A tall, high cheek-boned woman in a headscarf stands on the white cliffs of Dover holding an ornate but tarnished silver-plated teapot. On the grass beside her are other pieces of silver – trays, cups, candlesticks. Calmly and deliberately, without any display of anger, despair or furtiveness, she tosses the pot over the cliff. It is followed at regular intervals by the rest of the collection. A little later, having descended to the beach, the woman picks her way across the rocks, retrieving what are now dashed and distressed chunks of mutilated metal. Later still, the teapot is placed in an art gallery. It is titled ‘Object that Fell off the White Cliffs of Dover’ (1992). In this unlikely setting the unlikely object has acquired a fascinating and most unexpected beauty.
Cornelia Parker, sculptor and installation artist, intensified her campaign against disused silver a few years later when she crushed hundreds of plated items with a steamroller. She has also flattened thousands of coins under the wheels of passing trains, plucked feathers from Sigmund Freud’s pillow and blown up garden sheds with plastic explosive. The results of these depredations have been hung in art galleries where they have received high praise from public and critics alike. Her collaboration with the actress Tilda Swinton, ‘The Maybe’ at the Serpentine Gallery, was the focus of excited national attention for its display of Swinton, surrounded by objects selected by Parker, sleeping throughout the day in a glass case. In November 1996 Parker mounted a solo show called ‘Avoided Object’ at Chapter Art Gallery in Cardiff. Word of mouth was infectious and the show attracted scouts from London. A few weeks ago Parker was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize.
Galleries are not the only site in which she has placed her provocations. Forests, railway stations and bell towers have been requisitioned, sometimes for purposes of display, sometimes as places of concealment that may be chanced upon by the unsuspecting. Despite the many forms it takes, Parker’s art has an impressive internal consistency. All her work stems from a wittily philosophical consideration of the processes that bring everyday objects into being. She feels that this preoccupation, in turn, was partly brought into being by a curious event that took place in 1961.
Cornelia Parker’s father is ascending the ladder to the attic. He pushes aside the trap door in the ceiling then falls abruptly back. His head boils in a whirring cloud of black, glinting bodies which gush from the attic darkness. Connie and her sister scream in horror. The bluebottles pour down into the room, a lava of insect fear, filth and penetration. From the rank flesh of some maggotted creature in the eaves the attic continues to retch its spawn. The air is flies. To breath is to be infested.
Cornelia hastened to a children’s encyclopaedia in order to make sense of her shock. She found that the flies were called, aptly enough, calliphora vomitoria. She also found in the book other evidences of boiling exhalation and profusion: pictures of molecules and solar systems, transparent human bodies, exploded views of machines.
Parker is talking art history in her East End flat, standing beside a humming slide projector. Her slightly stooped stance reminds us that tall women are politer than tall men. They succumb to the wearisome need to bend down towards their lesser interlocutors. As she speaks one realises that her face is rarely in repose – her delivery is rapid, nervously energised, its content a dense mixture of anecdote and analysis. The vigour of her commentary is directly reflected in her work, which proliferates in an apparently unbroken stream much like the awesome eruptions that inspire it.
She is talking about her enchantment with the exploded view. “You could just about visualise what the original object was,” she explains, “but I started thinking how all the fragments might reform to make completely new objects with new uses.” These speculations eventually evolved into the ideas that have so fruitfully driven Parker to make art.
In 1991 she took her preoccupation with the metaphysics of explosions to an extreme that marked a breakthrough in her work. Parker filled a garden shed with tools, a lawnmower, a bicycle, books and toys, all culled from the artist’s trove of orphaned objects that is the British car boot sale. The shed was installed and photographed in the Chisenhale Gallery in London’s East End, then dismantled and transported to the British Army School of Ammunition at Kineton.
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Hastings and Major Dougie Hewitt applied sticks of pale marzipan explosive to the interior of the shed and blew it to pieces. For several hours squaddies and a delighted Parker combed the area, picking up every single shard and sliver, every shred of the shrapnel of the mower and the mangled mass of bent bike.
A few days later an eery and exquisite sculpture, ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’, was unveiled in the stark concrete space of the Chisenhale Gallery. Parker had painstakingly reassembled the shed and its shattered contents, suspending each tiny blasted scrap from a filament of wire and illuminating the whole with a single bare white bulb placed at the epicentre. The shed had been frozen in space a millisecond after its disintegration; only the bang is missing, rather like the cold, dark matter that astronomers say makes up the weight of the Universe.
The business of finding new currency for old and familiar objects has led the indefatigable Parker down some exotic pathways. Her ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ also featured an act of great violence followed by a display of surpassing beauty. Turning again to the cornucopia of the car boot, the artist collected hundreds of old silver and silver-plated teapots, candle-sticks, toast-racks, salvers and the odd trombone. The tarnished tat, displaced from numberless mantlepieces, was laid out on the ground in a long, gently curving line and slowly crushed by a steamroller. After the grinding and clanking had subsided, Parker picked up the pieces.
Hanging in an even stratum a few inches above the floor of the Hayward Gallery, the layer of flattened and mutated metal shimmers with ethereal grace. The trophies, having had all their worth crushed out of them, have acquired a new value.
Not all the attention Parker receives is comprised of undiluted delight. Between the specialist critics and an eager audience lies the press. Like most contemporary British artists Parker is resigned to the fact that these days derogatory treatment by both tabloids and broadsheets goes with the territory. A recent transaction with the media focused on just one piece of work from a linked series. “I’d been thinking about how tiny things can become lethal weapons when a certain pressure is applied. A straw caught in a hurricane, for example, can pierce somebody’s skull.”
The sculptor made several passes at this proposition. She had the lead shot removed from some shotgun bullets and replaced with pearls released from a necklace. The bullet was fired through a gentleman’s suit. Another bullet, containing small change, was fired into an encyclopaedia. When the book was opened, it was found that the coins had pierced a photograph of an aircraft carrier. The encyclopaedia was exhibited with the title ‘Aircraft Carrier Shot by a Dime’.
Linked to this series were Parker’s sculptural meditations on the signifcance of meteorites. Purchasing a six inch meteorite from a geological supplier for £300 – “A very good price,” she remarks, “they’ve all gone up since they found life on that one from Mars” – she heated it with a blow-torch and applied it to a crisp white shirt, claiming, with some justification, to have burnt a shirt with a meteorite. The tabloids were not impressed.
“When the Turner nomination came out,” she explains ruefully, “they put a picture of ‘Shirt Burnt by a Meteorite’ in the papers and said ‘She’s been nominated for a dirty old shirt with a hole in it.’ That shirt was plucked out of context and it just seems like a one-liner.”
The YBAs [Young British Artists], supposedly typified by Damien Hirst, have become inseparable from the controversy staged around their work and Parker is frequently written about as if she were part of the gang. A distinction that generally escapes her commentators is that at the age of 41 she has, in fact, quite happily relinquished the ‘Y’ part of the sobriquet. She graduated from the Fine Arts course at Reading University in 1982 and has been steadily mounting exhibitions in the art capitals of the world ever since. Given that there’s no proper money in art unless you’re up there with Damien, Parker lives off a succession of commissions, awards and residencies, whilst renting a modest shared flat in Shoreditch. At the time of writing she was rather looking forward to seeing her newish partner, a Texan artist on the point of visiting London.
The work that so impressed the Turner Prize selectors saw Parker working on a much smaller scale than that of her shed and steamroller period. ‘The Cardiff show,” she says, “had lots of little residues of objects that are all quite slight but together add up to something solid.” The ‘avoided objects’ speak of their role in a process which has made them seem redundant. “They’re about things that have lost their life or not yet got a life.” As an example, she cites ‘The Negative of Sound’, a framed assemblage of strands of black lacquer, the swarf discarded from the ‘master’ of a record first cut in Abbey Road Studios. “The idea of the negative of sound, for me, is fantastic. How can you listen to it? What does it sound like? What kind of instrument would you have to have to play them on?”
Avoided objects can also be ex-objects. For ‘Exhaled Cocaine’ Parker persuaded Customs & Excise to give her the ashes of seized, incinerated cocaine, presented by the artist as an end product ‘breathed out’ by a crucial process in its history. This poetic recycling of residue is also seen in a piece whose title would, quite wrongly, lead overheated British journalists to believe their usual suspicions were justified. ‘Pornographic Drawings’ is the fruit of another successful transaction with Customs & Excise. “They’re Rorschach blots made from confiscated pornography. The video tape was chopped up into tiny pieces, to get rid of it, and they gave me a big bag full. I wanted to recreate images from things that had been taken out of circulation, so I made an ink out of it. Most of them did turn out to be quite pornographic, but if you think they are, that’s you projecting because they’re only accidental ink blots.”
Parker’s attention is directed always at the ignored, undervalued and forgotten. She pushes quizzically at the surface of the everyday until its objects reveal their hidden histories. These stories reveal in turn that much of what we take for granted is immersed in the streams of memory and myth that carry meaning into our lives.
Even if she does not win the Turner Prize, many of her Avoided Objects will be seen by the thousands who visit the Tate for the six week show featuring the work of all the nominees. In addition to the works described, visitors will see her embryo guns, the feather from Freud’s pillow, a magnified photo of the grooves of a record owned by Hitler and several other evidences of a refined and ingenious sensibility.
Pressed to speculate on her prize-winning chances, the artist is characteristically modest. “Oh, it’ll just be great to be shown in the Tate” is the most she’ll say. Were Parker to pull it off, however, her power to realise some of her more ambitious projects would be considerably enhanced. NASA, for example, would be bound to send a meteorite back into space for her and she might, at long last, be able to persuade Stanley Kubrick to part with a sample of his navel fluff.