Cornelia Parker – A retrospective at the Tate Britain in London
It was about time for London to present the first major survey of Cornelia Parker’s works. This British, London-based artist, responsible for some of the most unique and striking artworks in the last thirty years, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010, and the first woman appointed official artist for the General Election in 2017, shares at the Tate Britain almost 100 works of her production.
Through nine rooms meticulously curated by Andrea Schlieker, Director of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Britain, and Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator, one can (re)discover Cornelia Parker’s experimental and wide-ranging career. In an almost perfect chronological way, the exhibition presents sculptures, films, photography, embroidery, drawing and installations. Each work is well explained and documented, and the flânerie through the exhibition becomes an educational journey.
Violence and destruction on an epic scale
In the nineties, provocative reconnections to the art world of the sixties and seventies were made by young women, such as Mona Hatoum (b. 1952), Cornelia Parker (b. 1956) or Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963). Minimalism, Conceptualism, Installation and site-specific art became an historical reference to be re-appropriated in the present, and a starting point to address in an experimental way the important political and social issues of their – our – time.
Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. Cornelia Parker
Parker was always fascinated by the multiple deaths of the Road Runner or Tom and Jerry cartoon characters. She started to collect silver plates, spoons, and candlesticks, teapots, cigarette cases, and even trombones. She then meticulously flattened them with a steamroller, and arranged them into thirty groups – thirty large plates. She hung them, one object at a time, from the ceiling. Floating a few centimetres above the ground, these pieces project a shadow and find a new purpose, a new three dimension.
Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89) borrows its title from the Bible – thirty pieces of silver was the amount of money Judas received for betraying Jesus – and as such refers to violence, death and resurrection, recurring themes in Parker’s practice.
Chance and collaboration
Collaboration is an important part of Cornelia Parker’s process, as she is interested in the blurry lines regarding authorship. Many of her small sculptures, textiles and objects were created by collaborating with the police, the British Army or famous actors. The story around The Distance (With Concealed Weapon) 2003 is quite fascinating. The artist had wrapped a mile-long spool of string around the Rodin’s The Kiss (1901) for a modern art exhibition at the Tate Britain. Shortly after, the string used was cut by a vandal, part of the Stuckists (an art group opposed to Conceptual art), who might have considered this conceptual interpretation of love as a lack of respect for the Old Master. Parker turned this episode into a new piece of sculpture. The string became a ball that hides at its core a secret weapon, and is now displayed next to the photography of the original The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached).
Collaboration with others – voluntarily or not – brings an element of chance that cannot be controlled. The famous Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991, an installation that recreates the explosion of a garden shed, is a cocktail – Molotov? – of the artist’s practice key components.
Cornelia Parker “wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation.” The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition and the pieces carefully collected by the artist and the soldiers. She then recreated in the museum space this frozen moment in time. The chaos appears here mitigated by order. There is a tribute to minimalism – on the ceiling there is still the grid, the abstract form of the shed. A light bulb at the centre of the shed feels like the sun in the universe. Shadows on the wall are as important as the objects, creating a sense of what is and what is not, of the matter and the anti-matter.
The grid appears again on the ground of the next room. Driving by, Parker saw builders fixing the cracks in the perimeter wall of the prison. She took a photograph and made a cast of the abstract grid. Funny enough, a prisoner escaped on that same day, breaking the exact same wall. Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped), 2012-13 shows once again how chance interferes with art, and life generally.
Surrounding the grid are presented various series of drawings for which Parker collaborated with a Texan snake farmer (Poison and Antidote Drawings, 2010-13), the UK Customs and Excise headquarters (Pornographic Drawings, 1996-97) and the police (Bullet Drawings, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2018). The variety of materials she uses shows how experimental she is and how through the years her engagement with politics has become predominant.
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. Cornelia Parker
At the centre of the exhibition are presented Parker’s films: one rolling program of six videos and one film, American Gothic (2016), shot on Iphones in New York, the night of Halloween just before the election of Donald Trump. Parker’s interest in politics grew over time. The film Flag (2022) especially made for this exhibition shows the footage of a Union Jack in production played backwards. A metaphor of the state of the nation.
War Room (2015/2022) is another tribute to the country. Made from the rolls of red paper usually thrown away when poppies are made, the 300,000 holes in the room resonates with the lives lost for ever and creates a poignant space of contemplation and reflexion. The process of making is probably as important as the finished work for Parker. This moving piece requested three weeks and two to three persons to be installed in order to get the right overlap and moiré effect – another illustration of collaboration in the artist’s practice.
Probably one of her most political and collaborative work is Magna Carta (An Embroidery), 2015. Initially commissioned by the British library for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Cornelia Parker printed onto a 14-metre-long piece of fabric the related Wikipedia entry, and asked over 200 people to hand embroider specific words in regards of their situation. Seeing Wikipedia as a democratic and collaborative platform, she worked with prisoners, human rights lawyers, whistle-blowers as Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.
Life on an island
The exhibition ends on an installation made especially for this retrospective in the Tate’s studio. Cornelia Parker is presenting a very British greenhouse that leans back to her childhood, when she was helping her father at the farm. Now in her mid-sixties, the artist sees Island (2022) as a metaphor for today’s England. She used the chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover (a recurring medium she used in her work over the years). She rescued the tiles from the Houses of Parliament after witnessing them being pulled up during renovation work whilst she was Election Artist in 2017.
Describing Island, Parker says: “I’ve painted the glass panes of a greenhouse with white brushstrokes of cliff chalk, like chalking time. So the glasshouse becomes enclosed, inward looking, a vulnerable domain, a little England with a cliff-face veil. The Island in question is our own. In our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe, Britain is emptied out of Europeans just when we need them most. The spectre of the climate crisis is looming large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious”.
Fragile, and possibly coming apart, this drifted raft still has a pulsating light at the heart. Surrounded by shadows, it is a breath and a hope. A hope there will be “a bit of sympathetic magic” so we can seal, sew and stitch things together again.
Cornelia Parker (b. 1956, Cheshire) lives and works in London. Over the last three decades, she has presented numerous major commissions and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney (2019); Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster (2017); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2016), The Whitworth, the University of Manchester (2015), British Library, London (2015), BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2010), Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru (2008), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2007) and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2006).
Parker was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and made an OBE in 2010. She was elected the Apollo Awards Artist of the Year in 2016, and the following year, awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester. In 2017, she was appointed as the first female Election Artist for the United Kingdom General Election. She was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 2021. Her works are held in public and private collections around the word including the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Fundación “la Caixa”, Barcelona and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
19 May – 16 October 2022
Open daily 10.00–18.00
£16 / Free for Members. To book tickets: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/cornelia-parker
For public information call +44(0)20 7887 8888, visit tate.org.uk or follow @Tate #CorneliaParker