THE READYMADE and the found object have long run on empty, but Cornelia Parker has discovered her own way to recharge them. As demonstrated in a survey last summer at Tate Britain, crisply curated by Andrea Schlieker, director of exhibitions and displays, the sixty-six-year-old English artist passes these familiar devices through an inventive crucible of unexpected materials and shows the alchemical results in stunning arrangements. In the process, Parker also reanimates the post-Minimalism of Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra, whose famous 1987 Verb List (“to roll, to crease, to fold, to store . . .”) she keys up with actions like shooting, burning, steamrolling, and blowing up. Much of the frisson of her work comes from the tension between her extreme procedures and her clinical presentations, a tension heightened here by the semi-oppressive orderliness of the Neoclassical Tate. However, all this would be mostly a matter of art-historical interest alone if Parker did not also reflect on the social world around her, illuminating different aspects of institutional and political life in Britain, past and present.
Gerhard Richter once commented that Minimalism set a “new alphabet for the art of the future”—abstract, modular, and serial—and already by the late 1960s, Hesse and her peers had made this abstraction “eccentric” (as Lucy Lippard put it at the time): material, corporeal, and erotic. By the late ’80s, a new generation had picked up on these affective cues, mostly feminist and queer artists such as Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Zoe Leonard in the US and Mona Hatoum in the UK, who, like Parker, occasionally stages situations of danger. Sometimes, to get her desired effects, it was enough for Parker to simply present her objects as photographs, as in her images of the couch blanket and pillow that Freud provided his analysands or the pincushion stabbed by Charlotte Brontë, so freighted were these things already. But often she resorted to more drastic measures, as in the two early pieces in the exhibition that first brought her to attention. For Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988–89, Parker scavenged cutlery, candlesticks, and other objects made of silver plate, steamrolled them all on a dusty road (at the time, her East London home was slated for demolition to make way for a new motorway), and then suspended the flattened shapes in groups of thirty a few inches above the floor. And for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, she persuaded the British Army to help her blow up a garden shed, the blackened fragments of which she fastidiously gathered up and hung piece by piece from the ceiling, illuminating them with a single interior light that casts shadows worthy of Halloween. These found objects are thus lost and found again, or, better, they are destroyed yet resurrected in this very destruction—not brought back to use value, of course, or readily given over to exchange or exhibition value (Parker is picky about who acquires her works, and they are obviously difficult to display), but placed in a state of suspended animation.
As Parker mines the eccentric vein of post-Minimalism, she exposes the sadistic side of the found object. Already latent when Duchamp proposed that a Rembrandt painting be used as an ironing board and when Man Ray added tacks to an everyday iron, this dimension surfaced in the “disagreeable objects” of Giacometti, one of which is a spiked fetish, and the high heels of Meret Oppenheim, which are bound with twine like a chicken ready to roast. Parker might even agree with Georges Bataille that any representation betrays a destructive impulse; in fact, she makes this disturbing point in comical ways. Sometimes there is a bit of sadism in humor (as a child, Parker loved the Road Runner cartoons), and often there is a note of pleasure in destruction (pleasure as defined by Freud: a release of tension both psychic and physical). There may be a touch of guilt as well. Who, after all, is the Judas implicated in the title of Thirty Pieces of Silver? Parker targets unused things, like the family silverware stashed away in embarrassment or the old stuff forgotten in a garden shed, and so taps into our ambivalence about our unloved gifts and other stranded objects. Guilt and pleasure can also mix, as in the nasty thrill we take in explosions, whether benign as in fireworks, or atrocious as in “shock and awe” military bombings, or somewhere in between, as in anarchistic fantasies of attacks on the state. Parker triggers these volatile feelings, too.
Parker does not aestheticize trauma so much as ritualize violence, transforming it, framing it, controlling it.
Does Parker aestheticize trauma? If so, that is a vice—or a virtue, depending on your perspective—that is pervasive in a culture addicted to tell-all memoirs and troubling autofictions. But when she extracts lead from bullets and turns it into a wiry script, for instance, she does not aestheticize trauma so much as ritualize violence, transforming it, framing it, controlling it, and there is nothing particularly personal in the outcome. (In my view, we need more such ritualization, which sports can provide too: Better soccer matches than school shootings.) As Chris Burden showed long ago, the residues of performances can become relics, and as Parker suggests, these relics can also function as cautions. Mass (Colder Darker Matter), 1997, recalls its garden-shed predecessor, only here it is the charred fragments of a Baptist church hit by lightning that are suspended. This was the first Parker installation I saw in the flesh (it was not in the Tate show), and it struck me then as a memorial of church bombings during the civil-rights years—and now as a warning about church and mosque shootings since. There is also a forensic character to such work: The Cold Dark Matter pieces are like “cold cases” whose dormant clues point to violent events. Although for Parker these events need not be crimes, they must prompt stories, and all of her works at the Tate do tell tales (including terrific ones about an escaped convict and William Blake). The tallest are often the truest.
Nearly three decades ago, Mignon Nixon detected a turn, in Anglo-American feminist art, from a focus on desire in the ’70s and ’80s to a plumbing of drives in the ’90s and ’00s; in theoretical shorthand, this was a shift from the world of Lacan to that of Melanie Klein. Parker is part of this generational reorientation, yet while Klein opposed two drives, the destructive and the reparative, Parker holds them together to powerful effect. Put otherwise, her work suspends the opposition between ruination and preservation, and this suspension might make it relevant to current debates about monumentality. As we know, many monuments commemorate acts of violence (war, conquest, empire, expropriation) in ways that effectively cover them up. Parker began her career with little feats of “demonumentalizing,” casting souvenirs of iconic structures like Big Ben in lead, then hanging them upside down or flooding them with bathwater. Her inaugural move was thus one of antimonumental counterviolence. In a stretch, this might recall the ancient Roman practice known as damnatio memoriae (literally, “condemnation of memory”), whereby the image of a leader, once honored on a coin or a column but now deemed an enemy of the people, would be struck out in such a way that both acts, the commemoration and the cancellation, were retained (later iconoclasts carried on this practice in their own ways). Updated, such an approach might split the difference between the often unsatisfactory alternatives of simply retaining an offensive monument and removing it altogether. Parker points to such a third way: How many disputed monuments might be given the Parker treatment—blown up, to respond to demands of social justice, and then strung up, for purposes of historical reflection? That sentence would keep the likes of Confederate generals, Cecil Rhodes, and Teddy Roosevelt where they deserve to be: in limbo.
Given this antimonumental aspect of her work, how does Parker persuade British soldiers and customs officers, let alone museum curators, to collaborate with her? Do they think they are all just on an arty lark, or does Parker tap into anti-institutional sentiments that institutional agents also harbor? That is, does she deliver a pill of critical suspicion coated in a sugary prank to the very institutions she works with? Certainly, one of her prime subjects is national identity, which was vexed long before Brexit. Island, 2022, the final work in the show, is a glass structure modeled on a family greenhouse whose panes Parker dabbed in brushstrokes of chalk taken from the cliffs of Dover, which she calls a “patriotic feature of our coastline—it literally marks the edge of England.” With a floor made from old tiles from the House of Parliament and an interior light pulsing on and off, the white marks turn to black and back again: Island thus evokes a lighthouse (for immigrants and refugees) one moment and a closed dark shelter the next. The piece at Tate Britain sat a short walk from Turner paintings of distressed ships. One wonders whether any MPs down the street saw it.
Hal Foster’s Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg was published in 2020 by Princeton University Press.