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Interview with Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker has over the past twenty years carved out a reputation as one of Britain’s most respected sculptors and installation artists.

 

Her work deals with themes of destruction, metamorphosis and the space between objects in the world. Thirty Pieces of Silver, currently showing at York St Mary’s Church, consists of trophies, teapots, candlesticks, cigarette cases, musical instruments, spoons and forks steamrollered flat and suspended, as if from a plumb line, centimetres above the floor. Parker releases the potential contained within objects by subjecting them to a destructive process, thereby questioning our relationship to the materiality of the culture in which we are embedded. Her previous work includes the installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), in which a garden shed is captured in the moment of its explosion, and the instance in which she wrapped Rodin’s The Kiss in a mile of string. In 2008 she exhibited Chomskian Abstract, 2007, a film of her interview with the theorist Noam Chomsky.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your work has been described as a waste product from conversation, what do you think of this statement?

A

Cornelia Parker

— It’s almost like what you see is the end of a long process, like the relic or the debris. A lot of things go on before this happens, all that friction that has gone on to uncover the parts of the process. You uncover something that you want to create. All the parts of the process are visible in this piece because it has obviously been squashed, and each piece has been suspended so there is a whole time thing built into it. In the end it is a residue, the upshot of everything before.

Q

The White Review

— Is there something of Duchamp’s use of irony and puns?

A

Cornelia Parker

— Duchamp is someone I am very inspired by. I love that marking of a moment. His whole idea of the infra-thin, the difference between an object ironed and an object rumpled: those little slippages that happen between two tweaks of language. Somehow, that’s what I mean about those objects being a waste product in a way, they have been emptied out, so hopefully you can fill them up with something else. It’s weird here, seeing this piece in this context, because I made it with a white gallery in mind. The title Thirty Pieces of Silver becomes very ironic in a gallery situation, because of its literality, but in this situation its biblical connotations come to the fore.

Q

The White Review

— Has it always previously been exhibited in a white cube context?

A

Cornelia Parker

— It was once shown in Paris in a place that was built out of the stones of the Bastille, in a courtyard, an interior like a glasshouse, which was quite an interesting intermingling. I think it is interesting in different contexts, it has different connotations. I have not shown this piece in Japan but I have shown squashed silver objects in Japan, and somehow they feel very different there.  So I do like things in different contexts because I think they add to the history of the work. Yes, if I was showing this piece in the treasury, you know, in George Osborne’s living room: betrayal! Context is crucial. When I made the exploded shed the IRA was setting off bombs all around London, it wasn’t necessarily about the IRA but it was about the ubiquity of the explosion in our lives as an icon.

Q

The White Review

— I’m interested in your preoccupation with materiality, and the metamorphosis that you impose upon the objects to transform them.

A

Cornelia Parker

— Yes – today I was looking at the antique arcades here, in York, and I bought a George III coin, a crown. I like the fact that he was mad, and the coin is from towards the end of his reign. I’m going to use that somewhere, I’m going to stretch it to play on the fact that he has lost his mind. You know other people have lost their heads; there is a refrain, a little running joke going through the work of heads falling.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said that your work is quite intuitive?

A

Cornelia Parker

— It is intuitive and I think there is a formal aspect, obviously, and a concept, an initial idea that gets you out of the door, but really how those ideas or impulses come up to the top of the pile is from the little tiny bits that I gather along the way. I feel that my subconscious knows more than my conscious does. And my subconscious presents these ideas and sometimes I don’t know what they are about, until I have done them. Then you reverse engineer on them until it makes sense and you understand what it is about. I do that every time I make a piece of work, which is a very exhausting thing to do. But ideas pop up in all sorts of ways and I like to be surprised. I have just done a bronze, which I found very surprising because I don’t usually make bronzes. It’s down in Folkestone, for the Triennial. I got a local lady to impersonate the Little Mermaid. She sat for me for one day to make the cast, a thirty-eight year old mother of two, and hopefully this mermaid will sit on the rocks for many years to come, and her children and grandchildren will perhaps play on it. I like the idea that she will age but the statue won’t. I like playing with time and histories.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a strand of political involvement in your work?

A

Cornelia Parker

— Definitely. I have just done a piece for the Royal Academy Summer Show which is called Self Portrait with Budget Black Box. The chancellor’s red budget box, Gladstone’s bag. It is covered in scratches and damage, and I received permission to be photographed holding it. The back of that bag you don’t really ever see. It’s black. Because the budget box was meant to sit on a table, it wasn’t meant to be carried like a briefcase, it had a panel in the top flat surface. There are two photographs, one with the red side and one with the black. I have made a series of political abstracts over the years. Green fluff from the House of Commons and red from the House of Lords; my Chomskian abstract piece is another weird anomaly.

Q

The White Review

— Breath, inhalation and exhalation, seem to be a running theme in your work?

A

Cornelia Parker

— That is a constant refrain in a way. I suppose we are all doing it or we would drop dead. This piece is almost like an inhale: the breath has been sucked out of it in a way. And it is exhaled because it is suddenly expanded. It’s not something that I am consciously making work about, but after a while I realise that there is this pattern. Everything I have used has either been inhaled or exhaled, and I find that quite reassuring in a way. One of my political abstracts was a not yet inflated balloon which said ‘Jeffrey for Mayor’, meaning Jeffrey Archer: of course he got caught and went to jail so he never got the chance. This seemed a very poignant thing, and I called it Breath of a Politician.

Q

The White Review

— Which is quite Duchampian?

A

Cornelia Parker

— Well it is. I think especially in my small works there is a Duchampian strand there. I wrapped Rodin’s The Kiss in a piece of string in homage to Duchamp, and of course to Rodin. Those two French artists, one retinal and one non-retinal, one obliterates the other. Although really the piece is more about emotional relationships and love and the impossibility of it, so it is also using it, just very briefly, for that abstraction.

Q

The White Review

— How do you feel about people trying to pin a fixed meaning onto your art?

A

Cornelia Parker

— I’m always trying to do the opposite. I think art is about freedom and hopefully my work will have a very different meaning to each person who sees it. I don’t want it to have a fixed meaning, and I think that is the reason, formally, that I make the work I make. I like work that has an ambiguity to it. You are not sure what side you’re on, you are either with it or without it, and you are kind of confused by it. I think I like things to be free.

Q

The White Review

— Could Thirty Pieces of Silver be seen as part of the shed series?

A

Cornelia Parker

— There is an ongoing series of large-scale works, of which this is one, that have had some violent end. My mermaid on a rock might be underwater soon if sea levels keep rising. When I first came up with the idea for the mermaid it was the time of the Copenhagen climate summit, so there is a little bit of a political backstory to it as well. H.G. Wells wrote a story in Folkestone called The Sea Lady about a mermaid siren who lures men to the depths. But essentially the mermaid is Georgia who swims every day, it is her, she is just striking this pose.

Q

The White Review

— What do you consider to be art’s place in society?
A

Cornelia Parker

— I think art has a very political function, because it apparently has no function. For example, a friend of mine has just got back from Greece. She said art is thriving there, everything is falling apart but art is thriving and people are somehow more free, because cultural activity is about freedom. I just went to Number Ten to hand in a protest about Ai Weiwei, because I think the most important thing about him is that he is about freedom. He represents what it means to speak your mind, to do something that has no function in society than to demonstrate free will. I don’t know why I make work, but the fact that it seems to have no function in society beyond people using it as a sounding board seems to make it a valid enough thing to spend my life doing. It seems to be as urgent an activity as anything else, and I think there are all kinds of artists, so I am very happy one. I can do what I like in life and somehow the fact that I’m an artist means that if I am borderline mad then it actually doesn’t matter!
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Cornelia Parker is an English sculptor and installation artist.
 

Lowenna Waters is a journalist based in London. 

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