Cornelia Parker - Biography and Legacy
British Sculptor and Installation Artist
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.
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.
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.