A good deal of contemporary art is wilfully opaque but the work of Cornelia Parker is distinguished by a consistent, lucid intelligence – which is not to say there aren’t plenty of puzzles. I’ve never been a fan of wall labels that explain a work but with the survey Rachel Kent has put together for at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a little explanation is more than useful. When one becomes accustomed to Parker’s methods each piece reveals a sequence of ideas intricately related to the forms and materials she has used.
Marcel Duchamp’s maxim: “destruction is also creation” could stand as Parker’s motto, or maybe she might prefer the line for which Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is best known: “The passion for destruction is a creative passion too!”
Duchamp was speaking in the spirit of Dada – or anti-art, but in 1842 Bakunin was talking about the need to destroy existing social structures so a new society could be born. Both sentiments are echoed by Parker’s systematic acts of destruction and restitution. In Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) she enlisted the British Army to help her blow up a typical garden shed packed with all the junk one expects to find in a shed: a bike, half-used tins of house paint, tools, children’s toys, a hot water bottle, an old record player, and so on.
After the big bang she and the troops carefully gathered up the debris. In her studio the moment of explosion was painstakingly reconstructed, each fragment being suspended from the ceiling by a thin wire. The resulting installation lit by the light of a single bulb became her most famous work, rebuilt for this show by the MCA’s formidable install crew.
Cold Dark Matter is a symbolic act of defiance to bourgeois British life. To blow up the garden shed is to obliterate those comfortable traces of suburban semi-affluence that accumulate like cobwebs; all those things we can’t bear to throw away when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
In Parker’s case the work has been widely interpreted as a repudiation of her own childhood, spent on a farm on Cheshire. One of three daughters, Cornelia was treated as the surrogate boy, saddled with a heavy burden of daily chores. Unable to play as a child she made up for lost time at art school and has continued to work off her frustrations in one piece after another.
She was already playing both prankster and anarchist in Thirty Pieces of Silver(1988-89), in which she collected a large quantity of cheap silver plate only to have it squashed by a steam roller. The flattened objects were arranged in 30 circular displays suspended close to the ground. The title suggests a great betrayal. It may be the artist’s own betrayal of the lower middle-class respectability represented by these shiny, tacky implements, or the spirit of the British empire, commemorated in countless pieces of silverware. Either way the silver age is long gone, along with the peaceful self-satisfaction of those days. It’s a wry comment on how easily glory decays into mediocrity.
There’s also a tongue-in-cheek religious reference, as the thirty pieces of silver have been sacrificed but then resurrected as art – a substitute religion for a secular society. Her religious ironies are revisited in a short film of 2012 about an Arab father and son who make souvenir crowns of thorns for Christian tourists to Bethlehem!
Parker has the kind of mind that takes nothing at face value. Looking at the most humble objects she starts thinking about what lies behind or underneath. She is fascinated by the flip side, the verso, by what has been eliminated so that something else might come into being.
She has exhibited the stained canvas linings of J.M.W.Turner’s paintings found in the Tate’s conservation department. A few balls of dark fluff are filaments of vinyl removed when music was cut onto an LP. A little pile of metallic shavings is the residue of an inscription carved into a piece of silver. A series of ‘drawings’ are made from thin strands of wire extruded from a melted bullet.
Each of these simple gestures has a poetic dimension. The threads of vinyl are almost literally the sound of silence. The silver shavings have been displaced by some act of celebration or remembrance. The bullet itself has disappeared but its base material traces an elaborate trajectory. The dialogue between of destruction and creation is played out again and again.
Parker’s more recent works are extended reflections on history, memory and politics – the two major pieces being The War Room and Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (both 2015). The former is an imaginative response to the centenary of World War One based on a fully mechanised factory that produces millions of red paper poppies every year. Parker ignored the poppies but collected the long strips of paper from which the flowers had been cut. She arranged these inside a structure based on the sumptuous tent in whch Henry VIII received François I in the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.
The result is a cavernous red room in which thousands of poppy-shaped holes in the strips of red paper act as a reminder of the lives lost in the Great War. The factory-made paper is peculiarly appropriate as a memorial to a conflict in which technology transformed killing into a distant, mechanical act – a war in which death was dispensed with industrial proficiency.
When invited to make a work in honour of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Parker had the ingenious idea of getting the relevant Wikipedia page embroidered on a grand scale by many different hands. From that point it was all a matter of organisation and persuasion. She had the bulk of the work carried out by inmates in 14 separate prisons; the images by members of the Embroiderers Guild; and individual words and lines by public figures such as Julian Assange (freedom) Edward Snowden (liberty) and Jarvis Cocker (common people).
Not only did the work serve as a commemoration of the first document that put limits on the feudal powers of the monarch, it was a genuinely collective effort – sewn, as it were, by the Leviathan that Thomas Hobbes would use as his metaphor for the state.
In these works, and the films she created while acting as official election artist in 2017, Parker has shown that one can make art that is broadly political without being unduly dogmatic or partisan. There’s a persistent sense of irony but not a hint of sanctimony. Parker is an artist for a world in flux, who knows that only two letters separate a moment from a monument.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 9 November, 2019 – 16 February, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November, 2019