LONDON — The other day I asked a young artist what she thought about Cornelia Parker’s work. She wrinkled her nose a bit, cocked her head to one side, and then said it had meant almost nothing to her until she heard Parker talking about it in that engaging way of hers. Then she got it. She even understood how to enjoy it. 

Hmm, I thought to myself. 

Should art depend upon words? Words of explanation? Words of contextualization? Words delivered by its maker? No, surely not. Visual allure is what counts. The silent, fabulous dead would be forever out of reach, forever entombed by a lack of regard, if words had to come first. Surely words come later, and they can be either useful or not. 

She was right, though, I found myself thinking a few days later. This question she raised does dog at you when you wander around Parker’s career-spanning retrospective at Tate Britain. 

Installation view of Cornelia Parker, Tate Britain, 2022. Pictured: “Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed)” (2015)

Parker’s works fall into four main categories: the ones that hang suspended in the air, goodness knows how (well, almost; we do see the very thin filaments eventually) — these are her crowd pleasers, and they are given lots of space (entire galleries, for example); the ones that behave themselves, sitting quietly on shelves and plinths; the two-dimensional ones that hang on the walls and are framed (these are, generally speaking, among the least interesting of all, it must be said); and the films, of which she has made quite a few from time to time. Some of the films are excellent, especially “Election Abstract” (2018), which came about as a result of her invitation to be Artist of the 2016 Election in the UK. Spliced together from her Instagram feed, it captures the frenzied near incoherence of electioneering in flip-book style. Or “American Gothic” (2016), a film shot on various iPhones in 2016, of characters adrift through the streets of New York during Halloween celebrations, with its slightly smudgy, dreamy focus.

To the floaters then. The first gallery shows off an early one of 1988, “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” one of the works for which she is best known. It consists of 30 circles (or static pools) of hovering silver objects (a trombone, a fork, a tray, etc.), all crushed and flattened, held suspended in the air, quite close to the floor, by fine filaments. Objects that have had their life crushed out of them, all afloat on nothing, like stars in a galaxy. Flattened, dematerialized ghosts of themselves, they are all level, displayed at exactly the same height. You could call this an installation of sculptural avoidance — Parker robs objects of their objecthood by flattening or crushing or pulverizing them, and invites us to contemplate the strange aftermath of these broken things, and what it all might really mean. 

Cornelia Parker, “The Distance (With Concealed Weapon)” (2003), “A Mile of String” (once used to wrap a Rodin, and vandalised by a Stickist), hidden object

Later on in the show, and continuing with the theme of levitation, there is the case of the exploded garden shed — which, once again, is given an entire gallery to auto-destruct. “Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View” (1991) is the title, and the appeal lies in the way in which the exploded object has been frozen, arrested, in the process of its calamitous destruction, in front of our eyes, in the very act of flinging every last fragment of itself out in every direction at once.

Less interesting are the smaller sculptures and some of the two-dimensional works. These are often acts of jolly sabotage. “Embryo Firearms” (1995) are firearms that never made it as far as any scene of action: metal casts of guns, and the fragments of a sawn-to-bits shotgun. You can stare down at the dust that survives after the hand-carving of a sheet of metal.

What is noticed immediately is how memorable almost all the wall texts are — not only memorable, but pithy, odd, amusing, and enjoyable. It is all highly personal stuff: how she looked out of a train window and caught sight of a painter making marks on a prison wall, and what that led to. Or, telling the tale of a work to which I have just referred, the day she turned up at a firearms factory in the US and was enthralled by the metal blanks from which guns were made. Couldn’t they be art too? 

Installation view of Cornelia Parker, Tate Britain, 2022. Pictured: “War Room” (2015)

She talks like an amusing prankster, and a bit of a chancer at art’s game too — which is exactly what she poses as. You can’t not pay attention to the words. It’s all so well expressed. She tells her tales so well. You could sit with her in the chimney corner for an entire evening. It makes the games artists play seem like a thrilling accident, something she falls into like a goofball, sideways, day after day. 

And the fact is that the naked exposure of her pranksterism to the world through these words of contextualization is what brings so many among of these works alive, gives them meaning, reasons for being, inserts a necessary element of oddball humor, makes us warm to her and to them — all simultaneously. 

Many of the works on display here would not have been quite enough if she had not inserted herself in this way. Had she been a glum, taciturn, over-serious elderly male with much less interesting stories to tell about how this smudge or that series of Rorschach blots came into being, would this huge retrospective have been a little less likely to happen? Perhaps. 

Installation view of Cornelia Parker, Tate Britain, 2022. Pictured: “Perpetual Canon” (2004). Collection of Contemporary Art Fundación “la Caixa,” Barcelona

Many of the works we might have passed by without paying them much attention at all — especially, perhaps, the long embroidery called “Magna Carta (An Embroidery)” (2015), which occupies most of an  entire gallery, sewn by hundreds of eager hands, such as Jarvis Cocker and Edward Snowden, and imprinted with the Wikipedia entry on the meaning and significance of the charter. The only interesting thing about this piece is that she thought it worth doing at all.

Now is it not both interesting and deeply troubling, that a work might only really succeed or make an impression upon its public when the artist interposes herself as its impresario?

Cornelia Parker continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Schlieker, Director of Exhibitions & Displays, Tate Britain, with Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator, Contemporary British Art, Tate Britain.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...