I approached this research exercise by describing some of Cornelia Parker’s most well-known works and discussing some of the methods and aims that underpin her art before moving on to the specifics of her 2010 piece, Poison and Antidote Drawing.
Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
Cornelia Parker is one of Britain’s foremost sculptors and installation artists. Her work first came to my notice more than a decade ago when I came across Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) in the Tate. To create this, probably her most well-known work, she persuaded the British Army to blow up a garden shed she had filled with a collection of everyday objects. She gathered up the exploded pieces and suspended them on wires around a single light bulb, as if in an orderly state of mid explosion. In so doing she changed but did not destroy the shed. In a small scale recreation of the big bang she gave the shed and its contents a new form and the viewer a new way in which to experience it. I was rooted to the spot when I first saw this piece. The originality of the concept and the working method fascinated me, as did each of the gently rotating parts. I saw a surreal beauty in this bizarre act of destruction and reconstruction.
Another of Parker’s works that moves me is Mass (Colder Darker Matter) which was shortlisted for the 1997 Turner Prize. A bolt of lightning struck a Baptist Church in Lyttle, Texas and burnt it to the ground. The townspeople thought their church was completely destroyed but Parker made the church rise again by suspending the charred fragments as an ordered cube with the largest pieces in the middle and the smaller pieces radiating out to the edges. There is something elemental in this; like atoms the individual parts are not destroyed but rearranged into something new and poignantly different.
Parker says in the 2013 BBC film What Do Artists Do All Day? that she was influenced by Marcel DuChamp (1887-1968). Like Duchamp she works with found materials but she goes further. DuChamp challenged the fundamentals of what art is in presenting works such as Fountain 1917, a porcelain urinal changed only by the addition of the signature R Mutt. Parker takes found objects and re-presents, repurposes or changes them significantly so that we see them differently and they tell a new narrative.
In 1942 in New York, DuChamp draped a mile of string over the exhibits in a surrealist exhibition, obscuring everyone else’s work. Parker describes it as a “very naughty piece of sabotage that I always wanted to reenact”. She succeeded in 2003 when she draped a mile of string around Rodin’s The Kiss. Exhibited at Tate Britain, Parker named the piece The Distance (a Kiss with added string). This kiss with strings attached bound the lovers together, strengthening their bonds but also suffocating them. Again, by changing an object, by repurposing it, Parker tells a new story. The lovers are still lovers but Parker has added a potentially darker note to their story.
Poison and Antidote drawing (2010)
Make notes in your own words in response to the following:
- What do you think Parker is trying to do in her piece Poison and Antidote Drawing (2010)?
- Poison and Antidote Drawing is created using rattlesnake venom and black ink, anti-venom and white ink. Parker often uses bits of her subject to make her artwork. Why do you think she does this?
In creating Poison and Antidote Drawing Parker says she wanted to explore the linkage between opposite pairs such as Hitler and Freud who seem to personify contrasting elements of the psyche. She also felt she wanted to make something physically dangerous and had in her head the thought of someone dropping dead on reading a poisoned letter.
The drawings (there are several in the series) were created using black Quink ink mixed with rattlesnake poison which was then turned into Rorschach prints. This format, symmetrical ink blots created by folding paper, appealed to her for two reasons: (i) the outcome cannot be fully controlled and (ii) they are used in psychoanalysis where patients are asked to describe what they see in the prints. This gives a connection to Freud.
Parker created the antidote element of the drawings by dropping a mixture of anti-venom and correction fluid onto the paper – you can see the correction fluid in the viscous white marks. Once again the final form was out of her control.
Parker brings the poison and the antidote together in one drawing. The poison was suspended in black and the antidote in white ink which gives parallels with the forces of good and evil, the healing white witch versus the dark witch, and these mirror Parker’s thoughts about Freud and Hitler – a healer and a destroyer.
By using materials that relate so directly to the story being told Parker embeds a whole new layer of meaning into her work. For me this creates a deeper and more emotional response. It intrigues me and has the potential to engage my attention for longer than if I was to find myself in front of a painting or drawing created with more conventional materials.
Further examples of this direct use of materials relating to subject matter are The Pornographic Drawings (1996) in which Parker used obscene videotapes which were seized and shredded by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She extracted the ferric oxide component of the tapes and dissolved it in solvent to create an ink. The chance connection between the explicit nature of the resulting Rorschach prints, in which I can see intimate male and female body parts, is extraordinary. Despite the process of destruction the video tapes seem have held onto their obscene nature.
In order to full appreciate and read the works described it is necessary to understand and think about the choice of materials . Otherwise a Rorschach is just a blot, and a charred piece of wood or fragment of a garden shed is simply rubble.
How do you think it feels to stand in the presence of artworks that are constructed from original objects of great cultural significance?
Materials have a value and have always been used, deconstructed and reused as trends and needs change. These materials may have been used in artworks and be refashioned as new artworks or they may be everyday or found materials that become artworks.
I find myself wondering how to define “original objects of great cultural significance”. I do not feel this definition is exclusive to great works of art. The detritus of everyday life may be just as culturally significant as a fine piece of Gothic architecture. Pop art with its focus on everyday commercial products is just as culturally significant as Renaissance art; a midden may be as culturally significant as a burial chamber full of treasures.
Colchester Castle, built from the remains of the Roman town
Colchester Castle comes to mind. It’s a Norman construction but with its red bricks and tiles it looks Italianate. It’s character comes from the fact that it is built from the remains of the old Roman Town. So culturally significant remains were used to construct a new and also significant building and they imbued it with character.
Lampedusa Cross, British Museum
A very different example is that of the Lampedusa crosses which were made from pieces of a boat wrecked in 2013 off the coast of the Mediterranean island. 311 Eritrean and Somali refugees were drowned en route from Libya to Europe. The inhabitants of Lampedusa helped to save the lives of 155 others. The island’s carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, was moved by the plight of the survivors but frustrated that he could not make a difference to their situation so he used his skills to make each of them a cross from the wreckage of the boat.
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Michael Rakowitz
Another interesting example is Michael Rakowitz’s recreation using syrup tins of Lamassu a winged bull with a human face that stood at the entrance of the ancient city of Ninevah in what is now Iraq. It was wrecked by Isis in 2015. Rakowitz ‘s project called The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist aims to remake cultural artefacts looted and destroyed since the 2003 military invasion. The sculpture, currently in London’s Trafalgar Square, has been clad in 10,000 syrup cans signifying an industry that was once Iraq’s second biggest after oil but which was destroyed by the conflict.
In all three examples an understanding of the materials, where they have come from and their significance contributes to my appreciation of and response to the new object. The materials the castle is built with deepen the historical meaning and explains the Italianate look. In the example of the crosses, pieces of salvaged wood represent the survivors, those who died and the kindness of the islanders and this leads me to respond in a deeper and more emotional way. The syrup cans remind me that Isis destroyed industries and artefacts as well as killing people.
How does that differ from, say, standing in front of a painting of the same object?
If I was standing in front of a painting of the Castle or the Lampedusa crosses or Lamassu, despite the skills of the painter, I might not fully see and understand the material properties of the objects and this could lessen my appreciation of their significance and story. I might also not gain a real sense of scale and I certainly would not be able to touch the rugged stone, feel the smoothness of the wood or get close enough to realise that the glinting metal cladding is made of syrup cans.
What has Cornelia Parker been up to recently?
Parker was appointed by Parliament as the official artist for the 2017 general election. While following the campaign trail she posted a selection of musings and photos on Instagram many, with ironic and quirky angles.
Her final works were unveiled in February 2018 . These consist of two films, entitled ‘Left Right & Centre’ and ‘Election Abstract’ – the first digital artworks to enter the Parliamentary Art Collection. These are accompanied by a series of fourteen photographic prints selected from her Instagram feed.
I dipped in and out of her Instagram feed as she was gathering the material so it was good to be reminded through this exercise to view the end results. They are a very singular reminder from an unique and unusual viewpoint of what a bitter, disaster struck, confusing and surprising election it was.
The works of Cornelia Parker mentioned in this research piece can be seen on my Pinterest page here:
Chilvers, Ian, and John Glaves-Smith | Parker, Cornelia | A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. | Oxford University Press, 2009 http://www.oxfordreference.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/acref/9780199239665.001.0001/acref-9780199239665-e-2057 (accessed 27/03/18)
Cornelia Parker – Wikipedia website | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelia_Parker (accessed 27/03/18)
Film What Do Artists Do All Day | BBC 2013 | Viewed onYou Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuAF55BN-Ak (accessed 27/03/18)
Chilvers, Ian, and John Glaves-Smith. “Parker, Cornelia.” In A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. : Oxford University Press, 2009 http://www.oxfordreference.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/acref/9780199239665.001.0001/acref-9780199239665-e-2057 (accessed 27/03/18)
British Museum online collection – Poison Drawing – http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=454763001&objectId=691360&partId=1 (accessed 27/03/18)
Artpace website | Mass (Colder Darker Matter) | Sheila Dewan | http://www.artpace.org/works/iair/iair_summer_1997/mass-colder-darker-matter (accessed 27/03/18)
Telegraph online | Cornelia’s kiss, with strings attached | Nigel Reynolds Arts Correspondent | 26 Feb 2003 | https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1423131/Cornelias-kiss-with-strings-attached.html (accessed 28/03/18)
Two Rooms website http://tworooms.co.nz/exhibitions/cornelia-parker/ (accessed 28/03/18)
British Museum online collection | Lampedusa Cross | http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3691920&partId=1&searchText=cross+lampedusa&page=1 (accessed 28/03/18)
UK Parliament website | Cornelia Parker’s General Election artworks unveiled | https://www.parliament.uk/corneliaparker (accessed 28/03/18)