It is more than 20 years ago now since Cornelia Parker pushed the plunger on an army detonator and blew a garden shed and all its contents to smithereens. This was an early example of a process she would repeat over the next two decades: the transformation, often through violent means, of a familiar object to an unfamiliar form, which could be unexpectedly beautiful in its reincarnation, and always retained a ghost of its former self. With the shed, she’d gathered up the charred pieces and hung them in a delicate abstract formation around a single lightbulb in the Chisenhale Gallery in London. The result was like a cartoon recreation of the original blast, and inside the industrial space of the gallery the shadows of the debris exploded once again around the walls. There, in 1991, she gave what would become her world-famous work its title – “Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View”.
This was a year before Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, and two years before Jay Jopling opened the White Cube gallery, which would support many of those the media lumped together under the label Young British Artists. She was not much older than them but Cornelia Parker was, and has remained, separate, over the years building up a body of work that is as individual, as intellectually complex and as multifaceted as that of any artist working today.
Because she wasn’t supported by Charles Saatchi or any other rich collector – she wasn’t even represented by a gallery until 1997 – two of her important early works, which hold the key to much of her later work in terms of ideas, process and materials, were bought by the Tate. One was the shed; the other was “Thirty Pieces of Silver”, from 1988. This marked the beginning of a long relationship with silver, a material she has grown to love for its physical adaptability as much as for its powers of association.
Like the shed, this transformation also involved an element of cartoonish violence. Parker gathered together an ad hoc collection of old silver-plated objects – teapots, cups, trays, musical instruments – and flattened them with a steamroller, turning them from three-dimensional objects with a rich, allusive history, to two-dimensional non-objects that had been literally squashed to death. She then suspended the pieces in glittering “pools” a few inches from the ground, so that the work suggested a weightlessness rather than the solid values it had once enjoyed. She was playing with the idea of value in both senses of the word: its status value as trophies and family heirlooms, its social class; and its pure material value, as a base metal. The title of the work referred to the price of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas, a cheeky aside to the art world, perhaps, about the dangers of selling out.
Writing in a new book about her work, with a series of critical essays by Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, Parker admitted that her creative urges were also destructive. “Having a history of being drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to … orchestrate the damage on an epic scale. I took inspiration from my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Road Runner or Tom and Jerry, who were constantly being shot full of holes, blown up by dynamite, run off cliffs, or flattened with a shovel, but always survived, only experiencing a temporary shape shifting before they reconstituted themselves.”
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Here, consciously or not, she listed many of the processes she has visited upon the unsuspecting victims of her art. All her work since the mid-1980s has used found objects. Some took their power from the associations projected upon them, such as the pillow from Freud’s couch, or Dickens’s quill pen, or Queen Victoria’s stocking, which were among the “relics” exhibited in glass cases around the sleeping figure of the actress Tilda Swinton, also displayed in a glass case in “The Maybe”, visited by thousands of people at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995. Other works involved basic materials which, like the relics, were imbued with meaning because of where they came from. She has used soil excavated from underneath the leaning tower of Pisa; a rock fall from the white cliffs of Dover; a pair of “blank” metal moulds for the Colt 45, which she brought back from America and exhibited as “Embryo Firearms” (1995), “conflating”, as she wrote, “the idea of birth and death in the same object”.
Unlike Tom and Jerry, her pieces don’t return to live another day. Instead they take on different forms, begin other lives. “For me,” she says, “it’s like digesting the world. I’m breaking it down and digesting it and it emerges in another form.”
All her pieces involve movement, not just physical change, but blow-by-blow action. The process is part of the piece. “You’re not looking at a black box when you’re looking at Connie’s work,” said Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, who has worked with her since 1991, when, as director of the Chisenhale Gallery, he commissioned “Cold Dark Matter”. “It has the appeal of watching somebody thinking out loud. She’s interested in letting you follow her to this conclusion.”
This ability to take the viewer with her on her journey of discovery has made her a popular artist with the public. Her works offer bold, direct entry points to ideas that might be aesthetically and intellectually complex but for which she finds elegant, abstract solutions. She is continually looking for ways to give physical form to the non-physical aspects of existence – sensations, emotions, reactions, feelings.
She is concerned with gravity, and defying it; meaning and avoiding it; with stretching objects to the limits of their being; abstracting them from their original form to create something new.
“I always feel my work is a chemical reaction between me and the world, wherever I happen to be,” she explained, when we met in London last month. “Some of the works are big and extrovert and populist, and then there are others that are very quiet and interior, like the very small works, they have just as much drama in them, but the drama has to happen in your head.
“They are about how we exist, physically or mentally. I feel our relationship to life, to the rest of the world is very tenuous. It feels fleeting.”
Despite her feelings of transience, Cornelia Parker has a strong physical presence in the world. She is tall, rangy and fine featured, with a coronet of auburn hair that gives her a hint of the principal boy. She was born in 1956, the middle one of three girls, and grew up in Cheshire, where her father worked a smallholding that belonged to the duchy of Lancaster estate.
“I had a very insular childhood,” she said. “Partly because of the geography – we lived out in the middle of nowhere in the countryside – but also because our family life was so different from everyone else’s. We were living in a different reality, so escape and play were two things that were quite difficult to get. If we played we had to go off and do it secretly.”
When Parker was in her early teens, her mother, who was German, was diagnosed as schizophrenic. “She had been a nurse in Germany during the war. And I think horrors happened to her, which caused her to become mentally ill later on. So she was a very troubled person. She was hospitalised at least half-a-dozen-plus times. She had electric shock treatment. The whole works. Later on, as she got older, she was quite fine. It had kind of burnt itself out.
“My father was English, and a controlling patriarch, quite dominant. I was closest to him so I took a lot of flak. I did a lot of physical hard work in my childhood. He would want me working on the land all the time. I was the surrogate boy. But towards the end of his life I sort of made peace with him. He was the most extraordinarily creative person and maybe some of my creativity comes from him.”
I wondered how much all this had influenced her in wanting to be an artist later on.
“Well, I think having permission to play, which art allowed me to do … though it’s become hard work, too …” She stopped. “It’s a very ambiguous thing, isn’t it? I do try to push myself out of my comfort zone. I have always done that. I don’t know why. Perhaps because my childhood was on tenterhooks all the time, never knowing whether my mother was going to be absent or not, never knowing whether my father was going to erupt into a bad temper, so I was fielding both of them all the time, I suppose I was in a constant state of alert. So I think the work is a bit like that. It’s a kind of response, like an emergency response to something and then I deal with it in the work. I’m not saying it’s just therapy. But it’s making a sensation which is intangible into something [tangible].”
Her path through art school and university was quite a difficult one. It wasn’t until she came to London in the mid-1980s, where she lived among a community of artists in Leytonstone, that she settled into a working pattern which, with obvious upgrades, she still follows today.
It was liberating, she said, to be working at home, alone. The idea of a large studio with lots of assistants is still anathema to her. This was when she began to work with found objects. She took a small souvenir of the Empire State Building that she’d brought back from her first trip to New York in 1984 and made multiple casts of it in lead, “cooking them up on the kitchen stove in a heavy frying pan”, then suspending them on wires from the ceiling of her flat. As she wrote later: “I was using the most famous building in the world, the most clichéd landmark, as a plumb line, in an attempt to point to a more abstract, more unfathomable space.”
It was one of her earliest experiments with the power of the cliché. “I am very interested in clichés, they’re part of our psyche and they’ve been nominated to stand in for [big ideas such as] romanticism. I want to subvert them. Somehow, if you can reduce the most known things to an abstraction, if you can point to an abstraction … Like the pinhole made by Charlotte Brontë” – this was part of a project she did with the Brontë Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. “I’m very happy with that piece; that gulf that you photograph. It’s not necessarily just about her, it’s about the human condition; you know she suffered huge grief. So I am very consciously using clichés – wedding rings, pearl necklaces, money, the house, the church, the forest. They’re archetypes.”
She also began to experiment with objects whose meanings were hidden or denied. To these she gave the title Avoided Object, “suggesting an issue that had been sidestepped”. For one of these works she excavated a series of rusted metal objects from a patch of ground in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, suspending them in the gallery at a height above the ground that corresponded to the depth they had been buried. She was, she says, literally digging up her mother’s past.
In 1997 she was one of four women artists nominated for the Turner Prize. There were lots of snarky remarks about women artists, and whether this was just to redress the balance of the previous year, which had been all men. Parker had already fought off this kind of stereotyping.
“I felt I was being annexed early on to be a feminist artist and I resisted that. I didn’t want to be a woman artist. I wanted to be an artist. I was brought up as a boy, so I ignore the glass ceilings, basically. ”
She had also retained her artistic independence. “I was 40 by the time I got represented and nominated for the Turner Prize, which happened simultaneously. I think I was one of the only artists to be nominated for the Turner Prize without representation. But that would be my own choice, because I wanted that freedom to develop. I didn’t have great overheads, I lived within my means, and I made work out of not very expensive materials, so I was keeping my independence as long as I could. [Frith Street, her gallery] must be the least commercial gallery. So it wasn’t such a big jolt into the commercial world, and now, I’m fine with it. Now I know how to negotiate because I’m old enough. I know what I can take and what I can’t.
“I don’t read the art mags. I read the newspapers. I try not to get too obsessed with what’s going on in the [art] scene, because I feel I want to take my influences from the greater world, rather than just the art world.”
Her progression has been, as she acknowledges, circular. She has returned to favourite processes and materials again and again. “I think my work is like a spiral, you keep coming back on yourself. But you’re at a different place. It’s like reading Nineteen Eighty-Four every five years. You realise that some things have caught up.
“Early on in the work, I was trying things out, you know – throwing things off cliffs, blowing things up, steamrolling. And then, later, I realised that I’d passed through very quickly and there were other things about it that I hadn’t explored, more ambiguous things, and quieter things that I had just ignored. Sometimes it was because they involved difficulty. I’ve got ideas that have sat around for years then all of a sudden have their day.”
Faced with what seemed to be an unstoppable energy and permanent state of curiosity, I wondered if she ever had fallow periods. “I think there was a period after my parents died close together [in 2007] when I went through a dark patch. All I could do was make these weird [net] tents, which were like refuges, where you couldn’t get any refuge. I was making work but it was troubled and difficult. I think the cracks are part of it, really.”
The “cracks” are sculptural pieces that will be part of a new show in London. The idea came from the game Parker used to play with her daughter Lily as they walked through Bunhill Fields, the nonconformist burial ground in east London, on the way to school. Buried there are William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe, so the penalty for stepping on a crack might be more serious here.
Parker was more interested in the cracks than in avoiding them. She poured a rubber mould between the large paving stones and their brick surrounds, then cast the results into a lattice of black bronze. “When I pulled the rubber off, you get the worm holes and everything. So really it’s casting the very thing that you’re superstitiously trying to avoid.”
She is also showing a series of new photographs of the cracks she noticed in the prison walls of Pentonville, which look like abstract paintings after Tàpies. “I’d been passing the prison for weeks, and that was the very day they finally filled in the cracks and painted them. It happened to be the day that a man escaped. I went round the back of the prison, and looked up at the windows, and I could see this net hanging down. I thought, ‘Ooh, I must come back with my telephoto lens,’ and later that day he escaped using that net. If I’d hung around,” she says a bit too gleefully, “I’d have seen him.”
Last week I walked through Bunhill Fields, and, sure enough, there were the paving stones and the cracks, Blake’s memorial stone (his actual grave is somewhere nearby) with a few coins and stones and dying daisies balanced on it. Not for the first time, thinking about Cornelia Parker’s work, the lines from the “Auguries of Innocence” went through my head. “To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” It might have been written for her.
‘Cornelia Parker’ by Iwona Blazwick, with extensive commentaries by the artist, is published by Thames & Hudson, £35. An exhibition of Parker’s new work is at Frith Street Gallery, London, June 7- July 27. A new BBC4 film about Parker will be broadcast on June 4 at 8pm