INt’s been 50 years since Cornelia Parker first said to herself: “One day, perhaps I’ll have a show at the Tate.” As a schoolgirl, she had a propensity for art because it allowed her to go off-piste. “I was not overly academic,” she explains, as her new retrospective prepares to open at Tate Britain in London. “I liked going off on a tangent. So yes, I’m very pleased about the show. It’s a dream come true. ”
Although Parker’s decades-long career has given her great prominence – shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1997, given an OBE in 2010 – she talks about her work like it’s an unfolding mystery. When we meet over Zoom, she is sporting her trademark short bob and blunt Joan of Arc fringe, theorizing about art while dealing with a tree surgeon who is tending to her garden. She is softly spoken and unassuming – surprisingly for an artist whose work is often loud, dramatic and violent. Perhaps the most famous is 1991’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, in which Parker enlisted the British Army to blow up a shed stuffed with toys, gardening tools and stuff found in charity stores. The charred fragments were then suspended from a ceiling, creating an explosion eerily frozen in time.
At the Turner exhibition a few years later, Parker exhibited Mass (Colder Darker Matter), suspending the blackened remains of a church that had been struck by lightning in Texas. Her other notable works include Thirty Pieces of Silver, for which she had dozens of silver-plated objects – including musical instruments, teapots, candlesticks and cutlery – all flattened by a steamroller. In 2005, meanwhile, she suspended fragments of dry soil taken from beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prevent its collapse. This was Subconscious of a Monument, an ode to Galileo, who would suspend objects from the tower to test his theory of gravity.
There is, without a doubt, a profoundly unsettling side to Parker’s work. While sculpture tends to represent physical stability, hers depicts the “constantly unstable” – that universal condition of vulnerability, which she creates by treating objects with “cartoon violence”, as she puts it. Where did this desire to blow things up come from? “There’s something about the explosion as a piece of iconography,” she says. “You see them in action films all the time. Before CGI, filmmakers were having to blow things up and they quite enjoyed it. Boys usually like it – and I was brought up as a boy by my father, who had three girls and wanted a boy. So perhaps my fixation with guns and violence and explosions is me taking on this role a bit too much. ” She laughs. “Why do little boys pick up a stick pretending it’s a gun? The want to destroy things seems to be part of our nature. Otherwise violence would not exist. ”
What’s special about cartoon deaths, she adds, is that whoever gets hurt – whether it’s Tom or Jerry – almost always gets resurrected. “If they’ve been flattened with a steamroller, they just peel themselves up off the floor. Suspending the exploded shed was like a reanimation. Because when all the objects were on the ground, it looked like a morgue. But now it’s been taken back in time. ”
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point was one of her inspirations – “there’s an amazing slow-motion explosion” – as were the headlines of the time. “IRA bombs were at the forefront of your mind, a bit like Ukraine is now. It’s almost like ‘sympathetic magic’, which is when you enact something to stop it happening for real. I’m always doing things in the hope they’re not going to happen. “
Parker was born in Cheshire in 1956, the middle of three girls. Her career was incremental: there was no “overnight success”. In 1974, she did an art foundation course at Cheltenham before going on to Wolverhampton Polytechnic. She then made theater sets and did an MA, before moving to east London in the early 1980s. Her first solo exhibition, at the Ikon in Birmingham, was not until 1988.
Since then, she has tried to make both large and quieter works. “The smaller works are more contemplative, like object poems,” she says. The Maybe, which appeared at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1995, was a performance piece conceived by Tilda Swinton, who lay inside a glass showcase. For Pornographic Drawings, she used solvent to dissolve pornographic video tapes confiscated by customs.
To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015, Parker created a 13-meter hand-embroidered tapestry of the charter’s Wikipedia page. Many of its 4,000-plus words were embroidered by men and women with opposing political views, including lords, barons, baronesses, human rights lawyers and prisoners. There were also contributions from Julian Assange and Edward Snowden alongside the US ambassador. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger embroidered “political contemporary relevance”, Jarvis Cocker chose “common people”.
“The Magna Carta was all about justice,” she says. “I went to see Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. He wanted to draw a lipstick heart on his bit of embroidery. I took it off him and said, ‘No!’ In the end, he embroidered, ‘Freedom’, which was the word Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, also embroidered. “
The more we talk, the clearer it becomes that Parker is not one of those artists who’s content to sit on the sidelines of history. There is a highly charged political streak within her, one that rears its head in her work, both consciously and subconsciously. In May 2017, she was even chosen to be the official general election artist, the first woman to take on the role. I was thinking, ‘Fuck it, I might as well immerse myself totally in politics’, rather than feeling inept and on the outside. I felt like a reporter. I went to all the manifesto launches. ”
It’s hard not to engage in politics, she says, before listing off all the “reprehensible” items in the current news agenda, including the invasion of Ukraine, Priti Patel’s “beyond the pale” plans to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, and Boris Johnson’s “narcissism”. But the most pressing issue for her is the climate emergency. “I first became aware of how awful it could be in 2005 when I went to a conference at Oxford with climate scientists. It was quite earth-shattering. I think it’s the biggest thing in everybody’s lives and they do not realize it yet. Biden’s about to give out permits for more drilling for oil. And if Trump gets back in, we’re all toast. “
In the run-up to the 2015 general election, Parker endorsed the Green party’s Caroline Lucas. Today, she and her husband, artist Jeff McMillan, are constantly trying to “drag” their 20-year-old daughter out on marches. “We live in a very important time. As a human race, we have to make some decisions about whether we’re going to survive. ”
Parker used to “drive people bananas” with her campaigning around the climate emergency. “I was always going on to the people who ran galleries, including the Tate and Serpentine, about the need to prepare for the future. Not having BP as a sponsor, for example. In the end, you’ve got to stand up and be a good citizen, open your mouth when you need to, and make sure your actions are good. ”
As a “remainer”, Brexit is still very much on Parker’s mind. Why is the issue so important to her? “It affects everything. Your freedom of movement, my daughter’s future. I’m thinking of applying for German citizenship because I’m half German. I do not like feeling not part of Europe. I do not want to be a little Englander. ”
This sentiment is the inspiration for a new work at Tate Britain. Called Island, it’s made up of something Parker acquired from Parliament while election artist. “I saw they were taking up some tiles in the corridors that ran from the Commons to the Lords. Everybody from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher had walked over this path, and they were just going to grind them to dust. So I asked if I could have a quantity of them. ”
She has now turned them into “a kind of floating carpet – they’re slightly raised off the ground. On top, I’m putting a greenhouse, painted with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, our most well known piece of geography. There’s a beacon inside, which pulsates like a lighthouse, breathing in and out, quite anxiously. ” Essentially, she explains, the work is a raft, adrift in the world. “The country is being taken where the government wants us to go. They’re promising all kinds of things which never get delivered. But if you live in a glass house, you do not throw stones. ”
The exhibition will also feature a trio of films about identity, territory and emblems. One is about a poppy-making factory in Kent. Another is about a Muslim family making Christian iconography, including crowns of thorns and crucifixes, in the occupied Palestinian territories. And the third, called Flag, is filmed in a factory in Cardiff that makes Union Jacks. “We filmed them making one from beginning to end and then we run it backwards. They take the flag apart piece by piece, as the hymn Jerusalem plays in the background. I suppose it’s sympathetic magic – to stop the Union Jack getting dismembered into four countries following Brexit. “
I wonder if this search for the meaning of nationhood has something to do with her own background: Parker’s grandmother was a German nurse in the Luftwaffe during the second world war, while her British grandfather fought at the Battle of the Somme in the first. “I’m sure it does,” she says. “Both my mother and my grandfather were prisoners of war. My mother, when she came to England, was very scarred mentally. I was born 10 years after the war ended, so it was all still quite raw. That kind of scarring gets passed on. ”
This clashing of worlds, and the wish to ward off catastrophe, seems to underline Parker’s work. Art, she says, is an act of faith. Is there a message she’d like people to take away from the exhibition? “There’s 100 works. I just hope people enjoy it. ”