this issue contains
>> Portrait Cornelia Parker
>> Gerard Byrne: The world is a stage
>> Annelies Strba: Idyllic Worlds
>> Interview: Yehudit Sasportas

>> archive


Political Abstract, 1999,
© Cornelia Parker / Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London,
Deutsche Bank Collection

It is true that Parker’s actions can be destructive, even violent. Yet a hint of peace is not foreign to her work. Take, for example, her Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) at the Tate Modern, a room-sized installation of a garden shed caught in mid-explosion. The explosion – which Parker made with the help of the British army – is caught in mid-air, the burnt chunks of wood, plastic, and metal all suspended on fine threads in such a way as to create a big cubic space. The movement has, in reality, been arrested, and the central pivot to this marvelous piece is a naked light bulb shining at the center, throwing jagged shadows across the gallery. There is something platonic about this shadow dance: standing in the gallery, are we inside or outside the installation? The shed might unleash tremendous energy, but it also unfetters our doubts and fears about what we see and how we go about it. Her later installation Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997) reiterated the idea behind the exploding shed, except this time there was a delicious hint of divine intervention: here, the original object had been a church in Texas prior to being struck by a thunderbolt.

Matter and What it Means, 1989,
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

And then there is Thirty Pieces Of Silver (1988-9), thirty silver objects squashed by a steamroller, or perhaps Matter and What It Means (1989-91), in which 8,000 £1 coins were crushed under a train and then laboriously threaded onto wire such that the coins dangled in space, their shadows falling in the shape of three human silhouettes. Thirty Pieces may refer to the price Judas received for betraying Jesus, but is there a betrayal implicit here? These pieces of silver aren’t coins (the work’s title is a typical Parkerian play on words), but salvers, trombones, cutlery – and as in Matter and What It Means, Parker has suspended the silver pieces in air. They hover between heaven and earth in a kind of limbo. In Parker’s world, there is no absolutism, just a subtle and dramatic gradation from light to dark.

The Measure of a man, 2005, © Cornelia Parker / Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London, Deutsche Bank Collection

To have the impact that this transformative work does, the objects that she destroys, transmutes, and reassembles must be, like the clouds of Avoided Object, remarkable in their unremarkability. Wedding rings, Bibles, and teaspoons have all been Parkered. "I use these very clichéd objects," Parker says; "It’s the cliché or the cultural value of the ingot, made from melting a ring, you’re transforming, whether it’s a feather from a pillow on Sigmund Freud’s couch or wood from a church struck by lightning. My choice of material has to do with its mutability prospect and its place in society."

A Side of England, 1999,
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

For all the grand gestures of Parker’s exploding, blasted, and collapsing objects, there is also an accessible intimacy. You see this in Brontëan Abstracts, her current exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. The former home of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, three Victorian sisters whose writings gave birth to some of English literature’s most iconic characters, the museum is normally a sedate recreation of the house in the sisters’ lifetimes. Parker’s response to it is to reactivate it, to interrogate the sisters (and our impression of them) via analyses of their possessions. Her installation includes scans made from deletions in the text of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and electron microscope views of Anne’s stained handkerchief or Emily’s hair. The deletions show a text in constant progress; the stain looks like a map of England; the broken ends of the hairs look as if little energetic explosions are taking place.

Brontëan Abstract (Charlotte Brontë's quill pen), 2006,
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

The detail and minute care of Parker’s Brontë project is on a rich scale. There is humor in it. Here, she is speaking about Beyond Belief (2005), a wire drawing made from melting a crucifix down and then drawing – the pun on the double meaning of "draw" is typical of Parker – the metal through a drawplate so that it stretches into thin, fine wire: "All these things have had a life. I went to pawn – not porn! – shops to find them" – and then her own disbelief breaks out: "Imagine putting your crucifix in hock!" She guffaws with delight.

Brontëan Abstract (Emily Brontë's hair),
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

Drawing – the technical process in which you lose the original object to gain another thing – is a game of chance. It also offers us a method by which to face the unknown. Is there anger in her art? "We all have the capacity to be angry, so why not include it?" she asks rhetorically. "By dealing with violence, destruction and death, by dismantling a coffin with a hammer and chisel as I have, you can examine fear in a very Gestalt way. I am driven to do that."

This continual friction means that Parker’s exploding sheds, blasting churches, and black and white skies are not, in fact, frozen in an eternal stasis, but are in flux. "There’s a calmness there," Parker says. "It’s a still moment, a calm explosion. You know that line from T. S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton? ‘At the still point of the turning world.’ In all the conflict in the world, there is calm. It’s just a matter of trying to find it."

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