Whatever one thinks of Cornelia Parker’s work, there is no doubting the quality of her address book. She has a hotline, it seems, to an array of august – and compliant – institutions, among them the British Army, HM Revenue & Customs, the Royal Mint, and the Palace of Westminster as well as Madame Tussaud’s and the Colt firearms company. Without their help, her art would be very different and infinitely less resonant.
These institutions have respectively helped her blow things up, gifted a bag of incinerated cocaine, donated a pile of coin blanks, given her both Victorian encaustic tiles and permission to fly a drone inside the House of Commons chamber, allowed her to use the guillotine that decapitated Queen Marie Antoinette, and donated a pair of modified .45 pistols. To her list of “Without whom none of this would have been possible” benefactors she could also add Texan snake farmers, the police, the Imperial War Museum, and a steamroller company. All of them have provided either the material or the tools for her pieces.
This range is indicative of Parker’s conviction that art can come from anywhere and be made anyhow and of anything. It is a creed that could cut either way – banality and mess or, as in Parker’s case, inventiveness and a rigorous aesthetic. What she has done with her relentless curiosity over the course of the past 34 years is currently thrillingly laid out at the major retrospective of her work at Tate Britain.
Parker’s work is about transubstantiation, an idea she grew up with as part of a mass-attending Catholic family. As with what she calls “the double flip with a little piece of rice paper (bread) and wine as stand-in for the body and blood of Christ” at Communion, so with her array of materials: “In my work the process liberates the meaning of the objects.” Not that the meaning is always clear, even if the works are evocative.
There is, for example, Stolen Thunder 1996-7, a display of 10 smudged handkerchiefs, each of which bears the tarnish of an historical object. These are the smears left when Parker polished artefacts such as Guy Fawkes’s lantern, Nelson’s candlestick, Henry VIII’s armour and Charles I’s spurs. Without the information about where each came from they are no more than stains but, as Parker says, the objects’ owners “all had vivid lives that we are familiar with and their history imbues the tarnish with their presence”. The ghostly marks recall the Shroud of Turin and in their making there is a form of performance art going on and the elevation of the found object that Marcel Duchamp turned into one of the precepts of 20th-century art. In Parker’s telling there is also a dose of some over-thinking waftiness too: “There is an exchange going on: I polish their objects, leaving them with reflected glory, and take away their tarnished reputations.”
Other instances of transformation include Poison and Antidote Drawings 2010, in which she mixed rattlesnake venom (“a pint of bright yellow liquid – enough to kill quite a lot of people!” bought for $20) with black pigment and antivenin with white and then made a set of Rorschach test ink blots. Each of the resulting organic blobs that resemble monotone jellyfish is both an abstract if suggestive image and a literal incarnation of life and death. Another series, Pornographic Drawings 1996, uses X-rated videotape confiscated by HM Revenue & Customs, that Parker dissolved in solvent and used the resulting ink for more blots. In a quirk that Hermann Rorschach himself would have enjoyed, they irresistibly call to mind squidgy sexual organs.
Elsewhere she turns bullets into wire that she weaves into skeins and meshes; pours rubber into the cracks between the paving stones of Bunhill Fields in London, where William Blake is buried, to give a congealed grid; or presses a hot poker on to folded paper which when opened out gives a grid of burned holes. It is all neat, clever and interesting.
What really engage the senses though are still Parker’s large-scale installations. The piece that cemented her reputation, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991 – a shed and its contents exploded by the army using Semtex – remains potent in the flesh despite its familiarity. Each piece of wood, melted Wellington boot and twisted garden tool, is suspended by wire and lit by a single lightbulb at the centre to cast the shadows of each of the hundreds of pieces spectrally on the walls. It is a simulacrum of the microsecond after the explosion – the Big Bang in miniature – and freezes both time and power. The work, the very opposite of the idea of carving to release the figure in the stone or of modelling to build something from nothing, shows that sculpture can simultaneously be about destruction as well as creation.
Almost as affecting is a room draped in the red paper left behind by the process of making Remembrance Day poppies. The sheets are like rolls of wallpaper with blanks left where the poppies have been punched out. Parker has hung them from the ceiling and walls of one gallery so that the viewer enters into a sanguine marquee. Here though the red and the negatives left behind from each of tens of thousands of absent poppies marks a lost life. If tents are cocooning safe spaces then Parker turns the idea upside down: the room is formally beautiful, what it brings to mind is anything but.
Not everything works so well. There are documentary films shot on an iPhone showing a Palestinian man making a crown of thorns from barbed wire, the poppy factory machines in action and, in slow motion, New York Halloween revellers queuing outside a nightclub, that like much video art, promise more than they mean. Nor do the sub Martin Parr photographs she took of protesters and newspapers front covers in her role as official artist of the 2017 general election differ from those of any snapper artfully showing street life from supposedly interesting angles. While Island, her most recent work, a little-Englander Brexit commentary piece that combines a greenhouse (recalling her childhood garden) with white daubs on its panes made from the chalk of the white cliffs of Dover and with encaustic floor tiles rescued from the Palace of Westminster after restoration, is a strained and unpersuasive mashing together of motifs.
This piece highlights the paradox that applies to almost all her work. Parker’s art relies on association, and that association on the knowledge of the materials and processes that brought it into being. Without the backstory, most of the pieces are null. Some are independently beautiful – Perpetual Canon 2004, for example, a circle of squashed brass musical instruments suspended at head height, forever silent, the visualisation of the last echo of a brass band that has marched out of sight. Most, however, rely on knowledge. Without learning that her infrared photographs of clouds were taken using a camera that belonged to Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, they are just wannabe Gerhard Richter skyscapes; with the knowledge they take on a slew of unnerving interpretations and emotions.
At her best, however, Parker inventively matches concept and form to practise a kind of alchemy, turning mundanity into profundity.
Tate Britain, London SW1P 4RG
Runs until 16 October
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control