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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

Cornelia Parker: Tate's retrospective is a blast

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

If one of the purposes of art is to take the commonplace, hold it against the light and show it from a different perspective, then Cornelia Parker appears to want to make sure it's been blown to smithereens, flattened or otherwise rendered useless first.

At Tate Britain's hugely entertaining retrospective of her work, the abiding sensation of her great set-piece installations is one of curiosity.

She has an almost obsessive interest in the mundane detail of our lives. But while the focus might seem to be on those carefully deconstructed everyday objects, the real picture takes in universal and vastly more important themes.

Think violent inhumanity, environmental concerns and injustice.

Not only that, the scale of her artistic ambitions appears limitless and involves co-opting such organisations as the British Army, the police and, bizarrely, Texan snake farmers into helping her achieve her goals.

I was lucky to get a sneak early preview of this show, thanks to a friend who works for the Tate. So, under the gallery's special 'family and friends' scheme, I found myself on a recent Sunday evening wandering around its almost empty and slightly eery halls.

Apart from the artwork, that is, and the few others who were also taking advantage of the private view.

I won't cover all the exhibits, because they're really quite numerous, but I would just like to note one or two to convey the flavour of the show. Setting the tone for the rest of the experience, the first room contains the installation Thirty Pieces Of Silver.

Obvious biblical reference aside, this features dozens of silver items collected from car-boot sales, markets and auctions which were then flattened by a steamroller.

As Parker says: 'I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume.'

She talks about these objects having their own histories, but how they all shared the same fate 'on the same dusty road'. In a world scarred by violence, it's difficult to avoid the symbolism and resonances of this installation.

Perhaps Parker's most famous work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View dominates a room on its own.

Here it is, the iconic exploded shed frozen in a literal suspended animation, a catalogue of all those items that Parker says we can't, ironically, throw away.

Ironic because they've all been given one big helping hand towards oblivion by the Army School of Ammunition. But in sticking them back together, mid explosion, Parker gives the detritus of our lives new meaning by reimagining their forms.

The artist says the first part of the title is a scientific term for all matter in the universe that can't be seen or measured. Interesting, because standing in the darkened exhibition hall with a single light source casting sepulchral shadows on the wall, you can't escape the feeling that this is all about the bang. The Big Bang.

As well as anger, poignancy and beauty, there is wit and humour here too, sometimes rather dark, visual punning humour. And I didn't want to be the one to resort to a lame pun myself, but oh go on then, I found it all rather mind-blowing. Do see it, you'll be glad you did.

Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain, London, until 16 October 2022

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