Cornelia Parker, Tate Britain
"What are you going to blow up next?" This is the questions we overhear a little girl called Marigold pose for Cornelia Parker at the preview of her long-overdue retrospective. (Answer to be published on the Tate website.) Anyone who is already familiar with Parker's iconic installation, 'Cold Dark Matter', created over 30 years ago and the result of an exploded garden shed will understand Marigold's question is spot on!
Parker is an artist who works in multiple medias and defies labels (conceptual is probably as close as it gets). So it is appropriate that the exhibition of three decades of her work is presented in an imaginative way. The galleries largely follow a chronology, but on several occasions that rule is (consciously) broken – with good narrative reason. Big installations alternate with smaller themed intimate rooms, and light rooms follow dark rooms. There are no barriers in front of the installations, but every now and then you'll hear a beep when someone gets a little too close for comfort. Parker's own wall labels written in the first person (so immediate and personal) are illuminating and beautifully done.
First up is the earliest of her famous large-scale suspended installations, 'Thirty Pieces of Silver'(1988-89). Flattened silver objects (including candlesticks, teapots, plates, knives and forks) from charity shops and car boot sales are reassembled into thirty separate pools hovering above the floor. The idea of transformation often achieved through violence and destruction (shooting, squashing, cutting, burning) creating something beautiful is a recurring one. As is Parker's ability to create something poetic out of the every day. 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View '(1991) a couple of rooms later doesn't disappoint. The garden shed (blown up for her by the British Army) is frozen at the point of explosion, the fragments and objects suspended around a single light bulb (the sun shining at the centre of the universe) . The light bulb will appear again, as will the shadows which are as much a part of the artworks as the objects themselves. Indeed, shadows are very much part of Perpetual Canon (2004). In this magnificent installation, squashed brass band instruments found abandoned after the demise of the coal mines ("the last gasp of the British Empire") on the one hand represent the final breath out of the instruments, while on the other, their suspension breathes new life into them.
Between the theatrical installations there are themed rooms filled with her drawings, prints and photographs. It is difficult to cherry pick which to write about. Room 4's theme is 'Abstraction' in which each of the abstract works tells a human story. For example, there are a series of photographs which look like an abstract expressionist work – they are actually photographs of repairs to cracks in the wall outside Pentonville Prison. Later in the day after Parker took these photos, she learned that a prisoner had escaped from Pentonville. This adds a narrative and extra dimension to the photographs that are called, 'Prison Wall Abstracts (A Man Escaped)'. Chance encounters and chance as a concept is is another recurring theme. 'The Red Hot Poker Drawings' in the same room were created by burning folded paper with a hot poker. They are strikingly beautiful in their chance patterns.
There are more recent room-size works by Parker too. The immersive War Room (2015) was created from reams of perforated red paper negatives left over from the production of British Legion Remembrance poppies. It took three weeks for 4 or 5 people to drape the walls and roof. Three single light bulbs (again) hang creating shadows. Parker's preoccupation with shadows and suspension has not diminished. Magna Carta, of the same year, her monumental collective embroidery (13-metres long) is on display next door. Its creation involved over 200 volunteers including politicians, prisoners, human rights lawyers and public figures.
Parker's engagement with political issues has increased over the years. There are two rooms in the middle of the show dedicated to her film. One of those films is American Gothic shot on iphones in New York in 2016. It focusses on the Halloween celebrations and a rally outside Trump Tower a few days before Trump's election. A year later, in 2017, Parker was the first woman in the UK to be appointed official artist for the General Election. Do take time to watch the films made in this period in the cinema rooms.
There are two new works which were created especially for this exhibition. One is a new six-minute video, 'Flag' (2022). The short film shows the creation of a Union Jack in reverse against the backdrop of the hymn Jerusalem. It is a brilliant metaphor for the state of the nation. The other is 'Island' (2022) which ends the exhibition. A highly symbolic greenhouse with marks on the glass made with chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover and floor tiles salvaged from the Houses of Parliament. The greenhouse is illuminated by one suspended light bulb (here more a pulsating breathing heart). It is a powerful metaphor for a post-Brexit Britain and our island status made so poignant by its crumbling shores.
Some works spill out beyond the confines of the exhibition (including an environmental film) and are scattered around the Tate's permanent collection in a dialogue with the historical works they reference. Yet another clever decision made by the curators.
Do NOT miss your chance to see this exhibition. Emily has already been twice, I will be using my Tate card on a regular basis to revisit until it comes off in October. Parker's inventiveness, experimentation and variety, plus her genius at finding poetry in everyday stuff will appeal to all ages. But what is really extraordinary is that every single work in this exhibition makes you think and that there are so many layers to unpack and discuss. On exiting the show there is a blackboard inviting visitors to write down what thoughts the exhibition brings to mind. Where to begin?
18 May to 16 October
Book timed tickets on the Tate website
Anya Waddington 21 May 2022