacturing of memorial poppies, with the way opinions or even soldiers may be sytematically shaped by the environments from which they came. As if formed by the preset mechanisms at work within society that drill and mould each from an individual into a cog. Simultaneously, the work documents how several small pieces of plastic and card become symbols that in our culture embody the very essence of remembrance. The interesting point being the moment when they are joined together to become a collective and very visible representation of our memories of war, bravery and sacrifice.

‘War Machine’- as the name suggests- implies that the large number of poppies are standing in for people; something echoed in a companion piece on display called ‘War Room’. This consists of an otherwise empty gallery, lit by a single bare bulb, in which the walls and ceiling are covered with reams of red paper like a large tent. This paper is repeatedly perforated with holes that are the offcuts of the poppy making process, in the shape of absent poppies. An expanded memorial- not just to those lost in war- but by default, also acknowledging those left behind. The wider community.

‘Made In Bethlehem’ depicts a father and son working at making crowns, each of which are hand made from thorns of the kind worn by Christ when he was Crucified. Nearby large numbers of these are piled in a vast heap, destined for the numerous tourists and pilgrims who visit the town of Bethlehem. Both of the men are asked questions as they continue their task. But it is the father, Muhammed Hussain Ba-our who opens up, talking honestly and revealing a picture about his life and hopes for a better future in the region.

Does the repetitive nature of the two men’s task of making in any way diminish or detract from the symbolic power of the finished crowns? I mean what are these run of the mill objects for and exactly how do they connect to an event that reportedly happened 2000 years ago? Like the paper poppies of the previous film, these crowns are products intended for commerce. At least in part anyway. Whatever significance they may have- spiritual, emotional or otherwise- is only to be found in the eyes of their eventual beholder. How much engagement each of the two makers have in their work is perhaps exemplified by the attitude of Ba-our’s son. Kicking back in his seat and less responsive to questioning or maybe just shy of the camera.

By presenting subjects from such an oblique vantage, Parker is able to draw back curtains on hidden mechanisms and operating systems that are at work in the world.

‘Election Abstract’ presents a series of 1500 social media fragments, projected and condensed into 3 minutes at high speed. These were extracted from the 2017 general election and its ensuing political ‘debate’, in which the artist played the role of official artist. It paints a saccharine and saturated picture, capturing something of that particularly fraught and toxic campaign. Lots of TV magazine yellows and pinks in leu of ideas and hopes.

‘FLAG’ presents a dissection in reverse of the Union flag, filmed at a factory in Swansea. Not a new subject for art of course (think Jasper Johns), but a very relevant one when considering the emotive and confrontational ways it is used in our time. Here we see an example of a symbol ceasing to exist, as all of the parts are undone.

One gallery is devoted to ‘American Gothic’- four films projected onto panels that were taken in New York during 2016 using IPhones. The films depict Halloween celebrations and a rally outside Trump Tower, just a few days before the demagogue’s election. These are slowed down and consequently present a nightmarish grotesque or something resembling a medieval danse macabre. A mirror held up to reflect a collective state of mind that appears gratified in ignorance, if not actually fixed in some kind of atrophied stupor.

‘American Gothic’ is of course a painting by Grant Wood that reveals something of the interior world of early 20th century small-town America- the one captured in countless films and photographs. In Parker’s work, one gets the impression of people drifting somnambulantly towards something that may be unknown. But you just sense its not going to work out well.

All we see are people moving across the four screens and the films are endlessly looped. Together with their distorted soundtrack, they reminded me of Chris Morris mixed with Martin Parr.

Parker has also incorporated mainstream film influences into her sculptural work. For example, with ‘Psycho Barn’ from 2016, which was set up on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This dramatic and theatrically distorted structure is based upon Norman Bates’ house in ‘Psycho’, itself based upon a painting by Edward Hopper. Barns are often the setting for nasty things that happen in folklore and ‘Psycho Barn’ hints at the underlying darkness sometimes present in the heart of American life. Like some kind of portal to a David Lynch story.

Island

Closing the exhibition is ‘Island’.

‘When I was a child, we had a market garden and grew quantities of tomatoes in greenhouses. To protect them from the harsh summer sun, we would whitewash the windows. Later, as an artist, I wanted to find a meaningful material to make whitewash with’.

So she chose chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover- a material the artist had used previously in works on a smaller scale. A substance that represented something iconic and instantly associated with notions of ‘Britishness’. Yet being made from soluable limestone means that, far from being immovable and permanent, the cliffs are easily washed away by the ebb and flow of the tides.

Our image of the white cliffs is however different from the reality, in that they still manage to evoke in the collective imagination a solid and reliable past. A Churchilian sense of national defiance that in recent years has mutated- like the pound itself- to become a comforting, yet delusional symbol of British identity and unity.

‘Island’ was made especially for this exhibition and rightly, leaves the visitor with more questions than answers to chew upon. It functions as a thrown gauntlet in the wake of the many problems we face; both in this country as citizens and generally as a species.

A ordinary greenhouse sits on a base made from encaustic tiles taken from the Houses of Parliament. Here in the centre of a gallery, this is lit by a bulb from within. On each window are whitewash marks, stippled over the surface of the glass, that obstruct the outgoing light and cast magnified shadows onto the surrounding walls.

The greenhouse is a powerful symbol. Very much representative of a particular place, of home and a sedentary existence. On the one hand, nurturing and protecting the young and vulnerable. Whilst also closing off the outside world and creating its own interior climate.

Each brush mark on the glass of this greenhouse interior is a marker. Something that when you think about it, can easily be washed or worn away over time (like the cliffs from which the wash is made). Each mark is also a way of obscuring visibility both ways through the glass: ‘whitewash’ being an apt and revealing term, used here deliberately. Distorting what we can see when looking inside and obscuring the outside view from within. Creating a boundary that can lead to greater misunderstanding. The very fabric of our democracy is represented in the fractured tiles that make up the foundation of the work. Their patterns, just like the cliffs, have been worn away over time by the feet of those in power: the flawed but precious tracks of decisions made on our behalf.

When looking at the glass, I thought the white marks sometimes seemed to shift or evaporate, depending on where I was standing. In other words, at a certain distance you could see through them. Whereas closer up, they obscured any view inside the greenhouse like a miasmatic fog. Could this be a reflection of our own media biased times? In which distorted opinions or misinformation can distract from the possibility of any objective truth being revealed. Close up, tracked and trapped in the bubbles created by social media, for example, where black can be made to appear white and visa versa.

Conclusion

I had been looking forward to this exhibition for some time and wasn’t disappointed, having been acquainted with Cornelia Parker’s art since my student days. What originally drew me to it is the magical way in which she is able to make visible, to express with such striking eloquence and clarity, important points about contemporary life that would otherwise remain invisible. Also, in the way she is able to reveal just how interconnected these things actually are.

An eloquence expressed by highlighting the underlying poetry to be found in the everyday environment- a characteristic shared by one of her own talented students, from when teaching at Cardiff Art School in the early 1990s. His name was Christopher Andrews and we were friends. It was initially thanks to him that I became familiar with Parker’s work.

In conclusion, ‘Cornelia Parker At Tate Britain’ has been well thought out and presents a range of different works that add up to a comprehensive account of the artist. Furthermore it is an easy exhibition to navigate, so well worth an investment of time on the part of the artgoer. The kind of show that will give you a fresh perspective on what forms art can take, as well as what it can actually achieve in the hands of such a capable practitioner. It is certainly the case that you will leave with more than you started with.

(c) Gideon Hall 2022