Cornelia Parker – Tate Britain

This dazzling and frequently hilarious show plunges us into delightfully abstract chaos with works made out of residue, memory, and often-fraught collaborations

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991

It is a sentiment (perhaps too-) often expressed about modern art that if you need to read about an artwork to understand it, then it is not working as it should. It is bad art, even. Yet Tate Britain’s slickly curated exhibition of Cornelia Parker’s sculptures, films and installations mounts a fascinating rejoinder to this view. Though I have long pondered the necessity of reading the frequently long and essayistic prose lacquered upon gallery walls, and how to privilege it against the sensory experience of simply viewing the work, Parker’s authored descriptions seem vital here. Each one is a testament to the art’s process, meaning, and sometimes its hidden agenda; one giant ball of string, we are informed, contains a literal hidden weapon. Other than Parker herself, no one knows what it is – or whether it could go off at any moment.

There is a thrilling mystique that comes from Parker’s tantalising reveals and evasions. Especially in its early rooms, this exhibition offers a form of delight more familiar to the audience of a magician or a comedian than a visual artist; many of her pieces work as tricks, or jokes. She lets us in on a secret, before letting us know that she is keeping another.

Reading her descriptions, you soon find that most pieces follow the same pattern: Parker undertakes to befriend some arm of the state (be it the police, HM Customs and Excise, the British Army) and, having been convinced that collaborating with Parker will be a good idea, they supply her with contraband resources which are either destroyed (ie. cocaine, a shotgun) or used to destroy something else (most notably the British Army helping her rig up a garden shed with Semtex).

Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988-1989

The works – a loosely themed array from the last three decades of Parker’s career – are displayed with poise, their captions alive with simmering deadpan wit, a little aloof, yet the techniques are also hugely sentimental. As a child, Parker experimented with placing coins onto railway tracks, fascinated by how they warped and changed under the hulking tonnage of a freight train. This impulse – a literally childish one – animates much of her professional work. The first room, containing a suspended installation titled Thirty Pieces of Silver, features thirty iterations of thirty silver objects (cutlery, plates, antiques, glimmering under the gallery lights), all crushed flat with a steamroller. Elsewhere, Parker tells us how she cleaned other antique objects – significant for having belonged to Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Horatio Nelson, Henry VIII, even the lantern used by Guy Fawkes, and the personal soup spoon of the inventor of the soup spoon, James Bowie. She then has displayed the rags, caked in their residue – what Parker calls their ‘Stolen Thunder Tarnish’. Parker’s art frequently acknowledges the metaphorical imprints we leave on objects, artefacts, and the world – chronicling human sentiment, though guided by an impulse which is itself sentimental. Much of her work seems intent on pinning down and displaying the transference of sentimental value from one object to another.

The gallery’s centrepiece is her 1991 work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, which displays the splintered remains of a garden shed and its contents in mid-air, simulating the moment of their explosion. The fragments are illuminated solely by a bright bulb at the centre. Parker has described the centrality of the explosion in mass culture – from ‘the violence of the comic strip’ to ‘Super Novas and the Big Bang’ and ‘never ending reports of war’ on television. Her claim seems all the more convincing thirty years on, after the continuation (and expansion) of televised war reporting (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine), the horror and spectacle of 9/11, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Parker’s view, the shed is a highly sentimental space; ‘Like the attic,’ she says, ‘it’s a place where toys, tools, outgrown clothes and records tend to congregate.’ We see bicycle tires, shovels, a book (mostly intact) titled Winning Through: Stories for Girls, a shredded badminton racquet, a tattered windbreaker, a bucket without its spade, a desk fan, a solitary Wellington boot, lawnmower remnants, a Jerry can, the wooden frame that once held the windows, another book entitled An Artist’s Dilemma, a tricycle – all slowly, subtly moving in the room’s light breeze, their shadows playing across the walls (as much a part of the sculpture as the material itself).

Yet what makes Cold Dark Matter so fascinating is the curious collaboration that made it happen. While the British army were deploying more troops in one go than it had since World War Two (in the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991), Parker was enlisting soldiers that remained on UK soil to assist in her artistic controlled explosion. The piece works simultaneously as a reflection on the detritus of the past we cannot quite give up – the shed being a storage purgatory while we summon up to courage to show no-longer-treasured possessions the bin – and a reflection on geopolitical conflict and violence’s grasp on our cultural iconography. Perhaps Cold Dark Matter mounts an implicit critique, if not of the British Army directly as an institution, then of their part in global military violence and the way it makes us think. Yet, undeniably, the work would not exist without their literal assistance.

Still from the short film Left, Right and Centre, 2017

By contrast, later rooms – especially the one entitled ‘Politics’ – felt relatively jarring, precisely because of the curiously askance relationship to politics and morality elsewhere. Articulating viewpoints which hew to broad left-wing consensus positions contrasts the plunge towards ‘Abstraction’ – as one room in the middle is titled. An earlier work, a doll of Oliver Twist sliced in two by the same guillotine which beheaded Marie Antoinette, seems more effective for its polysemic metaphors than it would had Parker explained her message. For me, it makes a comment on the way revolutions often turn on the poor and vulnerable – such as in the French revolution, where many deaths during the 1793-4 Reign of Terror were from the non-aristocratic third estate. However, Parker seems to leave the work of interpretation (and the extent to which interpretation is required) squarely to us. The artefact before us is immediately disquieting, even upsetting. Our task is to negotiate the significances of the objects – our emotions, be they mirth, wonder or curiosity, proof of the power of sentiment on the human mind.

Later works preclude the need for this leaning in and questioning. This begins with a looping series of films – including one depicting the making of a Union Flag, and Left, Right and Centre, in which (predominantly right-wing) newspapers are blown around in the House of Commons, making an all-too-literal mess. The pacing of the six films seems odd, especially given how slackly they have been edited. To watch them all would require nearly three quarters of an hour – vastly extending your visit’s duration. (I suspect most visitors will give these only a cursory look as a result.) These lead into another single video installation – capturing Halloween 2016, just before the US election. On the one hand, Parker’s characterisation of Trump supporters in political merchandise as unwittingly and uncannily dressed in Halloween costumes seems relatively lazy. Yet on the other, it does prefigure a curious turn in the liberal reception of Trump – which precisely did cartoon- and Halloween-ise a broader hard-right movement as the sole wrongdoing of an individual monstrous bogeyman. (A similar Halloween costume trend can be seen in the resurgence of iconography from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – particularly the handmaid’s uniforms, which have been seen in protests as well as for satirical, seasonal fancy dress purposes.)

For me, the low-point of the exhibition comes in the ‘Politics’ room – a melee of loosely grouped pieces that survey the political make-up of the UK and US during the 2010s and early 2020s. A photograph of a map held together with yellowed tape (entitled World Coming Apart at the Seams) is a groaningly obvious metaphorical response to 2017’s political anxieties, and possibly the threat of the climate crisis. (Parker’s art, especially in its concern with waste, often seems on the fringes of commenting on environmental anxieties and disaster, yet I found it hard to establish any direct references.) The concept is somewhat transcended somewhat by the execution – and, in some ways, the lack thereof. Rather than a calculated and deliberately manipulated image, Parker has clearly discovered this map in its current state – sticky tape plastered across its reverse side, over the United States of America. Even so, what the piece does seem to have too much of is directness. It is difficult to quantify directness in art, yet most people would agree that some symbols can feel too obvious, too easy, and are thus less effective than metaphors that occur seemingly accidentally and more subtly. One of the problems of directness is that it closes down the artwork, as a finished piece rather than an ongoing conversation.

Island, 2022

This issue particularly afflicts Island, a new work constructed from a greenhouse, lit from the inside by a dimming and brightening single bulb – which seems like an echo of Cold Dark Matter. The accompanying wall text reveals a charming anecdote about Parker’s memories of growing tomatoes in her childhood. Yet then comes the revelation that the white daubing on the inside of the glass is pigmented with the famous white rock of the cliffs of Dover. The partially whitewashed walls evoke a nation shutting itself off. It perhaps suggests Shakespeare’s Richard II too, under which thrums an ongoing debate about whether England is better conceived of as a garden (albeit full of weeds under Richard’s wanting stewardship) or as a defended, military castle (a position advanced by the ultimately triumphant Henry Bolingbroke). Island presents a relatively unspecific sense of English myth – of which, especially since the 2016 EU membership referendum, the White Cliffs of Dover have become offhandedly symbolic.

Not only is this somewhat repetitive in theme for Parker, but more underwhelming is her return to the same material once again. The cliffs have long been sources of fascination for her; she has thrown things off them, Inhaled Cliffs (displayed alongside Exhaled Cocaine’s drug residue) uses their chalk to starch bedsheets, and the diptych White Abstract and Red Abstract use the cliff’s chalk and ‘Brick dust from the house that fell off the White Cliffs of Dover’ respectively. Thus, Island’s gesture seems a little hollow – and not just in its rather obvious critique of British (though possibly English) isolationism. Though it would be glib to charge many artists with being repetitive (what might be considered self-plagiarism in writing is, in visual art, often just an artist developing a style), the opening rooms of the Cornelia Parker exhibition prime us with a logic more familiar to comedy than art. Many of the works are at first a little baffling, visually odd, until their secrets are delightfully revealed in Parker’s punchline-esque descriptions of the material used and her coolly bathetic recollection of how they were made, sourced and obliterated. Looking at the greenhouse and its cliff dust metaphor, I felt not only the whiff of over-explanation, but also the sense that I’d heard this one before – and told a bit better. In comedy, and perhaps conceptual art, even if you enjoyed it once, you cannot just have more of the same.

One of four images from Avoided Object, 1999

Though several pieces seem frustratingly direct, only one seems fundamentally ill-conceived. In the ‘Politics’ room, somewhat strangely, are four photos of the sky, placed across one wall. The images are the most seemingly innocuous of the exhibition, with gentle wisps of cloud against a neutral space – shot using infrared film, generating a deep black and white image. Their inoffensive subjects – banality even – are precisely the point. It is their material which is loaded with dark context; these photographs have been taken with the camera of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess – the man who introduced Zyklon B to gas chambers. Parker tells us that she was given permission to take the camera just outside its current home in the Imperial War Museum, where she pointed it upwards – a gesture she thought ‘somehow seemed appropriate’. Yet this juxtaposition of natural beauty and sheer horror seems far too blunt – little different from taking pictures of wild flowers springing up at the sites of former concentration camps. It is too straightforward a contrast between the aesthetically mild and the barbaric. It even seems to fetishize the object’s assumed memory – its proximity to historic evil – in a way that could be considered disrespectful. It seems to be a darker variation on the impulse that drove Parker’s work Sawn Up Sawn-Off Shotgun, which we are gleefully informed had been used in a ‘violent crime’. Yet the combination of the weapon’s relative anonymity (we do not know who it attacked, or killed) and the fact the shotgun has been neutralised makes it seem less lurid. The camera, though, is connectable to a specific known evil.

By this point, the exhibition’s audience has become accustomed to seeing objects, artefacts and images which appear relatively unassuming and finding, on reading about them, that they are replete with backstory. Avoided Object gives us a sudden jolt of seriousness, the punchline quality of its reveal being rather queasy. Furthermore, its title clashes with the reality; Parker has sought this object out, using it not despite its connotations – in the way some might engage with potentially problematic art – but precisely because of them. The attempted refusal is merely performed, not really meant. Instead, a crass fascination has drawn Parker in.

Sawn Up Sawn Off Shotgun, 2015 – ‘Shotgun sawn off by criminals, sawn up by police’

This semi-Freudian game of avoidance and attraction is presumably deliberate. Parker describes political art as a ‘digestive system’ – a process of understanding and working through ideas and events, articulating a view that would not be out of place in contemporary trauma theory. We are in a constant state of processing the past – personal, social and historical. That art is an ongoing conversation for Parker is evident in the loose diptych of the string-wrapped Rodin in Tate Britain’s foyer, and the string-wrapped weapon in the exhibition itself. Parker provoked strong reactions upon the initial display of The Distance (A Kiss With Strings Attached), with many decrying her apparent disrespect for Rodin. Opponents of conceptual art, the Stuckists, targeted her work and snipped the string. Yet Parker’s response was artistic, reknotting the string and making another work in conversation with it: The Distance (With Concealed Weapon). Snip away at this, it seems to say, and who knows what you’ll unleash – a fabulous, booby-trapped Pandora’s Box of a response. (The artwork is here housed in a thick glass box.)

Parker’s work can ably convey this knockabout quality, flirting with semi-artistic semi-vandalism and gentle threat. It has humour in spades, powered by a care for sentimental significances but also a healthy dose of irreverence. Yet the atrocities of Auschwitz seem ill-suited for Parker’s distinctive gaze. There seems little for her to reveal through the images that make up Avoided Object. By this point, her thesis that objects carry trace memories of events seems well-proved. Any further motivation remains elusive. Everything for Parker seems justified primarily by the logic that it would simply be interesting – and possibly amusing. As an experiment in more serious subjects, it is hard to call Avoided Object an inherent mistake, but it does seem like a misstep in the curation of this exhibition. There seems little to be digested here; all it does is interpose a note of ugliness at the very end – oddly placed under the ill-fitting banner of ‘Politics’.

War Room, 2015/2022

With the right material, Parker’s art can search deeper – though by remaining in a more abstract realm. War Room, first created in 2015, and recreated here, utilises one of the most striking offcuts in Parker’s repertoire: the paper shells of Remembrance Day poppies. She has affixed the long, machined sheets to the walls and towards the ceiling in the sloping shape of a large tent. Poppies occupy a fascinating space in contemporary political discussion. Their ubiquity in late October and early November is perhaps beginning to enter a decline, though they still remain one of the most widely recognised symbols in Britain. Frequent furores break out over whether television presenters are sporting poppies early enough, or whether the wearing is correct, while an annual debate unfolds over their ethics – and whether a white commemorative poppy, which celebrates and aspires towards peace, is more appropriate. Last year, campaigners called for the plastic in the poppies to be removed, making them recyclable and thus more sustainable. Yet, generally less widely known, is that some poppies are made by inmates of UK prisons, for which they are paid on average £10 per week. (Minimum wage in prison is a shockingly meagre £4 per week.)

War Room demonstrates Parker at her most effectively political – cracking open existing fissures with a genuinely startling and moving visual meditation. Its meaning is thornier from being hard to pin down, though this piece is unlikely to teach you anything you did not already know. Parker contemplates the sheer waste of war by showing the waste of poppies’ manufacture. Yet the tent structure draws upon the imagery of the Field of Cloth of Gold too – Henry VIII’s grand meeting in 1520 with the King of France, which was theoretically intended to cement peace and stability, but became a show of decadent wealth and implicit strength. The elaborate structure is an impressive spectacle, though could even be considered a space to grieve – a deliberate refusal of a common and popular symbol of remembrance for its literal negative, finding something ambiguously personal in it.

The Distance (A Kiss With Strings Attached), 2003 (Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, 1901-4, wrapped in string by Parker)

Parker’s art exists in a peculiar intersection of collaboration (with its connotations both positive and highly loaded), elaborate timewasting (a form of activism-adjacent resistance even), and a kind of art-wash. Cold Dark Matter best exemplifies this ethical tangle. Helping an artist blow up a shed – especially when it goes on to become a semi-iconic piece of contemporary British art – perhaps function as evidence that the British Army are a bunch of avuncular, necessary experts in dangerous equipment, primarily technical specialists rather than (inherently political) soldiers. With Parker, they are able to be health and safety officers with a much greater sense of fun. Parker’s description of each work draws attention to the process of acquisition, and the same tone of friendly enquiry is present consistently, regardless of whether her cheeky, though sincere, request was to the Home Office, the Tate, or a rural rattlesnake farm.

One of the main delights of Parker’s wrapped Rodin is how she makes you share the giddy logistical challenge of convincing ostensibly serious people (soldiers, senior police officials, and in this case gallery curators) of the merit of doing something very silly. Perhaps it is mild satire at the institutions’ expense – occupying their time with apparent triviality, though gestures which have the potential to unleash utter delight for Parker’s spectators.

This ethical play seems to be a deliberately fraught part of Parker’s design. It would surprise me if an artist who is (at times) so political considers these collaborations – especially with UK Border Force, the police, and Parliament – to be neutral. Yet Parker’s laconic phrasing deliberately obfuscates the process of actually obtaining her unusual, highly political materials. Is her status in the art world enough to open doors, or does she pay for resources and access? Are these unlikely friendships forged through bureaucratic email exchanges, eccentric handwritten requests, or steadily fostered personal relationships – toasted over chummy glasses of champagne? The collaboration seems one of the exhibition’s central subjects. After creative destruction, it is probably Parker’s second-most significant artistic gesture. So much of Parker’s work concerns negative space – the sheets of red card from which remembrance poppies are cut, the grooves cut out of vinyl records – yet the intriguing stories of how Parker acquired her resources are curiously unknown, though they seem immensely significant. The magician shows us her hand – but hides many more secrets.

The descriptive text accompanying Island bears the closing line ‘With thanks to UK Parliament’ – the final words you read in the exhibition. The work deliberately evokes Brexit in its use of the White Cliffs of Dover as pigment – and in its title. (Parker has spoken about disliking ‘feeling not part of Europe’ and not wanting to be a ‘little Englander’.) Therefore, it seems hard not to attribute a wry irony, a trace of sarcasm to the thanks. Yet the statement is at least equally in earnest too. The tiles that cover the greenhouse’s floor were sourced from the Palace of Westminster – to which Parker has been afforded somewhat unprecedented access. She was the official Election Artist in 2017 – which came with the backing of the establishment, and an implicit duty to document journalistically, responding perhaps as a courtroom artist does – observing rather than commenting. Without access and assistance, Parker’s art would largely not exist. The results of these collaborations are frequently fascinating, though the spectre of compromise (inevitably) hovers over them.

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