The exploding shed is probably the image familiar to most. But the joy of seeing so much of Cornelia Parker’s work all in one place shows just how consistently she has sought to reach the heart of the (subject) matter by systematically taking it apart or changing its form – violently or otherwise.
The thrill of this exhibition was seeing a range of work, displaying huge variety and scope, but where the personality and intentions of the artist formed a rock-solid through-line from first piece to last. Everywhere I found evidence of a dry, deadpan wit – given to mordant humour but alive to poignancy. Ultimately, I came to think of Parker as a satirist, in the full sense of the word: someone aiming to expose some truth, something fundamental about our condition, with comedy as the usual – but optional – balm to soften the blow.
I also warmed very quickly to Parker’s ‘practice’ – as in, literally, her practical approach to her art. Throughout the exhibition you will see flat artworks that look like prints or drawings, and three-dimensional creations that resemble sculptures. But I don’t think I saw a single instance where Parker has taken up pen, paintbrush or chisel. Instead, her body of work is almost like a decades-long recycling project, years ahead of its time, with the materials already there, just waiting to be galvanised by the idea into something new. For me, Parker’s genius resides in the scope of these ideas, their execution being anything from a punchline to a pause for thought.
Arguably, some of Parker’s art answers questions you didn’t know you wanted to ask. For example, “What happens if you shoot a dictionary in the back with a load of dice?”
But even here, Parker (in her interpretation notes) asks us to engage with the ‘tarnished surface of things’. The piece is called ‘Luck Runs Out’, and the die’s penetration of the dictionary page seems to represent the damage that fate or the unexpected can wreak on knowledge, or our sense of certainty. Similarly, this doll appears to be the enactment of a joke idea – it’s Oliver Twist but, Parker tells us, sliced in half by the guillotine blade that killed Marie Antoinette. The horrors of real life pulling rank on those in fiction.
I enjoyed the story behind the ‘Stolen Thunder…’ series, where Parker polished sets of silver belonging to prominent figures then framed the tarnished cloths as abstract images. (Playing on the phrase ‘tarnished reputations’, she seemed to see this as an act of benign thievery, taking part of their glory onto herself. The challenge to the viewer, I think, is to decide whether or not this is a perfect crime. Can the images be appreciated on their own aesthetic terms, without any foreknowledge of the back-story? Should they be required to carry that weight? Does it matter? And are the images the art, or the back-story?
Likewise, a set of abstract pictures resembling Rorschach patterns turn out to be treated combinations of snake venom (coloured black) and its antidote (coloured white), balancing each image in a state between deadly and harmless, creating a kind of fascinated revulsion, suspense in both object and viewer.
In some of her largest and most imposing installations, Parker uses literal suspense to help create it emotionally. The relatively early work ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ dangles a vast array of flattened silver sets just above the gallery floor. Parker describes the work as functioning on several levels – channelling her anxiety about the upcoming demolition of her house; releasing her destructive impulses and rebelling against the traditional approach to sculpture.
‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ opens the Tate exhibition – a wise decision, I think, as it feels like a stepping stone to the centrepiece: ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’. This gives us suspense in all its forms as we appear to be witnessing a shed (along with all its contents) in the process of exploding, then suddenly frozen in time. This brilliant piece can probably take any metaphorical meaning you care to lay over it: the restoration to the light of things we thought buried, or tucked away; making the mundane spectacular; ascribing the beauty of abstract form to previously functional items…
But the main element is surely that word: ‘beauty’. With its cunningly-placed single, internal light, the shadow play of each shed fragment is as beguiling and fascinating as its real counterpart. It is simply, addictively, glorious to look at.
In the later stages of the exhibition, it felt as if the more large-scale and ambitious the art becomes, the more blunt the political messages attached. There is a wonderfully-realised film of ‘the media’ infiltrating the House of Commons with a healthy ‘how did they do THAT?’ element. ‘War Room’, a commission explicitly linked to the First World War, creates a tent from the red paper left behind in poppy manufacture as a reference to so many soldiers’ absence; while ‘Island’ shows us an isolated greenhouse shell, daubed in White Cliffs of Dover chalk, in phases of semi-darkness.
Perhaps my favourite piece in the show, very much speaking to my own interests and carrying a sense of playful mystery, is ‘Perpetual Canon’. Originally commissioned for a circular gallery space, the piece features a ring of brass instruments crushed flat and suspended in an endless procession. A signature feature – a lone lightbulb – illuminates the circle from within and the shadows, as Parker notes, stand in for the absent players and the sound they would have made. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Parker’s own description of this leans towards the macabre – “a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo” – but I actually found this work deeply moving, conveying as much light as darkness. I felt joy at the way the projected shadows looked like clefs on a score, a bizarre kind of notation of Parker’s own invention, and an exhilarating way to depict noise in an environment where you can’t actually make any.
Cornelia Parker is at Tate Britain until 16 October 2022.
(All photos by AA.)