By: Zhaohua Chen
Cornelia Parker grew up in an abusive household, where as a child, she flattened coins on railroad tracks to create works of art. Eventually, her childhood hobby would set her on a designated and unique path for life.
Parker takes interest in many items that are uncommon in art– blades from the guillotine, a machine that decapitated people in medieval times, plastic explosives, and even steamrollers. She has created many large-scale works using explosions – even persuading the British Army to help her blow up a garden shed for her artwork in 1991.
Unlike other artists who simply create elegant pieces from imagination, Parker prefers to resurrect traditional artworks and turn them into something akin to a beautiful wreckage. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp notoriously laid an unused urinal on its side and forced The Tate to accept the “piece” into its museum.
Art is birthed from the destruction of natural earthly materials. Crimson cochineal beetles can be crushed to make vivid red hues, purple mucus glands can be ripped from living sea snails to make a variety of shades of violet. Abstract beauty can, in fact, be created from the destruction of familiar items.
Taking a massive assortment of common household trinkets of silver and silver-plated items, Cornelia Parker created her earliest work, Thirty Pieces of Silver, from 1988 to 1989. She drove a steamroller over the objects to crush and mangle them. This array was hung from long wires just a few inches off of the floor.
This seemingly catastrophic wreckage of a piece that she made was in fact, very carefully calculated and planned. The floating pieces are all forming a grid five rows wide and six rows long, which takes inspiration from the geometric works of abstractionists such as Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin.
Parker says, “In the gallery, the ruined objects are ghostly, levitating just above the floor, waiting to be reassessed in the light of their transformation.” Many soulful thoughts were put into her pieces of art, and this one also includes biblical references to money, betrayal, and even resurrection after death.
When talking about one of her best and widely known works, titled Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, Parker said “I like shadows and things that are shiny, the opposite of shadows. I’ve always liked nocturnes. The first time I used lights was in my exploded shed. I wanted to make a work with a light source. It’s linked to explosion– the flash, so that’s where the light first appeared.” This piece was created two years after her first work, Thirty Pieces of Silver.
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View features the shattered shambles of her garden shed, suspended by many invisible filaments. A blinding lightbulb from behind illuminates the many twisted items that once were settled in the garden shed onto the museum walls. The delicate dance of shadows on the walls is joined by the shadows of viewers who marvel at her unique yet stunning work.
Parker herself has stated she had a fascination with silhouettes, which stemmed from what she called her “cave dwelling, Plato Cave days”-- the dark and laborious times she went through in childhood. Despite having an odd array of pieces she has created, Parker’s heart full of passion for her craft and her sources of inspiration shines true.
She’s borrowed many interesting historical items, including the guillotine blade that ended Marie Antoinette’s life in 1793, which she used to slice an Oliver Twist doll in half. She’s also used dangerous items, such as snake venom, adding it in blots across many works, to influence viewers’ subconsciousness as well.
Perpetual Canon, made in 2004, is another one of Parker’s notable works. It features crushed and melted tubas, trumpets, coronets, and even a sousaphone, suspended and orbiting around a lamp, hanging in midair. She describes it as, “The squashed instruments were hung in a ring, in a circle like a marching band… It’s like these wind instruments have inhaled and never exhaled. Like they’ve just taken a breath and are in an arrested space.”
Whether her works are creative, destructive, or a combination of both, Cornelia Parker continues to cement inspiration, happiness, anguish, and memories into all of them, using her special ability to combine explosions with emotional ties, in order to carry on destruction’s footprint on art for future generations to come.