LONDON – On a recent morning, artist Cornelia Parker was at Tate Britain, instructing her producer Caroline Smith on where to hang a giant flattened sousaphone.
The steamrollered horn is the pièce de résistance of her installation “Perpetual Canon” (2004), in which 60 similarly mistreated brass instruments are hung from the ceiling in a circle around a central exposed light bulb. They were all once played in Salvation Army and British Legion bands, “a nod to all these declining British institutions and traditions,” Parker told Andrea Schlieker, curator of the Tate Britain show, in an interview for the catalog.
“Here?” Smith asked, standing near the entrance. “Or here?” The two were trying to find the spot where the sousaphone would throw off the most shadow.
“Maybe toward the back wall,” Parker said. They agreed on a spot, and Smith marked it.
The Tate Britain retrospective, which opened last week and runs through October 16, includes many of Parker’s large-scale installations, including “War Room” (2015) and “Thirty Pieces of Silver” (1988-9).
Parker rose to prominence as a conceptual artist whose work has variously involved excavating, wrapping, wiping, dropping, burning and blowing things up. She works across a variety of media, from installation and sculpture to photography, performance, prints and film. She is drawn to detritus and ephemera, and likes teasing out links to the unconscious, to violence and trauma, to our most deeply-held convictions and desires.
In Parker’s work, things have memories. They retain traces of the hands that held them, or the processes that created them. She was interested, she said, in “using materials that have some kind of history.”
Take, for instance, her site-specific work “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)” built for the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for which Parker reconfigured an abandoned barn from upstate to create the facade of the house from Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” melding the wholesome associations of the one with the dark, troubling nature of the other.
Schlieker, who called Parker an “object poet,” said, “It’s the poetics of the everyday that she brings to the fore.”
But Parker’s poetics of the everyday have become increasingly political over the span of her career. This blend of poetry and politics is particularly evident in “Neither From Nor Towards,” a 1992 installation in the Tate Britain exhibition that is assembled from beach-combed bricks that once formed a row of houses at the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover. The bricks appear to be suspended in the air, in a brick road-like formation, slowly sloping upward, or perhaps restaging their descent. Coastal erosion, accelerated by climate change, caused the houses to fall into the sea; as the bricks lay on the shore, the water worked them over, smoothing and reshaping them, so no two are alike.
Schlieker explained that the White Cliffs of Dover, which appear in several works in the exhibition, stand for Britain’s “insularity” and “isolation.” In “Neither From Nor Towards,” the cliffs also underscored “the impact of climate change and climate catastrophe,” he said. “They are the symbol for a much larger problem.”
Parker exploded onto Britain’s art scene – so to speak – in 1991, with the installation “Cold Dark Matter.” To make this work, she got the British army to blow up a garden shed, gathered up the pieces of what was left, then carefully hung them from wires around a bare light bulb.
The work, which is included in the Tate Britain show, is striking: Hanging from the ceiling, as if frozen in mid-explosion, is all manner of stuff, the kind that accumulates like dust in garden sheds: stray wheels, pots and pans, gardening tools, a red watering can and domestic objects (some identifiable, some not), most culled from car trunk sales or donated by friends. Everything sways a bit in the breeze from the air conditioning. With the room lit only by the bulb in the center of the work, crazy shadows jostle and crowd on the walls.
Curator Jonathan Watkins, who commissioned “Cold Dark Matter” when he was director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, said Parker’s work was attuned to accidents, violence, and absurdity, and tried to give form to events from the chaos of the universe. “She has this extraordinary ability to touch on things that are really important,” he said.
Parker was born in 1956, the second of three girls in a Catholic family, and raised on a small farm in northern England. She grew up milking cows and mucking stables.
As a child, she was told very little about what was happening to her mother, who had schizophrenia and was hospitalized, Parker recalled in an interview at her airy London home. Her father was a violent man, she said, and her childhood was “quite tough.” No surprise, then, that Parker’s work is so attentive to random acts of aggression and hidden stories.
When she was a child, she added, she “was made to feel guilty for playing” and “would have to sneak off” to do it. “Since then I’ve associated making art with play,” she said. “Part of me feels guilty for doing it.”
There were profound links with Catholicism in Parker’s work, said historian and critic Marina Warner, who wrote an essay for the show’s catalog. She cited, for instance, an installation called “The Maybe” that Parker made with actress Tilda Swinton at the Serpentine Gallery in London, in 1995. In that work, Swinton spent a week sleeping in a glass display case for eight hours a day.
Warner said Swinton “looked a bit like one of those mummified saints who are not meant to be mummified but have been preserved miraculously because of their sanctity.”
Throughout the gallery, modern “relics” were on display – Charles Dickens’ quill pen, Queen Victoria’s stocking, a blanket and pillow from Freud’s couch. Parker had “really mined the idea that an object does not remain an object, if you know something about it, that has changed it,” Warner said. “A kind of essence has flowed through the object from the person who had touched it.”
Parker’s interest in politics was officially recognized in 2017, when she was selected as the official artist for a general election held in Britain that year. For each nationwide vote since 2001, a parliamentary committee has selected an artist to travel throughout the country observing the campaign, and to create works of art in response. (The pieces are then displayed in the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets.) Parker contributed two video pieces. The first, “Election Abstract,” grew out of the photographs she took of the many speeches, meetings, debates and impromptu encounters between the candidates and the public that she observed on the campaign trail.
To create the second, called “Left Right & Centre,” Parker flew a drone at night above the deserted floor of Parliament’s lower house, the House of Commons. Stacked in the middle of the chamber were the day’s newspapers, which in Britain run the gamut from the center left to the populist right. The drone’s rotating propellers create a strong wind, and over the course of filming the newspapers blow every which way, covering the green benches with their headlines, which a camera attached to the drone captures: “May Hung Out to Dry as New Front Opens in Brexit Battle.” “Hard-Left Bullying.” “Sorry Mess.”
The official election artist’s work is meant to be impartial, but for all that the newspapers represent viewpoints from across the political spectrum, the drone itself seemed a subtly partisan device. Was it a nod at the drone warfare Parliament sometimes authorizes, or to the droning of members of Parliament in their chambers? “I think that everything is a political metaphor,” Parker replied.
She has created a pair of new pieces for the Tate Britain show: a video called “Flag,” which shows the manufacturing of a British flag in a factory, but in reverse, and a new installation, called “Island.” In that work, a greenhouse daubed with paint made of chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover stands on Victorian tiles salvaged from the Palace of Westminster.
“The ‘Island’ in question is our own,” Parker writes in a wall text for the piece. “In our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe, Britain is emptied out of Europeans, just when we need them most. The specter of the climate crisis is looming large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious.”
The pretense of impartiality is gone, but Parker is not a dogmatic artist. She prefers to suggest a narrative, and then leave the viewer to make of it what they will. Yet there is a tension between her deeply political worldview, and her determination that art remain open-ended.
“I don’t think I’m trying to say one thing,” she said. “I’m saying 100.”
“I always think you should look at art the way you listen to music. You don’t worry about what it’s trying to say. You just go with the flow,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one set meaning to everything I’ve ever made. I think it replaces words. It is what it is.”
Cornelia ParkerThrough October 16 at Tate Britain, in London; tate.org.uk.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.