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