A spotlight from a drone illuminates a bronze of Margaret Thatcher in the lobby of the House of Commons. The statue points, authoritatively, and her finger casts a long shadow. As the drone’s camera pans across the room, the shadow of Thatcher’s finger stalks the walls like a predator. Winston Churchill and H. H. Asquith are powerless to escape – they are statues too, after all – consumed in darkness as her dark appendage catches up with them.
Thatcher’s Finger (2018) is a video work playing in a modest corner of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s sprawling survey of British artist Cornelia Parker’s renowned career. “I’m increasingly political as I get older,” she says in an interview with exhibition curator Rachel Kent. “I see injustices everywhere.”
During her 40 years of making art, Parker has produced a substantial body of work – both as a sculptor who is innovative with material and form, and as an artist capable of transforming found objects through performative and conceptual processes. This MCA exhibition is the first major retrospective of Parker’s work in the southern hemisphere. In the hands of Kent, the survey shows Parker at her best when she is grappling with notions of politics, violence and authority.
Major retrospectives are often weighed down by a feeling that, decades into their career, the artist’s best body of work is behind them. Here, though, it seems that Parker’s creative energy has been a constant throughout her practice. The art from the three decades represented in this exhibition points to an artist with no signs of slowing down.
Her most recent projects – including 2015’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery); the companion installation work and video War Room and War Machine from 2015; and the video Left, Right and Centre from Parker’s time as the official election artist of the 2017 snap election won by Theresa May – are indicative of a significant momentum that remains in her practice.
These artworks help us rethink pressing political issues in inventive ways. For War Room, Parker took the paper offcuts from a factory that produces poppies for Remembrance Day, using reams of perforated red paper with thousands of poppy-shaped holes to fashion a room-sized tent. Upon entering the space you’re surrounded by the countless “negatives” where poppies have been mechanically punched out from paper, each representing a person lost, with shadows cast by four lightbulbs. The tent is modelled on a structure used for failed peace negotiations between England and France during the time of Henry VIII. The absence of the poppies is poignant – an emotional rumination on the limitless capacity for violence and death in the West.
Parker also made a video work from footage of the same factory, titled War Machine. In it, coils of paper are followed through machinery – shaped, drilled, fired, stamped – all with the factory’s percussive sounds, which are reminiscent of marching soldiers. The poppies are spat out en masse in crates, except for the moment each year when the production line becomes eerily still, stopping for two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Day. This is a restrained work that is made more powerful by its companion installation.
The earliest work in the exhibition is the large-scale installation Thirty Pieces of Silver from 1988 – when Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in power and the world was gripped by a “greed is good” mentality that has never really left us. Indicative of the sort of work that made Parker into a towering figure of British contemporary art, it brings together found objects with an accrued sense of history and reconfigures their meaning, often through processes involving force or violence.
For this piece, Parker collected old silver-plated objects at flea markets and car boot sales – castoffs from Britons with an aspirational sense of wealth and Empire. She famously laid out hundreds of these pieces – tubas, plates, goblets, candlesticks, forks – and flattened them with a steamroller. The remains float inches above the ground in 30 circular shapes – hence the title Thirty Pieces of Silver, which is also a reference to the amount paid to Judas to betray Jesus.
In drawing together different mediums, materials and concepts, Parker creates works with such generative tension and energy that their possible readings seem endless. The ideas of wealth, betrayal and greed in Thirty Pieces of Silver, a work about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, take on an even keener political edge now when the neoliberal project the former prime minister so ardently championed is haunting us all.
The selection of Parker’s works in this show, both old and new, demonstrates how the artist returns to and revives an understanding of what it means to live in a world that is shaped by power structures and underpinned by violence. The overarching narrative here is one of Parker’s enduring relevance over the decades. She has an awareness of physical tension and a sense of the tragicomic, and is able to approach dark and complex ideas with humour – making her conceptual works eminently approachable.
There are moments of real beauty, too, particularly Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), Parker’s most famous work. Oft cited as a crowd favourite at the Tate Modern in London, it’s an installation of the exploded and charred fragments of a wooden shed and its contents, suspended around a single lightbulb. Parker collaborated with the British Army to blow up a garden shed filled with everyday objects, and the viewer feels as though they are encountering the shed mid-explosion – or at a point when it’s coming back together. The garden shed is almost a cliché of domestic life in Britain, and its remains are hung with items such as books, bicycle parts and paint tins – objects you can’t quite throw away and instead accumulate.
Parker says Cold Dark Matter was an attempt to make sense of the daily violence seen on television. The work was made at a time when the IRA was regularly on the news and it speaks to the explosive and volatile energy at the heart of everyday living – of the dark undercurrents below even the most mundane parts of existence.
In our current political times, it still feels vital, especially when considered alongside Chomskian Abstract (2007) in the adjacent room. The most didactic of Parker’s works, it revolves around an interview with the renowned philosopher and political commentator Noam Chomsky. The violent structures that shape Western politics, capitalism, warfare, American imperialism and the urgency of our climate crisis are discussed. These themes permeate much of Parker’s art, with the strongest works being those that forge an emotional intimacy with the viewer, while also touching on sprawling structural issues that affect us all.
Cornelia Parker speaks to the sheer breadth of work the artist has produced over decades. Curator Rachel Kent also hints at just how much isn’t shown in this retrospective. There’s a dedicated room screening a recent hour-long documentary that gives an accessible overview of Parker’s practice, and a reading room with publications that gives deeper insight into her work. Within the snapshot of work in Cornelia Parker, the exhibition forges new connections and responses to iconic works up to 30 years after their creation, and asks profound questions of the volatility that has characterised the 21st century.
Cornelia Parker is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 16.
VISUAL ART 2019 / 20
Finkelstein Gallery, Melbourne, November 28—December 21
THEATRE The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until December 21
MUSICAL West Side Story
Festival Theatre, Adelaide, November 28—December 8
MUSIC Biggest Mobs
Melbourne Street Green, Brisbane, until December 2
THEATRE Pop-Up Globe
Crown Perth, until December 8
MULTIMEDIA Boomalli Now and Sister ++++++ Familial Formations
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until December 14
DESIGN In Absence | Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office
NGV Australia, Melbourne, November 27—April
SCULPTURE Assembled: The Art of Robert Kippel
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, until February 16
VIDEO Shirin Neshat: Dreamers
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 16
MUSICAL Billy Elliot the Musical
Sydney Lyric Theatre, until December 15
MUSIC The Boite: 40 Years of Multicultural Music in Melbourne
Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, November 30
MULTIMEDIA The Sensation Gallery
The Sensation Gallery, Perth, until December 23
VISUAL ART Elements Form
Midland Junction Arts Centre, Western Australia, until December 14
FESTIVAL Hobiennale 2019
FESTIVAL Due West Arts Festival
MULTIMEDIA Living Rocks: A Fragment of the Universe
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until November 24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Sparring Parker". Subscribe here.