Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain

Cold Dark Matter – An Exploded View by Cornelia Parker (1991)

Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for an artist who would get the army to help her to blow up a garden shed with Semtex. I have an even greater admiration for the patience with which the artist combed the field afterwards, finding all the pieces, only to reconstruct them in her studio later. As she says, people seem to love to blow things up, and this work reminds me of one of those frozen moments just after something has happened. Is the garden shed flying apart, or, with a quick reversal, could it be put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty? There’s something playful here, but also something quite thought-provoking, and this is typical of Cornelia Parker’s work. Born in 1956, Parker has a deep interest in the transformation of objects, and in their potential even when damaged.

The idea of the shed was, according to Parker, because this is a place where we store things that we aren’t sure if we’ll ever need again. There are toys in the exploded shed, tools, all manner of bric-a-brac, all representing those things that we are reluctant to get rid of and don’t really want to bring into the light. Some of the objects were the artist’s own, but most were gathered from car boot sales over a three -month period. Parker discusses how the objects were charred and broken after the explosion, but how they were somehow reanimated once they were suspended, and I can see what she means.

Another work that I rather liked was ’30 Pieces of Silver’ from 1988-9. For this work, Parker again trawled through car boot sales and junk shops, collecting silver objects. These were then ceremonially flattened by a handy steam roller. I think Parker must have extraordinary social skills – she managed to persuade the Army to cooperate with the blowing up of her shed, and I imagine that a lot of steam roller drivers would have baulked at such a strange commission.

Once flattened, each object was suspended from a thread so that it hung a few inches above the ground. The objects are grouped into thirty ‘pools’, each containing between thirty three and forty six pieces, although each pool is roughly the same size. The overall effect is rather ethereal.

I was fascinated by the contents of the different pools. The one below has what looks like a brass platter, which is golden amongst all the silver.

And in the pool below, there’s what looks like a trumpet.

I love the shadows, too.

In War Room (2015), Parker has made a tent based on the one created for the Field of the Cloth of Gold by Henry VIII for his meeting with the King of France in 1520. The tent is completely lined with the material from which the Royal British Legion cuts out its poppies for poppy day. For Parker, the empty holes represent those who died in wars, although with only 300,000 holes it’s a massive underestimate.

Photo One from

War Room by Cornelia Parker (2015) (Photo One)

And finally, there’s Island, made in 2022. A little greenhouse, its windows whitewashed with chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, stands alone in the middle of the room. The encaustic tiles on its floor come from the Houses of Parliament, and date back to 1847. What is disconcerting is the way that the single light in the middle of the greenhouse pulses on and off with the rhythm of an anxious breath. This is what Parker has to say:

“For Island I’ve painted the panes of glass of a greenhouse with white brushstrokes of cliff chalk, like chalking time. So the glasshouse becomes enclosed, inward looking, a vulnerable domain, a little England with a cliff-face veil. The Island in question is our own. In our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe, Britain is emptied out of Europeans just when we need them most. The spectre of the climate crisis is looming large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious.

……The light inside the greenhouse slowly pulses, breathing in and out like a lighthouse. The white chalk strokes throw dark shadow moirés on the wall. What is white becomes black, and what was stable is now uneasily shifting.”

I loved this exhibition. Parker has a way of titivating the senses and the intellect which I find most satisfying. Well worth a look if you’re in London – the exhibition closes on 16th October, so there’s still time!

Photo Credit

Photo One from

4 thoughts on “Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain

  1. Mary Gillender

    I’m loving your art criticism. And by the way, thanks for turning me on to Remedios Varo the other day: she’s so amazing and I’d never heard of her until you blogged about her.


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