Cornelia Parker is softly spoken and bird-like; an artist who peppers her conversation with nervous little laughs. Yet her work is all about blowing things up.
Over her career, the Turner prize-shortlisted English artist, who was appointed an Order of the British Empire in 2010, has made a name treating objects with what she terms “cartoon violence”. Silver cutlery has been crushed with a steamroller. A garden shed has been blown to smithereens. Wedding rings have been stretched. And stretched. And stretched.
“I did a series of work with things meeting their end like a cartoon death: throwing silver objects off the White Cliffs of Dover or steamrolling stuff or putting money on the railway track,” says Parker. When we meet, despite the heat, she is dressed in black tights and a monochrome fleece topped off with her trademark page-boy bob. “These were all cliches. I like cliches. They are a monumental thing … [My practice asks]: why are they so universally loved?”
Now Parker, 63, is hosting her first major survey in the southern hemisphere. Cornelia Parker, showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, features over 40 artworks ranging from smaller pieces on paper to her epic, soul-stirring large-scale installations.
Most famous of these is 1991’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Parker enlisted the British army to detonate a purpose-built shed, stuffed with donations from friends (soft toys, gardening tools) and items found in charity stores. The blackened, broken parts were then suspended from the ceiling, as if at the moment of eruption. Casting shadows on to the walls, Cold Dark Matter looks like a giant chandelier poised – gorgeously – between destruction and creation.
But if Parker talks about the violence within her work with a Wham! Bam! Pow! joviality (“it was quite satisfying,” she says of the explosion), those works also contain an eerie sense of turmoil and deep unsettlement.
“The blowing up was part of trying to disrupt something that was cosy and suburban, like the garden shed. Blowing it up was just causing havoc in a place that was really quite benign and quite peaceful.” She shrugs. “It was pre-September 11, so it seemed like a childlike thing to do.”
And yet: “We had IRA bombs going off in London and you couldn’t turn on the news without there being yet another explosion.” The knowledge gives Cold Dark Matter a grim twist.
Sculpture, for Parker, is a nexus of change, rather than a place to build something substantial and solid. She finds herself drawn to “leaves on trees, blades of grass in the field – they are made up of lots of small things that are mobile. Those are the things I really quite enjoy rather than having big static lumps of stone, which might be a more traditional way of sculpture. I like things being ephemeral”.
Her early 2000s work Subconscious of a Monument is, like Cold Dark Matter, about freezing a transitory moment in time and space. Engineers, tasked with preventing the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing, eventually found a workable method: the extraction of soil from underneath the monument.
“They were desperate to save it but they took 10 years to find the right technique,” says Parker, who was dating an Italian architect at the time (she is now married to American-born artist Jeff McMillan, with whom she has a daughter). Intrigued, she asked if she could use the excavated clay, hanging each chunk from the ceiling by an individual wire. “A lot of my work is about gravity – for me to suspend the clods of earth lain in the dark for over a thousand years, it’s like the turning of the earth,” she says.
In 2015, Parker turned her attention to another world attraction: Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is a tapestry of the charter of rights’ Wikipedia page as it stood on the cusp of its 800th anniversary. The twist? Many of the 4,000-plus words in the 13-metre long tapestry were embroidered by men and women with opposing political views, values or life experiences: Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contributed, as did the American ambassador to the UK and convicted murderers in state prisons. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger embroidered the words “political contemporary relevance”, spilling, as he pricked his finger, some of his own blood.
“I wanted to have good and evil, it to be left and right,” says Parker. “To have the American ambassador alongside Edward Snowden – all on the same bit of fabric. I wanted to turn an embroidery into something a bit more pithy, a bit more edgy.”
Today, as a staunch “remainer”, Parker is keen to talk about something else altogether: the impending general election in her home country. She is looking on with wry humour, scepticism (Jeremy Corbyn is “ineffectual and vain”; Boris Johnson a “racist”, “sexist” and “quite Machiavellian”), as well as relief that, unlike in 2017, she is no longer the UK’s official election artist.
“Art is just political. Full stop. Whether it’s party-political is another matter,” she says. “I keep thinking: ‘If you want to say something just open your mouth and say it.’ I really feel particular about things like climate change and Brexit – I’d rather just be verbal about it than make work about it.”
At heart, Parker’s art speaks to the human condition above day-to-day squabbles. She has long been fascinated with The Golden Bough, anthropologist Sir James George Frazer’s seminal book on mythology. Ancient religions “had to kill something off every time they wanted something to be regenerated. For every death you get a resurrection,” she says. “That’s what happens when I suspend [my work]. It is very like a morgue; [but] in the air they are reanimated.”
• Cornelia Parker is showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art until 16 February 2020