Cornelia Parker

British Sculptor and Installation Artist

Born: July 14, 1956
Cheshire, England
I resurrect things that have been killed off ... My work is all about the potential of materials - even when it looks like they've lost all possibilities.
Cornelia Parker

Summary of Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker is famous for her acts of destruction, which in turn produce ephemeral, beautiful installations out of wreckage. She often uses found objects with very specific histories - such as banned pornographic tape, or worn out brass band instruments as her base material, and in other cases (as with her exploded shed) produces objects only to blow them up, and carefully reassemble the pieces.

For Parker, the process and the materials are as important as the object. In more recent work, she has also used art historical works as 'found objects', destroying them symbolically instead of literally (as in The Distance: A Kiss With Added String (2003), as well as using the language of props, sets, and fake architecture, to set up new relationships between art, architecture, and the built environment.


Progression of Art


Pornographic Drawing

This delicate work is the first of the series Pornographic Drawings, which are prints made from inkblots on folded paper. The ink is made from dissolved ferric oxide found in pornographic videotapes, which had earlier been confiscated by the government. The drawings are not figurative, but the title of the series leads the viewer to read them as sexual organs.

The use of pornographic tapes ties in with Parker's interest in "Avoided Objects" - objects whose meanings have been hidden or denied, or which suggest "issue[s that have] been sidestepped". These include objects that have been squashed, burnt or exploded; the backs or underbellies of objects; objects only partially formed; objects that are avoided socially or psychologically; and non-objects like cracks, creases and shadows.

Parker's original idea for the tapes was to cut them up and re-edit them into a film, but instead she chose to make Rorschach drawings - symmetrical blots classically used in psychoanalysis for insight into a patient's subconscious. Psychoanalysis as a discipline is always associated with its founder Sigmund Freud, who has been often satirised for linking dreams and images, and almost everything else a patient might think, to sex. The artist described the act of making the drawings as an investigation into her own subconscious as well: "I'm making you look at them again but they've become an abstraction, an abstraction caused by my subconscious because I just dropped these blots of "ink" onto paper and folded it."

Pornographic Drawings explore the idea of "repurposing" or "reallocating meaning" in two ways - in the re-use of the videotape material as ink and in the titling of the work such that the viewer imposes their own idea of the subject. As such, according to curator Iwona Blazwick, Parker redefines abstraction in art to mean "the use of something that already exists in the world ... and the substitution of its original nature or function with another".

Ferric oxide on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is the result of an exploded shed - its contents put back together as if viewed in the middle of the blast. The shed was constructed to Parker's specification, as an anonymous, archetypal shed. The contents include tools, children's toys, objects gathered from car boot sales and Parker's belongings. It was exploded by the British Army on Parker's request and the surviving pieces suspended from the ceiling, dramatically lit from a single bulb within, so as to cast expressive shadows.

The theme of destruction recurs in Parker's work, the artist having been inspired by "cartoon deaths" for example the blowing up, flattening and dramatic falls of Road Runner and Tom and Jerry. Parker describes these in terms of "[the characters] experiencing a temporary shape shifting before they reconstituted themselves", and enjoys the idea of an instantaneous explosion preserved as art. In Cold Dark Matter, the exploded fragments of the shed are arranged in a perfect cube - the piece thus combining violence and stillness, order and chaos. The subject of the shed was meaningful since it is seen as a refuge or personal safe space. Parker destroys this but creates from it a new space in the form of her installation.

Author and researcher William Viney commends Parker for her engagement with the narrative properties of waste material - that it connotes another time and another place, whilst Dr. Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth gallery in Manchester, says of the work: "It blew me away ... I had seen a lot of abstract art but this was something different - something genuinely emotional and exciting." The installation has inspired an orchestral composition of the same name by Joo Yeon Sir, along with a decade's-worth of other works by Parker in which she violently altered objects through explosion and distortion. The most closely related was Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997), the suspended burnt remains of a church struck by lightning, which was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Mixed media - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


From Mountain Landscape

This is one of several pieces by Parker comprising canvas liners and tacking edges removed by conservators at Tate from Turner's paintings, due to their deteriorating condition. She first came across them in the conservation department at Tate in 1988 where they were treated as support material but hadn't been accessioned as part of the collection. Parker framed and labelled each one and treated them as works of art themselves. The pieces were exhibited together by Tate in the exhibition "Room for Margins" (1998).

Parker was interested in the fragile beauty of the liners and edges, the variations in tone and texture and their historic marks such as water damage, tearing and imprints of the stretchers. For her, these archive materials are works of art in themselves, which she demonstrated by framing and labelling each one individually. As such, Parker challenges the grounds on which materials are accessioned or discarded by galleries. The artist and writer Craig Staff notes that unlike Parker's other works that deal with violent transformation, for example crushing and exploding, these works have undergone a gradual transformation from secondary to primary material.

As well as being works of art in their own right, the pieces in "Room for Margins" represent the fragility and vulnerability of the works from which they come. As such, they have been compared to "shrines" to Turner's works. They also raise important questions about authorship, since the canvas liners and edges come from works by Turner but they are now claimed as Parker's own.

Canvas lining with ingrained dust and ink - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



Breathless is a sculptural installation made of 54 brass band instruments - 4 tubas, 2 euphoniums, 14 horns, 2 flugel horns, 8 trombones and 24 cornets, compressed and suspended from wires. The work was designed specifically for an oculus in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, where it can be viewed both from the floor above and the floor below. Owing to the position of the piece in the museum, shadows of the instruments can be seen on the surrounding walls - "amplifying" them, according to Parker. Visitors' impressions of the work vary, since the upper surfaces of the instruments are polished and the undersides tarnished.

The title Breathless could be understood as referencing the disappearing tradition of brass bands in Britain (V&A chairwoman Paula Ridley calls it a "tribute") as well as to the "last gasp" of the British Empire and the crushing of colonialism. With respect to the former, Parker has commented: "The brass band is part of a robustness we used to have ... Related to the unions, the British Legion, the Salvation Army - an anthem that is slowly winding down. So the instruments in my piece are permanently inhaled. They've literally had the wind taken out of them."

The piece is juxtaposed against the context of the V&A, which also exhibits a number of intact instruments in its collection. It has been the subject of controversy and described as "vandalism", despite the instruments having been beyond repair. Whist some musicians have described their experience of Breathless as "painful", others have praised its "stunning" beauty and capacity to provoke debate. Art critic Kelly Grovier refers to the work's "crumpled eloquence" and its ability to "salvag[e] a tortuous elegance from ... debris".

Silver-plated brass wind instruments, flattened and suspended on stainless steel wire - Victoria & Albert Museum, London


The Distance: A Kiss With Added String

The Distance: A Kiss With Added String comprises Rodin's actual and iconic The Kiss sculpture, which Parker has wrapped in a mile of string. The string is draped around the sculpture and covers the couple's faces. The intervention was part of the "Days Like These" exhibition at Tate Britain (2003) and took the artist a week to complete. Whilst on display, Parker's work was vandalised as a visitor to the museum cut the string with scissors. It is one of the artist's favorites of her own works.

Wrapping the sculpture in string was a reference to Duchamp, who criss-crossed the exhibition space for "First Papers of Surrealism" (1942) with a mile of string, obscuring the other artworks. Parker claimed that her intervention served to make the sculpture less of a cliché and more representative of the complicated nature of relationships: "that relationships can be tortured, and not just this romantic ideal". According to a Tate spokesperson, "It makes you think about how their heads are bound together and the claustrophobia of relationships, what it's like to be bound to someone else ... Parker is interested in the possibility of taking something familiar or clichéd and changing it, in an attempt to trigger new layers of meaning".

Parker's intervention caused controversy as art critics were concerned about both the conservation and proper viewing of Rodin's The Kiss, calling the wrapping of the sculpture "unnecessary". The debate served to increase Parker's reputation as "destructive", with some calling the artist "arrogant". In response, Tate argued that the contention surrounding the work was appropriate, since The Kiss was also seen as shocking when it was first viewed in Britain in 1904. The combination of marble (seen as high culture) and string (seen as low culture) is also a bold move by Parker.

Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)

Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) was commissioned for the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nearly 30 feet tall, it is made from a dismantled red barn. Though it looks at first to be a genuine house, it is in fact two facades propped up by scaffolding - supported by poles and water drums in order that it can withstand 100 mile-per-hour winds. Parker created the installation with the assistance of the company specialising in stage sets. The barn's domesticity contrasts with the backdrop of Manhattan's skyscrapers: "When I saw the roof and the skyline, I knew I wanted to make something architectural," commented Parker "I wanted to add something incongruous to the view."

Parker's references for the work included paintings by Edward Hopper and the classic red barns typical of rural America, as well as the sinister mansion from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho. There is a striking contrast between the two, as the Met Museum's chairman of modern and contemporary art, Sheena Wagstaff comments: "Combining a deliciously subversive mix of inferences, ranging from innocent domesticity to horror, from the authenticity of landscape to the artifice of a film set, Cornelia's installation expresses perfectly her ability to transform clichés to beguile both eye and mind".

Mixed media - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Biography of Cornelia Parker


One of three daughters, Parker and her family lived on a smallholding in Cheshire, England, where her father worked. She spent a lot of time helping her father, doing physical work on the land, and saw escape and play as something rare and secretive. She describes her childhood as "insular" both in terms of geography and a lifestyle characterized by hard work.

In Parker's early teens, her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was hospitalised periodically for electric shock treatment. The artist has suggested her work is in part a response to this childhood spent "on tenterhooks ... never knowing whether my mother was going to be absent or not, never knowing whether my father was going to erupt into a bad temper". She likens her practice to therapy as well as to the play she craved as a child. Recalling a school trip to London at the age of 15, Parker comments: "the whole world of art opened up: I'd never even been to a museum before. Having spent my childhood working hard, the idea that I might spend my adulthood playing began to seem quite attractive."

Education and Early Training

Parker studied at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design (1974-1975) followed by Wolverhampton Polytechnic (1975-1978), having been overlooked by the big London colleges. Later she earned her MFA at Reading University (1980-1982) before settling in East London.

She found it liberating to work at home, alone; the idea of a large studio with a group of assistants has never appealed to her. Parker's home life fed into her work, for example she credits the demolition of her neighbour's house (it being on the path of the proposed M11 motorway) for inspiring her major work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). She writes "The sense of temporariness must have influenced the blowing up of the shed."

In this period, Parker began to work using found objects, which she came across as part of her job as a market salesperson. She remarked: "I love objects. But I was embarrassed by the idea of collecting, so I began using these things in my art." In one of her earliest experiments with found objects, she made casts of a small souvenir of the Empire State Building and suspended them from the ceiling of her flat.

Mature Period

Parker came to fame in 1995 with collaborative piece, The Maybe, at the Serpentine Gallery, London - where she built a glass case inside the gallery in which performer and friend Tilda Swinton lay asleep in for eight hours each day. However, her success as she sees it did not arrive until two years later. In 1997 she met her husband, the artist Jeff McMillan, who helped her to collect pieces of wood for Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997) and of whom she says "We had the same values, about doing what we want to do, being free, making art". In the same year, she was signed by Frith Gallery in London and was nominated for the Turner Prize along with three other female artists. Resisting stereotyping as a feminist artist, she commented: "I didn't want to be a woman artist. I wanted to be an artist. I was brought up as a boy, so I ignore the glass ceilings, basically."

By the time of her nomination Parker was 40, and has spoken of the independence that her initial lack of gallery representation and distance from the commercial art market afforded her. This was in contrast to the experience of the slightly younger Young British Artists (for example Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) who rose to fame around this time. Nevertheless, Parker has always known the value of her own work. Having refused offers from private collectors, Thirty Pieces of Silver and Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View were bought by Tate in 1995.

Current Work

At 45, Parker became a mother to daughter Lily, and allowed this to feed into her work. Continuing to work with "Avoided Objects", her work Black Path (2013) developed from a game the two played as they walked through East London, avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement. In an interview for the Financial Times, she remarked "I've just cast some paving cracks in bronze, which I'm very happy with. I'm trying not to go through that midlife dip that artists tend to have." Other recent works on this theme include Unsettled (2012), based around broken furniture and Prison Wall Abstracts: A Man Escaped (2012-2013), inspired by cracked walls.

In recent years, Parker has also worked as a curator of exhibitions including "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" at the Whitechapel Gallery (2011) in which she arranged works from the Government Art Collection in a spectrum of rainbow colors, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2014) in which she curated a black and white room and "FOUND" at the Foundling Museum (2016) in which she and sixty-eight other artists responded to the eponymous theme.

Having spoken of her own mental health struggles since a difficult and traumatic childhood she continues to advocate art as a way of managing anger and depression: "The work ... unleashes the beast and lets it rampage out in the world."

Recently, as official Election Artist for the UK's 2017 general election (the first female artist in the role), Parker documented the distress and panic of a time fraught with political instability and terrorist attacks, by way of two films and a series of photographs. Her appointment could prompt a more political reading of her work from here on, as it explores the aftermath of violent change (both physical and societal) and disarms the taboo.

The Legacy of Cornelia Parker

Older than the Young British Artists but younger than the previous generation, including artists Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, Parker sees herself as part of a "lost generation", who had to work hard for their success. Her works of which she is most proud are Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) "because it's the most well-known and well-loved" and Distance: A Kiss With Added String (2003).

Her work has proved controversial, owing to its connotations of violence. Critics have spoken out against the "painful" flattening of more than 50 brass instruments for Breathless (2001) and the "unnecessary" and "destructive" wrapping of Rodin's The Kiss for Distance: A Kiss With Added String (2003). However, the destruction of spaces and objects central to her method, as well as her poetic, delicate installations, have been hugely influential for process-driven sculptural artists like Simon Starling; artists working with found objects, like Sarah Lucas; and artists refiguring architectural spaces, like Rachel Whiteread.

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