Material girl

Cornelia Parker imbues everyday objects with magic and meaning

The British artist Cornelia Parker has made a career from working with the unassuming scraps and detritus of our everyday lives. In the first survey of her work in a decade, running at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, we are presented with the unlikeliest of oddments: clods of earth, a length of silvery cord, a charred twig, cotton handkerchiefs with faint smoky grey smears. From such unlikely material, however, Parker weaves a captivating web of poetry and alchemy.

For Subconscious of a Monument (2002), a room has been filled with pats of dried soil suspended on wire threads, mini- meteorites trembling delicately under the light of bare bulbs. They have an ethereal quality, though it is only on reading the short description that Parker gives ("Earth excavated from underneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa to stop it from falling") that we grasp her intent; delving beneath the surface of things, she transforms the simplest elements of our material world into powerful talismans. Instead of looking at the white marble bell tower, Parker uncovers the humble material upon which its existence really depends.

Coils of shimmering wire are framed on the wall: a silver dollar is spun out thinly to a length matching the height of the Statue of Liberty; a drawn-out teaspoon does the same for the Niagara Falls. Parker says that she enjoys "the idea of measuring the epic with the everyday, the monumental with the mundane". More sinister are the "drawings" derived from lead bullets, whose swirling and sashaying forms seem to map out the marked destinies of in dividual lives.

In the past, Parker's methods have smacked of classic cartoon violence - running over coins with a high-speed train, steamrolling 18th-century silverware and, most famously, blowing up a shed in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). For her more recent works, she simply lets events take their natural course. In Heart of Darkness (2004) she suspends the charred remnants of a Florida forest fire, started by the US Forestry Department as a routine "controlled burn" but whipped up by high winds into a wildfire. The charcoal twigs, acorns and logs create an inglorious, black-hearted monument to the damage we inflict on the natural world.

Moments from the more distant past capture Parker's attention in Stolen Thunder, an ongoing series started in 1997. The tarnished marks from a variety of silver, brass and steel objects smudge track-lines across snowy cotton handkerchiefs, but these are not mere cleaning cloths. They allude to stories from popular legend and history: the lantern that Guy Fawkes intended to use to ignite stacks of gunpowder at the Houses of Parliament; the fork used by the American folk hero and "King of the Wild Frontier" Davy Crockett before his gruesome death at the Battle of the Alamo; the armour under which a corpulent Henry VIII sweated and strained as he battled and jousted; the soup tureen from which the inventor of the Colt revolver gun would have slurped his nightly broth before resting soundly in a feathered bed. From these unremarkable traces, Parker draws a series of subtle and unexpected portraits of the objects' owners. By extension, these relics say much about us, too: of the wonder we find in tangible things, of our relentless pursuit of authenticity, of the powers we transfer to the workaday objects "touched" by our heroes and celebrities.

Parker takes her excavations a step further in the Ikon's upstairs gallery, where she attempts to unpick the mythology of the Brontë sisters and the modern pilgrimage site of their home at Haworth, West Yorkshire. Using electron microscope photography, she presents a series of images that show in molecular detail the quotidian objects of the sisters' existence: their well-worn quill nibs; the mottled surfaces of their blotting paper; a pinhole made by Charlotte which, under the magnifying eye, becomes a bottomless cavern on the surface of a scarred moon. The photographs, together with a film and an audio piece that follows Parker as she tours the family homestead under the guidance of two psychics, are the product of her residency at Haworth last year. The prints hold a superficial fascination, but the project as a whole lacks the potency of her installations.

Parker's new venture into film, Killing Time (2007), also falls short. It is a four-screen projection focusing on a crowd of American holidaymakers as they await the eruption of a geyser in Yellowstone Park. The footage has a disquieting tension, but the 40-minute Chomskian Abstracts (2007) is less successful. Editing herself out from an interview with the left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, Parker leaves him to soliloquise about the oil industry and tobacco legislation, consumer econo mies and climate change. Although his outspoken views and deliberately measured style are compelling, the film feels pedestrian and polemical as a piece of art.

Parker's strongest work, at once palpable and poetic, shows how simple materials are the foundation of our experiences and ideas. Like an archaeologist sifting for the thrill of a "find", she shows us that magic and meaning can be found in a blackened branch or a handful of clay.

"Cornelia Parker: Never Endings" is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until 18 November. More information: Jacky Klein is an exhibitions curator at the Hayward Gallery in London

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power