Whatever one thinks of Cornelia Parker’s work, the quality of her address book is beyond doubt. She has a hotline, it seems, to a range of august – and compliant – institutions, including the British Army, HM Revenue & Customs, the Royal Mint and the Palace of Westminster as well as Madame Tussaud and society. of Colt firearms. Without their help, his art would be much different and infinitely less resonant.
These institutions respectively helped her to explode objects, offered a bag of incinerated cocaine, donated a stack of coin blanks, gave her both Victorian encaustic tiles and permission to fly a drone inside the chamber of the House of Commons, allowed him to use the guillotine that beheaded Queen Marie Antoinette and donated a pair of modified .45 pistols. To her list of benefactors “without whom none of this would have been possible”, she could also add Texas snake breeders, the police, the Imperial War Museum and a steamroller company. All provided either the materials or the tools for his plays.
This range is indicative of Parker’s belief that art can come from anywhere and be made anyhow and from anything. It’s a credo that can cut both ways – banality and disorder or, as in Parker’s case, inventiveness and a rigorous aesthetic. What she has done with her relentless curiosity over the past 34 years is currently on exciting display in the major retrospective of her work at Tate Britain.
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Parker’s work focuses on transubstantiation, an idea she grew up with in a Catholic family attending Mass. As with what she calls “the double flip with a small piece of rice (bread) paper and wine as a substitute for the body and blood of Christ” at Communion, so does her array of materials: “In my work, the process releases the meaning of the objects. Not that the meaning is always clear, even if the works are evocative.
There is, for example, stolen thunder 1996-7, an exhibition of 10 stained handkerchiefs, each of which bears the tarnish of a historical object. These are the smears left behind when Parker polished artefacts such as Guy Fawkes’ lantern, Nelson’s candlestick, Henry VIII’s armor and Charles I’s spurs. Without the information on the origin of each, they are only smudges but, as Parker puts it, the owners of the objects “have all had vivid lives that we know of and their history imbues the tarnish with their presence”. The ghostly marks are reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin and in their making unfolds a form of performance art and the elevation of the found object which Marcel Duchamp made one of the precepts of 20th century art. There’s also a dose of overly thoughtful madness in Parker’s account: “There’s an ongoing trade-off: I’m polishing their objects, leaving them with thoughtful glory, and removing their tarnished reputations.”
Other transformation examples include Drawings of poison and antidote 2010, in which she mixed rattlesnake venom (“a pint of bright yellow liquid – enough to kill quite a few people!” bought for $20) with black pigment and antivenom with white, then did a set of Rorschach test inkblots. Each of the resulting organic spots that look like monotonous jellyfish are both such a suggestive abstract image and a literal embodiment of life and death. Another series, Pornographic drawings 1996, uses an X-rated video tape confiscated by HM Revenue & Customs, which Parker dissolved in a solvent and used the resulting ink for more stains. In a quirk that Hermann Rorschach himself would have appreciated, they irresistibly evoke soft sexual organs.
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Elsewhere, she turns balls into yarn which she weaves into skeins and meshes; pours rubber into the cracks between the cobblestones of Bunhill Fields in London, where William Blake is buried, to give a frozen grid; or leans a hot poker on folded paper which, when unfolded, results in a grid of burnt holes. Everything is neat, smart and interesting.
But what really awakens the senses are always Parker’s large-scale installations. The play that cemented his reputation, Cold dark matter: an exploded view, 1991 – a hangar and its contents detonated by the military using Semtex – remains powerful in the flesh despite its familiarity. Each piece of wood, melted Wellington boot and twisted garden tool, is suspended by a thread and lit by a single bulb in the center to cast the shadows of each of the hundreds of pieces spectrally on the walls. It’s a simulacrum of the microsecond after the explosion – the Big Bang in miniature – and freezes both time and power. The work, the antithesis of the idea of carving to free the figure in stone or modeling to build something from nothing, shows that sculpture can be both destruction and creation.
Almost as moving is a piece draped in the red paper left over from the process of making Remembrance Day poppies. The leaves are like rolls of wallpaper with blanks left where the poppies were cut out. Parker hung them from the ceiling and walls of a gallery so that the viewer entered a bloody marquee. Here, though the red and negatives left behind by each of the tens of thousands of missing poppies mark a lost life. If tents are safe cocooning spaces, then Parker flips the idea: the room is formally beautiful, what it evokes is anything but.
Not everything works so well. There are documentary films shot on an iPhone showing a Palestinian man making a crown of thorns from barbed wire, poppy factory machinery in action and, in slow motion, New York Halloween revelers queuing outside a nightclub, which, like much video art, promises more than it means. The photographs of under Martin Parr that she took of protesters and newspaper covers in her role as official artist of the 2017 general election are also no different from those of any snapper artfully showing life in the street from supposedly interesting angles. While Islehis most recent work, a piece of Little England commentary on Brexit that combines a greenhouse (reminiscent of his childhood garden) with white coatings on its windows made from chalk from the white cliffs of Dover and with encaustic floor tiles salvaged from the Palace of Westminster after restoration, is a taut and unconvincing mix of patterns.
[See also: Walter Sickert’s fascination with the mundane, gaudy and sordid]
This piece highlights the paradox that applies to almost all of his work. Parker’s art is based on association, and this association on the knowledge of the materials and processes that gave birth to it. Without the backstory, most plays suck. Some are independently beautiful – Perpetual cannon 2004, for example, a circle of crushed brass suspended at head height, forever silent, the visualization of the last echo of a marching band that paraded as far as the eye could see. Most, however, rely on knowledge. Unaware that his infrared photographs of clouds were taken using a camera that once belonged to Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz, they are just budding skyscapes by Gerhard Richter; with the insights they take on a multitude of unsettling interpretations and emotions.
At his best, however, Parker inventively combines concept and form to practice a kind of alchemy, transforming banality into depth.
Tate Britain, London SW1P 4RG
Until October 16