Thirty Pieces of Silver, Inhaled Cliffs and Thatcher’s Finger. Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain.

From artworks so subtle that they barely register as art, to monumental immersive installations, the Cornelia Parker show at the Tate Britain brings together over a hundred pieces made in the last 35 years by the distinguished British artist. Through Parker’s cutting-edge artworks we, the viewers, are asked to rethink what we consider to be art. 

‘If you start off with the found object, that object already has a history to draw on’

Cornelia Parker (b. 1956)

There is a lot of shadow play in this exhibition, objects are transformed into something new with subtle modifications, acts of destruction and carefully considered lighting. The opening artwork is the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9), which references the price for Judas’ betrayal from the Bible story. The installation consists of flattened silver plate objects, including dinnerware, cutlery and musical instruments suspended from the ceiling but almost touching the floor. Flattening the objects with a steamroller was an act of anti-sculpting for the artist.

Exhibition view of Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9), which references the price for Judas’ betrayal from the Bible story. The installation consists of flattened silver plate objects, including dinnerware, cutlery and musical instruments suspended in clusters from the ceiling but almost touching the floor. The clusters of objects are suspended in a grid. Objects cast shadows onto the wooden floor.
Exhibition view of Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) by Cornelia Parker

Parker loves turning ordinary objects into art through destruction, such as the monumental exploded garden shed turned into an almost spiritual space titled Cold Dark Matter. An Exploded View (1991).

Art installation Cold Dark Matter. An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker. Remains of a wooden garden shed and various objects inside it that were blown up in an explosion and afterwards were arranged into an installation suspended from the ceiling. Each piece of wood or object cast shadows on the walls, floor and ceiling.
Exhibition view of Cold Dark Matter. An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker

The artist also mastered the art of turning seemingly empty spaces into something tangible. Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013) is a bronze sculpture made using a mould taken off pavement cracks, which captures a memory of the artist playing hopscotch with her daughter. In Negatives of Sound (1996) the artist displayed little black coils of lacquer cut out from vinyl records produced at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London (known for the Beatles album). Those unassuming fragments are literally silence made into objects, how cool is that? 

Installation view of Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013) by Cornelia Parker. The sculpture is an uneven grid displayed on a short white plinth. It is a bronze sculpture made using a mould taken off pavement cracks, which captures a memory of the artist playing hopscotch with her daughter.
Installation view of Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013) by Cornelia Parker

The shadow brass band of Perpetual Canon (2004) is another brilliant installation. Circular arrangement of flattened brass instruments is suspended in the air. The shadows of visitors and instruments complete the silent orchestra. 

Perpetual Canon (2004), installation by Cornelia Parker. Circular arrangement of flattened brass instruments is suspended in the air. Instruments cast shadows on the wall.
detail of art installation Perpetual Canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker

Parker’s films made using the artist’s iPhone, drones or traditional cameras are some of the most politically and socially engaged of her works. Thatcher’s Finger (2018) was filmed in the empty House of Commons at night. The camera follows the eerie shadow cast by the statue of Margaret Thatcher in a strange spectacle. 

Still detail from film Thatcher's Finger by Cornelia Parker. Bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher with her hand outstretched forward and pointing her finger is casting a shadow on a wall behind.
Still from Thatcher’s Finger (2018) (detail) film by Cornelia Parker

Made specially for this exhibition is another short film FLAG (2022), shot in a Swansea flag factory, in which we follow the process of sewing the Union Jack flag but in reverse. War Machine (2015) follows the oddly mesmerising process of mass-producing Remembrance Day Poppies.  

Moving from the shadows into the voids, the War Room installation (2015/2022) is decorated by rows of red textiles with poppy-shaped holes in them, which are the off-cuts from the process of manufacturing red poppy pins worn for the Remembrance Day in the UK. The artist emphasises that the voids are also symbolic of the ones who never came back from the front. 

War Room installation (2015/2022) by Cornelia Parker. Tent-like installation is decorated by rows of red textiles with poppy-shaped holes in them, which are the off-cuts from the process of manufacturing red poppy pins worn for the Remembrance Day in the UK.
War Room installation (2015/2022)

Continuing the war theme is a tiny yet powerful artwork titled ‘We know who you are. We know what you have done’ (2008). Commissioned for an exhibition at the British Museum the artist made a ‘Medal of Dishonour’ which consists of two heads, no tails. Modelled after Tony Blair and George W. Bush, even though the medal shows only the backs of their heads, the artist’s description makes it clear who the two people are. They ‘earned’ their medal through their roles in the invasion of Iraq. 

We know who you are. We know what you have done' (2008) by Cornelia Parker. Two sides of a round medal consisting of two heads seen from behind.
‘We know who you are. We know what you have done’ (2008) by Cornelia Parker

Inhaled Cliffs (1996) is one of the most interesting yet unassuming concept pieces by Parker. To a casual bystander it is just a couple of folded white bed sheets in a glass display case. The perception changes when we learn that the sheets were starched using the chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover. The artist created this piece and ‘smuggled’ it through the customs at the UK border, not unlike people attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. 

Left: Exhaled Cocaine (1996) by Cornelia Parker which consist of a small pile of grey dust in a display cabinet.
Right: Inhaled Cliffs (1996) by Cornelia Parker which consists of a couple of folded white bed sheets in a display cabinet.
Left: Exhaled Cocaine (1996) Cornelia Parker
Right: Inhaled Cliffs (1996) Cornelia Parker

Cliffs of Dover feature again and again in Parker’s works. The final installation in the exhibition is the Island (2022), a greenhouse whitewashed with the chalk from Dover cliffs. The floor of the structure is tiled with worn encaustic tiles from the Houses of Parliament. Pulsing light coming from inside the greenhouse creates shifting shadows, a metaphor of shifting power. Timeless piece of art. The inclusion of the chalk from the iconic landscape symbolises the geographical but also metaphorical edge of England.  

Island (2022), a greenhouse whitewashed in pattern of little lines with the chalk from Dover cliffs. The floor of the structure is tiled with worn encaustic tiles from the Houses of Parliament. Pulsing light coming from inside the greenhouse creates shifting shadows on the walls and ceiling, a metaphor of shifting power.
Island (2022) by Cornelia Parker

With so many brilliant works it was a difficult choice what to include in this post. I hope you enjoyed my highlights from the exhibition.

Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain 19 May – 16 October 2022 

Read more: 

Exhibition website: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/cornelia-parker

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