It’s hard to reconcile the genial, mild-mannered and beautifully spoken artist sitting before me with the violence she often enacts in the name of art.

Cornelia Parker is a treasured, multi-award-winning British artist whose work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View – a garden shed she stacked with explosives and blew up – has been voted the public’s most loved artwork in the Tate collection in London. Shared Fate (Oliver) is a 1960s doll of Oliver Twist, complete with peaked cap and overalls, severed clean through the middle using the very guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette.

Yet the violence is not gratuitous. Moreover, much of it is arresting, surprisingly moving and – most powerfully – peaceful.

Parker is in Sydney to oversee the installation of her first Southern Hemisphere retrospective. It’s at the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by chief curator Rachel Kent.

In many of her works Parker seeks out the beauty in the beast; what Kent describes as “the opposing forces of chaos and order”: the tragi-comic we cheerfully expose our children to through cartoons such as Tom and Jerry or The Simpsons. Interestingly, the Turner Prize finalist grew up in a house devoid of art, cartoons, or much joy for that matter.

“We were quite poor, so magazines and books were accessed through my art teachers, who were very good,” says Parker, who grew up in the Cheshire countryside, in north-west England. “I was a bit of a loner, quite shy, but I definitely loved being out in the landscape and the only way I could do it was to go awol, which made my father very angry.”

One of many turning points came when Parker was taken to London, aged 15, by those art teachers and exposed to some of the world’s best galleries and artists.

“That just blew my mind. It was an important trigger to make me think, ‘Okay, this art business has a whole backstory to it’, so I became drawn to going to art school.”

She studied at Gloucester and Wolverhampton, ultimately making her mark when she moved to London and was invited to join the edgy 1990 British Art Show, where she exhibited her breakthrough work Thirty Pieces of Silver. She was soon known as one of the trailblazing Young British Artists movement of the time (think Damien Hirst and his shark in formaldehyde). Since then she’s had regular major commissions and exhibited everywhere from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Whitworth in Manchester.

Three years in the planning, the MCA retrospective spans three decades of Parker’s sculpture, film, photography and embroidery, anchored by four major installations. Included is Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, which Parker blew up in 1991 with the assistance of the British Army. The garden shed was filled with found objects and ephemera donated by friends – kids tricycles, an old record player and everyday gardening paraphernalia – and after it blew she collected the 2000 pieces and painstakingly recreated the moment of impact. The life-sized work is lit by a single bulb, which casts playful yet eerie shadows.

“One of the things I love about the work is she’ll often take ordinary, recognisable things then subject them to quite violent, transformative processes. So ordinary things become extraordinary,” says Kent.

For Thirty Pieces of Silver (the price Judas was paid to betray Jesus) Parker had 1000 pieces of old silverware (donated or bought in op-shops) run over with a steamroller. The driver thought it such fun he invited his friends to watch, and they all brought picnics and cheered him on. The 30 pools of crushed silver are each suspended and displayed.

“That was fun, the beginning of me getting excited about process, then the formal side comes out of the process,” says Parker. “So Thirty Pieces of Silver was squashed then elevated, by suspending it. Things are killed off, then resurrected as art.”

Also on display is Parker’s Magna Carta, (An Embroidery), a 13-metre embroidery of the document’s Wikipedia entry, a commission to commemorate its 800th anniversary that was hand embroidered by personalities such as musician Brian Eno, writer and public intellectual Germaine Greer, and whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. “The bulk of the work was done by 46 British prisoners. They got paid for their time and were very pleased to embroider it, although some of them didn’t know what the internet or Wikipedia was,” Parker says.

The most irreverent work in the exhibition is surely Left Right & Centre, a short film made up of Instagram posts the highly politicised Parker made in 2017, the year she was appointed official election artist (Britain’s first woman to be given the job), only to be told she must remain bipartisan.

“I enjoyed photographing ‘left-leaning tree’, ‘right-leaning cat’ and built up this vocabulary of left and right so it became quite fun and I enjoyed taking the piss out of things,” she says, chuckling.

Cornelia Parker is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of its Sydney International Art Series 2019/20. It runs from November 8, 2019 to February 16, 2020.