Cornelia Parker at the MCA

Cornelia Parker is a major figure in the British art world. It was a coup for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to mount the first major retrospective of her work. And a challenge.

Her most famous work is this one — a shed (full of shed-like material) blown up by members of the British Army caught mid-explosion.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 (with all the bits and pieces suspended from a grid on the ceiling).

Not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the bits and pieces here are the remnants of a violin. One observer at least has recoiled in horror at this discovery. You never know just how people will react do you, just what will catch their eye.

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I had never heard of Ms Parker and as usual didn’t have my brain quite in gear as I entered the exhibition. I saw this.

That looks interesting I thought. Bits of dirt suspended from the ceiling. Very carefully I should add. I rather liked it. It had a rather superior sort of stillness about it and the shadows provided another dimension.

I read the label. The name of the work is ‘Subconscious of a Monument’. The bits of dirt, ‘desiccated clay’, have been dug out from under the Tower of Pisa — dug out not for the purposes of art but engineering — which as a result leans less than it used to. One question, perhaps the first: Uh huh … so errr … why did she do that? The second: what should we think?

Immediately next to it is this video.

A Palestinian resident in Jerusalem speaks about his family’s work of making crowns from thorn bush cuttings. In peak months he sells several thousand. His hands and those of his son are pitted with the endless cuts and piercings that come from the work. They seem to be sitting on seats out of a wrecked plane. His son is completely impassive.

Self-described, the man himself is simply a businessman making a living. He sees no irony or complexity in what he is doing. But we can. It’s hardly possible to avoid. He’s a Palestinian/ it’s Jerusalem/ they are selling crowns of thorns to Christians/ it’s a business/ and so on and so on … There are a series of big stories attached to these ideas. And is THAT art?

I was getting more interested. There was the suggestion of a particular sort of British mind at work. British? Not British. English. The sort of Englishperson who loves games and unravelling webs of knowledge. Stephen Fry.

Round the corner is her ‘Magna Carta’, a 13m long embroidery for an Oxford College and the British Library to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its signing. In fact, a 13m long embroidery of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Magna Carta’ on 15 June 2014, the 799th anniversary, exact right down to the references (about a quarter of its total length) and the illustrations.

The particular section at left, about 200x150mm, took 400 hours, and a great deal of skill, to embroider.

It’s an interesting reminder that Pope Innocent III was involved in the advent of the very English Magna Carta. England was mixed up in Europe a long time before the EU came along.

So far so dramatic. Good, but just as people were doing, you could walk past it pretty easily without paying much attention. The idea of the Magna Carta mightn’t mean much on a Sydney summer afternoon.

But the more assiduous viewer then reads that, to rub in its theme of legality, most of the piece was hand-stitched by 33 convicts. All sorts of celebrities contributed bits and pieces. Germaine Greer did two sentences. Jarvis Cocker stitched ‘common people’ the name of one of his songs. Julian Assange did one ‘freedom’, Edward Snowden did one ‘liberty’. Several senior justices of the British High Court contributed (‘justice’, ‘denial’ and ‘delay’). One sentence was stitched during his visit to Guantanamo Bay by a human rights lawyer. The work includes a tea stain from a prisoner’s cup and a spot of blood from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (‘contemporary political relevance’) who accidentally pricked his finger while sewing.

Like the Pisa clay piece, an understorey (and an under story) has been built. Literality, but with a twist. Awaiting discovery. And embroidery.

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From time to time Ms Parker likes smashing things up to reconstruct. (See, for example, the shed above.) ‘Re-Presenting’ she calls it, in the sense of looking at things in another way. She has described such things as ‘cartoon deaths’, the sort of thing that might happen to Tom or Jerry, while pointing that, even if this has been smoothed out and disguised in the finishing stages, sculptural practice usually entails a certain amount of violence.

For ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ she drove a steamroller over items of silver — cutlery, food service, trays, musical instruments, vases … she’s ‘drawn to things with a past’ — to create what she now describes as thirty ‘pools’ which have ‘become almost natural objects’. They were there at the MCA suspended in patterns, ‘pools’ I guess, properly. Thirty of them.

In a 1992 piece, ‘Words that Define Gravity,’ Parker wrote a dictionary definition of ‘gravity’ out longhand, and then magnified and replicated each of the words in cast lead and threw them off top of the chalk cliffs of southern England. To complete the work, she collected the lead words, mangled by the fall and left with chalk impressions, and suspended them on threads just above gallery floor level. ‘The words were made illegible by real gravity’.

She returns to ideas to enlarge them. In 1997 Parker exhibited Mass (Colder Darker Matter), suspending the charred remains of a church that had been struck by lightning in Texas while she had had a residency there. Eight years later, Parker made a companion piece, Anti-Mass, using charcoal from a Kentucky church which had been destroyed by arson. She discovered when she went to look at what had happened that in the US the cause of burning churches is rarely lightning, especially when they have largely black congregations. She also discovered a group of white Americans who make it their job to help those churches get rebuilt. Strings of narrative attach to these pieces.

Her work is also often fun. She has made a collection of ‘faces of Jesus’ occurring in unlikely places, on a piece of tortellini and in oil stains found on the floor of car parks for example, or this one in the end of a Kit Kat. Something of a triumph. (And, it must be said, this is observation of the keenest order.)

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So what do we have here then?

We know that she is absorbed by found objects. But she likes the back of things, the underside, what’s left when you take things away (like the War Room, at left, what’s left when you stamp out millions of poppies for Remembrance Day), what things are like before they’re constructed (the beginnings of a pistol in Sydney). She likes oppositions (embroideries with antonyms, one set of words on one side, the other on the reverse, both showing through); she likes comparisons and measurements (wire drawn from the silver in a melted teaspoon to the length of the height of Niagara Falls for example). She likes the attachment of stories and consequences (the Magna Carta).

She offers an invitation to join in these rather strange perceptual journeys. Things can be seen this way, she says. Fun isn’t it. And interesting. And challenging. And sometimes beautiful, or if not beautiful, at least deeply satisfying.

She describes herself as a grasshopper, but I don’t think any other creature, bird insect animal, has a mind quite like hers.

She is an original, an oddity that I can’t help thinking of as English, with the directness and confident self-exposure of an upbringing in the shires and, paradoxically, with feet squarely planted on the ground (while her eyes are darting round). It might be an unusual form of common sense on view.

The works can be easily read; you’re not tested by establishing the meaning but by the profusion of meanings. You can have a look at her (good, strong, immensely active) mind at work but you’ll have to bring your own game. In that regard they can sometimes seem a bit like a general knowledge quiz, (speaking as someone who believes emphatically in the general knowledge quiz). It might be that set of demands that make it art, the clincher anyway.

There is also a firm and attractive morality at work. It might seem political, but it’s not. Something far more fundamental is in play. I liked that.