Cornelia Parker – The Double Life of Objects
If we were to take one of Cornelia Parker’s much-loved 1950s encyclopedias and search for a description of the artist’s world, what would we find? Could the objects in her universe be catalogued and defined in the same way as one of the entries she is most fond of, ‘Matter and what it means’? And if they could, what fate would the entry meet? Might the artist cast it in metal and then throw it off the white cliffs of Dover as she once did with a dictionary definition of the word ‘gravity’?
It would certainly be an unusual taxonomy of objects. Although each category would by no means be isolated from the others, certain features would nonetheless stand out. There would be plenty of overlaps, but we would have to start somewhere if we wanted to map out the coordinates of the objects Parker is most interested in. First of all might come the contiguous object, one which has touched the hand of someone famous. The 1995 Serpentine show ‘The Maybe’ included a fragment of the aircraft in which Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the quill with which Dickens penned his final novel and a stocking once worn by Queen Victoria. She has also collected dust and fibre from Freud’s couch, a feather that travelled to the top of Mount Everest and a fly found on a Donald Judd sculpture.
These contiguous objects often overlap with recuperated objects. Parker is fascinated by by-products, waste products, residues and discarded aspects of known objects. She has collected tarnish from a candlestick that once graced the table of Horatio Nelson, from the spurs of Charles 1, from a fork belonging to Davey Crockett and a spoon bent by a psychic. She takes silver from photographic fix, laquer from the grooves made in producing records and silver waste from the process of engraving inscriptions on rings. She has taken used train tickets to make the vast, magnificent curtains she installed at Union Station in Los Angeles in 1992, and brick dust from a house that fell off the White Cliffs of Dover.
These recuperations not only show objects in a new state but also introduce the idea of an object as a change of state. Guns might be unspooled into wire, or left as blank embryos, together with coins, crucifixes, keys or even a whole coffin turned into large matches. The Pornographic Drawings present beautiful, Rorsasch style images made from pornographic film confiscated by HM Customs and Excise and then dissolved in solvent. Change of state is even clearer in Parker’s celebrated suspension pieces, like the exploding shed or chalk fall from Beachy Head. Here, the moment of change is arrested, literally suspended. In some of these works, we see neither a before nor an after, but the moment of change itself.
In contrast, Parker’s doubles preserve both the before and the after but not the in-between. We see silver plate in its full, three-dimensional state juxtaposed with a flattened, elliptical version of itself. This is the art of the alter ego. Wind instruments share the same fate as silver plate, squashed by a huge steamroller, just as our vision of Turner paintings is inverted into the image of more or less blank canvas liners. The framework of these doubles is the mirror, but we never get a mirror image. Instead, as in the elegant window frame made of lemons, there is always something different where we might expect the mirror image to be. The conceit invites symmetry, then produces an anamorphic double.
These inversions are linked to the idea of the negative object. In some of her early work, Parker elaborated on the Nauman-like practice of casting negative spaces. In one work, she cast the space left by a beam of light. But this soon opened out into a more elastic concept of the negative. A piece like ‘The Negative of Words’ is made from the waste generated by the process of engraving words, and she has also worked with the laquer cut from grooving records, the soil from underneath the Tower of Pisa or simply what she calls the “lost acoustic” of her instruments without sound. In one project, she tried to make something out of the 11 days once lost from the English Calender.
This takes us nicely to the returned object. Parker dreams of sending a meteorite back into space, and has succeeded in doing so more modestly with her firework pieces, in which meteorite fragments are blended with gunpowder and then detonated as fireworks. Other ‘returns’ are more teasing. Parker wrapped Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’ in string, returning it, as it were, to the original Dante-esque state in which the lovers had been consigned not to eternal bliss but to purgatory. In many other works, she has buried objects from one time period or place in another, more incongruous one : a nineteenth century Norwegian spoon at an iron age archaelogical dig in Britain, Roman coins unearthed in Chesire in Athens, Georgia, and an American civil war harmonica found in South Carolina at Glastonbury, UK.
These different categories of object are by no means mutually exclusive, and the artist has described all of them as ways of studying the process of “inversion”. The embryo gun, for example, is both a change of state object and a negative one, since it embodies, in the most literal sense, the negative of violence. Similarly, the work with tarnish is both about recuperation and reflection, the discarded and the double. Silver, as Parker points out, is the most reflective metal, yet it generates an opaque tarnish, its own opposite. This is more complex than a world of contraries, since Parker is showing us how each object is not just opposed to its contrary but contains it. Silver includes tarnish, as both by-product and potential, just as a crucifix contains a spool of wire. And it is the possibility of these potential spaces that Parker continually opens up.
Although on an immediate level these explorations are changing the way we view familiar objects, the artist’s project is far more specific. Whereas many artists share an interest in how the coordinates of an object can change, Parker focuses less on the classical themes of a change of frame of reference or aesthetic, than the change in highly subjective, personal libidinal investments. This means that we are seeing not only objects in novel configurations, densities or states, but objects in the very process of becoming objects. What, after all, constitutes a human object if not the fact that it is invested? Libidinally invested, which means becoming passionately linked to a person. This is what makes an object. But how exactly does investment work?
Parker offers us many ways to answer this question. To start with, a negative space must be created, an emptiness like that which she finds and manipulates in ‘The Negative of Words’. Once this absence is established, fragments and partial objects can go into it, like the many evocative, contiguous objects of ‘The Maybe’ or the shards and particles she so often uses. And if emptiness is a condition of a contiguous object, the suspension pieces show, in turn, how the state of in-betweenness functions as a transitional space.
Parker works with both the question of how an object can matter to the person who invests it, and with how that same object can become representative of that person to later generations. So many of Parker’s objects were once libidinalised : the quill with which Dickens wrote ‘Edwin Drood’, tobacco residues from Freud’s pipe, tarnish from Davey Crockett’s knife, the gown from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. These had once been objects dear to their owners, carrying a deeply personal libidinal charge. They had become almost a part of them, shaping their identity in social and cultural history. Even the objects not linked to a known individual, like the collections of silver plate or the musical instruments, once held a special value for their owners. They were different from other objects, used on special occasions or invested through the act of playing. Like works of art, they were privileged, made different from other objects.
They are thus junction points, touching the bodies of their owners as real objects and functioning as symbols for later generations. This edge between what’s most real and what’s most symbolic links them to the idea of relics, which the artist has often invoked in relation to her work. And these two ways in which they belong gives them a special kind of in-betweenness. Many of the suspension pieces enact this in-betweenness in a complementary way. The exploding shed or the chalk fall at Beachy Head capture the vital border between two states.
Parker was beguiled by the suspended, inverted models that Gaudi used to plan his architectural projects. He would suspend small bags of lead shot on wires, to give the shape of the vaulting and the direction and forms of columns. He could adjust the weight of the bags easily, and so the models were a kind of working space for him, neither the two-dimensional plan nor the finished product. Parker liked not only the aesthetic here, but the idea of an in-between state. We could wager that she’d love to get her hands on some of that original lead shot, but what can we make of the in-betweenness?
In-betweenness is music to shrinks’ ears for a number of reasons. In England, there is a popular theory that the first object to really matter is one that is neither the infant nor the mother, but something in-between. This is the so-called ‘transitional object’, but Winnicott specified that it wasn’t the object that was transitional ( or ‘in-between’ ) but the space. It wasn’t the thing but where the thing was that mattered. This meant that a transitional object could be anything – a bit of blanket, a doll, some words or a tune – as long as it occupied this space.
The key for Winnicott was that these objects were not yet wholly symbolic of anyone, and they could be contrasted to those objects that did serve as indexes of another human being. They mattered for being neither nothing, nor something. This would prepare the ground for the contiguous object, the one that is linked very closely to someone we love yet which may have no value or worth in itself. Parker chooses as her fragments both conspicuously invested objects like the quill and underinvested ones, like dust from Freud’s couch or chalk marks from an Einstein lecture. This tension invites us to engage with the process of investment itself. Parker’s use of her materials makes us wonder, if it is investement that makes an object, will it then be a substitute for some important person, or a little bit of them, or a representation of them?
There is an interesting shift here from the artist’s earlier works, in which the central objects were what she calls “archetypes”. She would use mass-produced models to create new and bizarre structures : a cluster of tiny model cathedrals hanging from a streetlamp in Clerkenwell, a city of miniature monuments in a drain puddle, or hundreds of tiny Taj Mahals stacked upside down inside a fireplace. These were less the objects closest to the author, the artist, the explorer or the monarch, than anonymous, disinvested multiples. The libidinialisation lay almost entirely in the artist’s act, which appropriated them to produce a new configuration.
The artist’s practice here could be seen as an enactment of the process of investment or human desire. Items are situated in a new space and given a new value. This emphasis on the creation of meaning is developed in an elegant way in many of Parker’s later projects, where she has enlisted the help of institutions and agencies like HM Customs and Excise, the Natural History Museum and the British Army School of Ammunition in order to generate work. As institutions, such bodies are responsible for articulating symbolic codes. And if meaning itself is created through such codes, the artist gets right to the point not simply by showing how a code can be reinterpreted – as in a joke or play on words – but by enlisting the help of the symbolic agency itself. The humorous nature of many of these works is thus quite serious, bringing out the actual process by which meaning is produced. The works aren’t jokes, but half-jokes.
The humour of Parker’s cartoon-like interventions on objects elaborates this same logic. She stages deaths and resurrections through the engineering of accidents and random processes, like blowing up, burning, steamrolling, dropping and crushing.“I kill everything off”, she says, “and then resurrect it again”. Despite the violence of these acts, the objects retain something of their former selves. “I wanted to create deaths”, she says, but as Iwona Blazwwick observes, Parker never quite allows her objects to fully metamorphize (1). They exist in limbo, or emerge resurrected in a new, yet still recognisable, state. Parker’s work echoes the classic resolution of comic drama, where the person assumed dead makes a magical re-appearance. In this sense, and at many levels, her work is about life and indestructibility rather than death and decay.
Much of the artist’s later work continues this exploration of creation, but using as its starting point objects that were once already personally invested, objects that, in general, have a story to tell. One of the most productive ironies of ‘The Maybe’ was to present the sleeping actress Tilda Swinton in a glass vitrine alongside fragments that had once belonged to well-known people. The one object that really could tell a story was asleep, while the voiceless paraphenalia surrounding her started to speak.
‘The Maybe’ was criticised by some commentators for substituting “actual things” for the “symbolic representations of art”. But as Guy Brett pointed out at the time, what the work was showing so clearly was precisely how “actual things” became “symbolic representations” (2) as Swinton became the space for everyone’s projections. And this brings us to a crucial, poetic thread in Parker’s work. What we find again and again is an inclusion of the ‘thing’ in the ‘representation’ which nuances many of our ready notions of how visual and verbal signs operate. The artist’s tool here is contiguity.
In ‘Einstein’s Abstract’, chalk marks from one of the great physicist’s 1931 Oxford lectures on relativity are magnified, showing their amazing resemblance to a photograph of space. Parker is twisting a classic modernist problem here. If one of the central features of much twentieth century art had been to take seriously the apparently arbitrary basis of the linguistic sign and representation in general, Parker seems to be disagreeing. An acceptance of the split between signifier and signified allows one to change whatever one wishes, and so much conceptual art played on exactly this principle. But for Parker, the sign isn’t quite arbitrary.
In so many of her works, the medium of the representation becomes the embodiment or the image of the referent. The real chalk marks become space, or the dissolved porn films take on the form of reproductive organs or the cast letters defining the term ‘gravity’ fall from a cliff. Words and things are miraculously linked after all! And so Parker brings back the libidinal dimension neglected by those veins of conceptual art that played on the arbitrary nature of signs. In a sense, her practice involves a process of literalisation. Which becomes something quite magical.
The works, then, can’t really be called representations. Like Einstein’s chalkmarks or the Pornographic Drawings or the pieces in which a map is hit by a meteorite, they are the thing itself. Or at least a bit of it. The meteorite pieces are splendid here : what better way to evoke the register of representation than with a map, a human object with its own highly symbolic system of construction and reference. If the map stands for the idea of representation, the meteorite is ‘the real thing’. The representation becomes a part of what it represents and vice-versa.
If we have catalogued a variety of different objects found in Parker’s work, there is still one basic, fundamental working material. What is it? Perhaps all of Parker’s works are about encounters : a meteorite hits a map or falls into a lake, a steamroller flattens silver plate, a shed explodes or a church is struck by lightning. And this will give us a clue as to the working material. Just as the alter egos juxtapose a before and an after, Parker’s work suggests to us how things could have been different. How objects could have had, and still can have, a double life.
They could have become or been other things, in the same way that they contain their contraries. When Parker buries Roman coins in America or a Norwegian spoon at a British iron age archaelogical dig, she is showing us this double life. Jessica Morgan has described the artist’s desire to “re-route events” (3), and in doing so she is enacting the idea of deferred action, of how the present rewrites the past. She is making things different from what they always were. The returned object here – and Parker’s one essential working material – is time itself.
1) Iwona Blazwick, ‘Dramatic Acts of Luxurious Violence’, in ‘Cornelia Parker’, hopefulmonster, Torino, 2001, p.57.
2) Guy Brett, ‘The Maybe’, in ‘Cornelia Parker, Avoided Object’, Chapter, Cardiff, 1996, p.15.
3) Jessica Morgan, ‘Meteor or Metaphor’, in ‘Cornelia Parker, A Meteorite Lands…’, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2001, p.31.