Cornelia Parker – Tate Britain

Until 16th October 2022

I’d been meaning to get to this exhibition for some time and finally managed it, I’ve always admired Parker’s work although I was only familiar with her iconic pieces so I was looking forward to seeing a fuller range of her work.

Outside of the exhibition, on the ground floor, Tate have placed The Distance, A Kiss with String attached, 2003 as a tempter of what is to come.  This was my first encounter with Parker’s work during my studies and I loved it immediately.  The Kiss itself, in any case, is an undeniably beautiful expression of human intimacy, Parker’s simple addition of coiled rope adds so many layers of  narrative to that intimacy.  Does it show the deep bounds of love and make for a greater, more private image by covering the entwined lovers, oblivious to the world in any case, or does it suggest that those bounds can be suffocating?  Or is it symbolic of the complexity and entanglement of human interaction, after all, relationships are rarely smooth sailing. 

The Distance, A Kiss with String attached, 2003

We headed up to the exhibition already in a Parker frame of mind and made a start, the first exhibit is Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988, this impactful piece was a great way to start the exhibition.  I’ve always liked it for so many reasons!  The symmetry appeals to me, the straight rows and perfect circles, the exact suspension above the ground all make for a clean feeling aesthetic.  The illusion of levitation though, places the piece in a magical forest of the imagination for me, the desire to walk through the wires plucking them as you go is strong, I didn’t!

Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988

Moving away I came to Embryo Firearms, 1995, Parker had visited the Colt gun factory in the US and was interested in these blanks which are the first part of Colt 45 gun production.  They were polished up and provided to the artist.  The title, as seems to be often in her work, evokes a lot of narrative about the objects.  Considering the discussions taking place in the US with regard to gun ownership it’s quite apposite that Parker had already alighted on the issue in 1995.  The positioning of the guns almost shows two face profiles facing each other and yet we also see the normalisation of weapons of violence. Juxtaposed with this is Embryo Money, 1996, a similar principle of coin blanks, again, an image redolent of so many issues of conflict.

Embryo Firearms, 1995

I wasn’t so taken with the series of Stolen Thunder cloths from 1998.  I get the premise of contact with famous people’s silver but it doesn’t quite come across for me in the resulting visuals of framed grimy cloths, they don’t really carry the message impactfully enough so it’s a bit lost.

Carrying on, we came to The Distance (With Concealed Weapon), 2014.  This was made from the original string that had been used to wrap The Kiss, it had been cut into pieces by objectors to the artist’s interpretation, The Stuckists.  Parker knotted it back together and covered a secret object within.  I do wonder a little at the cutting by ‘The Stuckists’ was this all part of an overall performance as well in response to the adverse reaction to Parker’s interpretation at the time? In any case, it is a beautifully perfect sphere with knots poking through here and there.  For me, it is Parker’s signature spare style, clean, perfect and aesthetically resonant.

The Distance (With Concealed Weapon), 2014

Next is Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, the iconic artwork I would say.  I remember the press when it was created and the general thinking that it was a bit batty, by, of course, a batty woman, but it really has the most amazing resonance.  Given a whole room to itself and lit by a simple bulb in the centre, it’s everything, isn’t it, our lives, blown into view, everyday objects, brooms, toys, bikes, old toasters, boxes, old, new.  Parker identified our secret stash, the shed, where we bung the things we use but also those we don’t quite know what to do with. And, of course, at this time, the IRA was very much in the background, Parker was asked if this had been an influence to her production to which she agreed, giving freedom to yet another strand that was in the air at the time.

Another room was devoted to Perpetual Cannon, 2004, again, it’s visually arresting and communicative, in the catalogue, Parker talks about the loss of colliery bands and the communities that they came from with the loss of the mining industries, the flattened instruments are representative of the lost music and so much more.  I liked the way the instruments throw off shadows which make them look fuller again, shadows of a past life.

Some of Parker’s video installations were also on display, she touches particularly on the issues of conflict and warfare.  I really liked Made in Bethlehem, 2012, the irony of a Muslim man and his son making crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims visiting for Easter was not lost on Parker, the father talks about his hopes for peace and for everyone just to get along while his son is simply is interested in getting on with his work.  Rather than focusing on the complex and often intractable political narratives overhead, Parker brings it down to the everyday, the lives people lead and that, in truth, although we may have different cultural rites, at the very basis of it, we’re all trying to do the same thing, live.

Magna Carter (An Embroidery), 2015 is a huge piece, reflective, I suppose, of medieval tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry.  I liked it’s collaborative nature, not only is the embroidery itself a collaboration but it rests on the collaborative enterprise of Wikipedia. Often mocked for inaccuracies, Wikipedia is still a starting point if you want a source of references on any subject.  Parker also went for a cross section of collaborators to work on the embroidery, some well-known publicly.  I particularly liked the inclusion of Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia as his inclusion seems to validate the whole enterprise. 

Magna Carter (An Embroidery), 2015

One of the film installations was War Machine, 2015, a film about the production of Remembrance Day Poppies, very moving, there are unexpected stops in the filming of the production process that remind the viewer what the poppies are all about.  Parker has taken the offcuts of material used to make the make the poppies to create War Room, 2015, a companion piece I suppose. 

The idea was inspired by the original designs for The Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520, which was famously set up for a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in an attempt to reach peace between England and France.  It certainly has the sense of a tent as you enter it with a big hanging canopy and the walls all made of the offcuts, added to that, since the material has the negative spaces left by the poppies it feels like camouflage netting, reflecting war and transience.  Irrespective of this, Parker’s immaculate touch is here, the construction of the tent is perfect, the negative spaces all lined up neatly and the offcuts laid in perfect symmetry.

The final piece of the exhibition is Island, 2022, this reflects on Britain, in particular, Brexit, Parker has used chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, for her, a totem of Britain, painted it onto a greenhouse, another British totem, and laid tiles from the Houses of Parliament inside it.  If you wanted an encapsulation of a Britain deluded over Brexit, this is it.

Island, 2022

Needless to say, I loved this exhibition, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Parker’s work as I sometimes find conceptual art elusive but hers is directly communicative, she sets up the possibility of a multitude of narratives but, you, the viewer have a part in making them your own.  In the catalogue, Parker references Andre Breton’s ready-mades as a source of inspiration but I think she goes beyond that, for me the paradox of artists who used everyday objects in their art to make it more communicative for the viewer was that, often, it still continued an obscure dialogue that took place mainly between fellow artists. Parker leaves no such ambiguity, it’s a shed, a blown up one, we all like to see an explosion, and look here is the detritus of an ordinary life, something to reflect on.  From a curatorial perspective, it’s a well chosen and sited exhibition, there aren’t so many artworks that you become saturated by them and plenty of room to ponder over each one.

Go, support your galleries, you won’t be disappointed!

Rita Fennell

Gallery Tart

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