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’s first Southern Hemisphere retrospective is now on at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), curated by chief curator Rachel Kent.
Parker studied at Gloucester and Wolverhampton, and ultimately made 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 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.
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.
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 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.