Review: Cornelia Parker

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Duration: 19 May – 16 Oct 22

Location: Tate Britain, London

Cornelia Parker is a British contemporary artist worth knowing. Her work is about reconstructing everyday objects and making viewers contemplate the world around them. Parker chooses ready-made, ordinary objects that already have a history and creates impractical and dysfunctional versions of them. We are talking about non-traditional artworks that make viewers question what art is and what its meaning.

If you are familiar with Marcel Duchamp and the theory of conceptual art, then you know that simply the process of choosing each object is a creative act. However, Parker takes it a step further by manipulating objects into something that is not functional. They no longer serve the purpose they were made for; they only exist within each installation. These remade extraordinary objects may lose their intended value but gain significance when viewed as art.

The exhibition at Tate Britain brings together a varied selection of nearly a hundred works made throughout her career. From immersive installations and films to drawings and photographs. It is split into nine sections in the temporary exhibition space, with some artworks infiltrating the historic permanent collection in the rest of the gallery.

© A. Papaonisiforou, Tate

The exhibition begins with an installation titled Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988–9). A large-scale installation of flattened silverware suspended on the same level from a high ceiling and around ten centimetres off the floor. There are 1116 flattened objects, including teapots and candle holders, arranged in thirty circular pools in perfect order across the room. Visitors can walk around the installation and observe these mesmerising new objects.

The second section is a room with small sculptures on display. These sculptures resemble the objects they once were but are not quite those objects anymore. They have been either pulverised, cut or shot. For example, a shotgun sawn to pieces displayed next to a reddish pile of dust that is the remains of a gun dissolved in a lab. This room feels like a buffer in between two large installations. Next is section three with one of the best-known works, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). It is a typical garden shed frozen still at the moment of explosion in the middle of a dark room with its suspended fragments and contents surrounding a single lightbulb casting eerie shadows across the walls.

© A. Papaonisiforou, Tate

Section four is a room filled with experimental abstract works or studies of how Parker works. It feels like another buffer room that leads to another large-scale installation, the Perpetual Canon (2004) in section five. It is a selection of flattened brass band instruments suspended upright from the ceiling and forming a circle around a light bulb. The room is quiet but feels like it should be as loud as a marching band.

© A. Papaonisiforou, Tate

Section six consists of films that engage with politics that lead to section seven, the immersive War Room (2015). The room resembles the inside of an army tent made from suspended red perforated paper negatives left over from the remembrance poppies production at the poppy factory. This haunting room commemorates the people that lost their lives during WWI; the 300,000 cut-out absent poppies represent just that. Section eight engages politics even more with photographs and drawings on the walls that surround the Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015). A collective embroidery that is thirteen metres long, with words stitched by over 250 people. The last room, section nine, is an installation of an empty greenhouse with its glass panes painted with chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover and a pulsating light bulb inside. Titled the Island (2022), it represents England during Brexit.

Moving on to the permanent collection, Parker’s eleven works that make Room for Margins (1998) are on display alongside the historical J.M.W. Turner paintings (1775-1851) they reference. Here is what makes them fascinating! Each framed work consists of canvas liners and tacking edges, removed from each Turner painting by Tate conservators in the 1950s and 1960s because of how deteriorated they were. The archival materials are displayed with a label citing from which Turner painting they once belonged. They conceptualise ideas of removal, vulnerability and loss. Even though they are historical items, they are just supporting materials that hold no value compared to the original paintings. By authorising them as her installation, Parker reclaims them as art giving them value as original artworks.

Our take:

There is an element of transformation and storytelling in Parker’s work that we love! The way each object loses its manufactured purpose and is rendered useless. Acts of destruction and restitution take on conceptual ideas while addressing political and social issues like ecology and human rights, showing how consciously radical her works are. These thought-provoking installations make this exhibition very exciting.

I want to learn more:

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker: Find out more about our exhibition at Tate Britain

About the author:

Anastasia Papaonisiforou is a London based exhibitions expert with an MA in Curating and Collections and a background in Fine Arts. She is our oldest patron and graciously accepted to cover this topic for Local Approach; she is available to give advice on discord through our “Let’s talk about your heritage!” membership, upon specific request.

[Edited A. Gkouma]

More from Anastasia:

Curating: a viewer’s perspective

Curating: NFTs

Your Curated Reading List series

Exhibition Reviews series

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