Is it possible to enjoy Cornelia Parker’s works without her words? – Hyperallergic | Ad On Picture

LONDON – I recently asked a young artist what she thinks of Cornelia Parker’s work. She wrinkled her nose a little and cocked her head, then said it meant almost nothing to her until she heard Parker talk about it in her endearing way. Then she got it. She even knew how to enjoy it.

Hm, I thought to myself.

Should art depend on words? words of explanation? Words of contextualization? Words delivered by its Maker? No, certainly not. What counts is the visual appeal. The silent, fabulous dead would be forever unreachable, forever buried by lack of respect, if words had to come first. Certainly words come later, and they may or may not be useful.

She was right, I thought a few days later. That question she raised haunts you as you wander through Parker’s career-spanning retrospective at Tate Britain.

Installation view from Cornelia ParkerTate Britain, 2022. Pictured: Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed) (2015) (Photo Tate Photography – Oli Cowling)

Parker’s works fall into four main categories: Those that hang in the air, God knows how (well, almost; we finally see the very thin threads) – these are her crowd pleasers and are given a lot of space (galleries overall, for example); those who behave and sit quietly on shelves and pedestals; the two-dimensional ones that hang on the walls and are framed (these are generally among the least interesting of all, it has to be said); and the films, some of which she has done now and then. Some of the films have won awards, most notably Election Abstract (2018), which was made as a result of being invited to be the UK Artist of Choice 2016. Assembled from her Instagram feed, it captures the frenzied incoherence of the campaign in flip book style. Or American Gothic (2016), a 2016 film shot on various iPhones about characters prowling the streets of New York during the Halloween celebrations, with its slightly smudged, dreamy focus.

Then to the swimmers. The first gallery features an early 1988, Thirty Pieces of Silver, one of the works for which she is best known. It consists of 30 circles (or static pools) of levitating silver objects (a trombone, fork, tray, etc.), all crushed and flattened, held in the air by fine threads fairly close to the ground. Objects with their lives ripped from their bodies, all floating on nothing like stars in a galaxy. Flattened, dematerialized spirits of themselves, they are all flat, shown at exactly the same level. One might call this an installation of sculptural avoidance – Parker deprives objects of their objecthood by flattening, crushing or pulverizing them, inviting us to reflect on the strange aftermath of these broken things and what it might all really mean.

Cornelia Parker, The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) (2003), Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (1901-4) wrapped in a mile of string (© Tate Photography)

Later in the show, and continuing the theme of levitation, there is the case of the exploded garden shed – which is once again given a whole gallery to self-destruct. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) is the title, and the appeal lies in the way the exploded object, in the process of its ominous destruction, has been frozen before our eyes, the act halted, every last fragment of itself thrown in all directions at once.

Less interesting are the smaller sculptures and some of the two-dimensional works. These are often funny acts of sabotage. “Embryo Firearms” (1995) are firearms that never made it to the scene of an action: metal casts of rifles and the fragments of a sawed-up shotgun. You can stare at the dust that remains after hand carving a sheet of metal.

What is immediately striking is how memorable almost all wall texts are – not just memorable, but concise, curious, amusing and entertaining. It’s all very personal things: how she looked out of a train window and saw a painter making markings on a prison wall and what that led to. Or, to tell the story of a work I was just referring to, the day it showed up at a firearms factory in the US and was fascinated by the metal blanks used to make guns. Couldn’t they also be art?

Installation view from Cornelia ParkerTate Britain, 2022. Pictured: War Room (2015) (Photo Tate Photography – Oli Cowling)

She talks like an amusing prankster and also a bit like a chance at the game of art – and that’s exactly what she poses as. You can’t pay attention to the words. It’s all so beautifully put. She tells her stories so well. You could spend the whole evening sitting in the fireplace corner with her. It makes the artists’ games seem like an exciting accident, something she gets into like a fool day after day.

And the fact of the matter is, the naked exposure of their witticism to the world through these words of contextualization brings so many of these works to life, gives them meaning and reason for being, injects a necessary element of quirky humor, warms us up to her and them—all at the same time.

Many of the works on display here would not have been enough for her if she had not fitted in in this way. Had she been a grumpy, taciturn, overly serious older man with far fewer interesting stories to tell about how that stain or series of Rorschach blots came about, would this major retrospective have been a little less likely? Maybe.

Installation view from Cornelia Parker, Tate Britain, 2022. Pictured: “Perpetual Canon” (2004). Collection of Contemporary Art Fundación “la Caixa”, Barcelona (© Cornelia Parker; Photo Tate Photography — Oli Cowling)

Many of the works we may have walked past without paying much attention to them – particularly perhaps the long embroidery titled “Magna Carta (An Embroidery)” (2015), which takes up most of an entire gallery and was sewn by hundreds of eager people became hands, like Jarvis Cocker and Edward Snowden, and imprinted with the Wikipedia entry on the meaning and importance of the charter. The only interesting thing about this piece is that she even thought it was worth doing.

Now isn’t it both interesting and deeply disturbing that a work can only be truly successful or impress its audience if the artist acts as impresario?

Cornelia Parker continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) until 16 October. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Schlieker, Director of Exhibitions & Displays, Tate Britain, with Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator, Contemporary British Art, Tate Britain.

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