Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991. Blown-up garden shed with its contents and lightbulb, dimensions variable.

Suspending Frictions: A Conversation with Cornelia Parker

When Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) erupted onto the art scene, it defined Cornelia Parker as an artist remarkable for her uncompromising ideas. Using British Army personnel to blow up a garden shed, she then suspended the scorched remains to create an explosion held in mid-air, immortalized in all its fractured drama. Parker consistently taps into the collective unconscious, using recycled materials to great effect in large-scale works such as Subconscious of a MonumentHeart of DarknessMass and Anti-Mass, and the intricate Bullet Drawings. Her works grapple with the world’s problems in the most unexpected ways, as reflected in experiments with video, particularly Chomskian Abstract, recently shown at the Sydney Biennale. Parker’s remit has no boundaries, whether in terms of materials or subject matter. She is driven by an innate curiosity, and her work, though always visually captivating, reveals a dark undercurrent that questions humanity’s increasingly perilous relationship with the planet.

Ina Cole: Your materials go through a dramatic process of transformation, being exploded, burnt, crushed, or submerged in the development of a work. How do you decide to what extremes a material can be manipulated—is the process experimental or intuitive?
Cornelia Parker: It’s a combination, but the choice of process is often conceptual, with the object as the starting point. I first started making wire drawings from melted-down objects because the process of making wire is called “drawing.” The first one, made about 12 years ago, involved gold wedding rings, which I used to measure The Circumference of a Living Room—a title that came to me halfway through the process. In the recent Bullet Drawings, bullets were melted down and drawn into wire, so they somehow became a trajectory of themselves. A bullet’s worth of lead wire was trapped between two sheets of glass and framed, where it looked like a pencil drawing. Perhaps the way that the piece of wire is fashioned is the intuitive part.

I like pushing materials that have symbolic meaning in society, stretching them to see how far they can go. Metals can stretch; they have adaptability, precious metals particularly. I’ve had the longest relationship with silver; one of my first pieces, made 20 years ago, was Thirty Pieces of Silver, silver-plated objects that I’d run over with a steamroller. I then stopped squashing for many years but started again in 2001, with a flattened brass band for the Victoria & Albert Museum. I subject materials to many different processes, and some re-emerge, even though they may remain dormant for many years.

IC: Does the subject of the work dictate the material you’re likely to use?
CP: Sometimes I get drawn to an object and extrapolate an idea out of it, or I might find something fully formed that I don’t want to alter at all, like Twenty Years of Tarnish, a pair of tarnished silver goblets. They were wedding presents to a friend who then divorced. She hadn’t polished them since her marriage, 20 years before. They’re still accruing tarnish, and that’s what I’m exhibiting. I’m pointing to their combustion caused by neglect. That led to another idea—collecting tarnish off famous people’s silverware, which ended up on handkerchiefs, like small Turin shrouds. The act of polishing became the sculptural process, the bit of friction.

IC: You’ve previously said that your work harnesses all the friction that exists in the world.
CP: Friction has been going on in sculpture for centuries, ever since somebody first picked up a stone to knock another stone. My activity has been about that friction, which happens naturally and unnaturally in the world. I’ve had a long relationship with metals that have a history, and were formed by others, such as silver spoons, wedding rings, or bullets.