At her best when lightly ruffling the surfaces of things: Cornelia Parker, at Tate Britain, reviewed

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Cornelia Parker

Tate Britain, until 16 October

Cornelia Parker wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but when she was growing up her German godparents sent her a silver spoon or fork every birthday. She seems to have had a thing about silverware ever since. She used to sell it on Portobello Market, and it formed the basis of her first large installation.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ (1988) could be viewed as an elegy to the fish knife and all those other superannuated aids to aspirational dining whose genteel functions are now all but forgotten – salvers, sauceboats, toast racks, sugar tongs and those scalloped silver shells holding coils of butter beaded with condensation from the fridge – if it wasn’t in practice a mass grave. On the same day in 1988, after years of gathering tarnish at the backs of cupboards, its constituent pieces of silver met a violent end under the drum of a ten-ton steamroller. Suspended from the ceiling in clumps of 30 in Room 1 of Parker’s retrospective at Tate Britain, they now float like glittering lily pads on a pond, sliding sideways in the air currents raised by visitors. The tipsy feeling thus induced transported me back to the dining room of an old-fashioned seaside hotel filled with the burble of elderly voices, the chink of monogrammed silverware on catering crockery and the smell of Brown Windsor soup and mothballs.

There’s a photo of the artist standing beside a trail of condemned silverware with the steamroller behind her. Is she sad or gleeful? Hard to tell. Much of her art involves destruction of one sort or another. The brass instruments in her installation ‘Perpetual Canon’ (2004) were subjected to even heavier punishment under a 250-ton industrial press; a ten-ton steamroller wasn’t enough to squeeze the life out of a sousaphone, the biggest thing Parker has crushed so far. The flattened instruments, suspended pointing upwards, cast a parade of shadows of their former selves on the walls.

Parker traces her destructive urges back to a childhood love of Road Runner and Tom & Jerry, but unlike the irrepressible heroes of Looney Tunes cartoons the victims of her violence don’t bounce back. They are resurrected in other forms through processes she likens to transubstantiation and sympathetic magic. She ascribes her arrangements of things in tidy grids to a desire to impose order on chaos, but you wouldn’t describe the chaos of ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ (1991) – her famous detonated garden shed – as exactly ordered, when the moment of maximum destruction is fixed in a 3-D freeze frame. She got the Army School of Ammunition in Warwickshire to blow up the shed and its contents with Semtex, the explosive of choice of the IRA who were in mid-bombing campaign at the time. She thought of getting an IRA bomber to do it, but decided against it.

Parker’s real genius is for getting people to do things. In 1995 she talked the foreman of a Connecticut firearms factory into giving her a pair of early-stage Colt 45s to display as ‘Embryo Firearms’, liking the idea of taking at least two deadly weapons out of circulation. In 1997 she got a Texas snake farm to sell her a pint of rattlesnake venom for $20 and a doctor to prescribe the antidote, later mixing them with inks to produce ‘Poison and Antidote Drawings’ (2012). Her life’s oeuvre seems like one long series of Cornelia’ll Fix It, notching up permissions for improbable projects. But artists repeat themselves, and retrospectives can get repetitive: in the course of a whole exhibition, the games Parker plays with objects begin to feel precious.

Parker did not have much of a childhood. Her German mother was schizophrenic and her English father hit her; she missed out on play and is making up for lost time. But there’s a compulsiveness about her games-playing that sometimes feels like a tic. Why go to the trouble of using the guillotine that cut off Marie Antoinette’s head to chop an Oliver Twist doll in two, or of borrowing the box camera that belonged to Rudolf Höss to photograph clouds above the Imperial War Museum? If it’s not compulsive, then it’s frivolous.

As Parker’s art is becoming more openly political, her famously light touch is getting heavier. Her 2017-Election film ‘Left, Right & Centre’ – shot in the Commons chamber at night by a clattering drone whose downdraft lifts piles of newspapers off the central table to litter the green benches with political headlines – makes compelling viewing. But her 13-metre embroidery of the Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta – laboriously stitched by volunteers, including celebrity whistleblowers and victims of injustice, to mark the document’s 800th anniversary in 2015 – just feels laboured. Like the drone in the chamber, Parker is at her most effective when lightly ruffling the surfaces of things.

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