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Cornelia Parker - MCA

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

Cornelia Parker is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Australia from 8 November 2019 to 16 February 2020.

Cornelia Parker is clearly one of Britain's national treasures. Recipient of the Order of the British Empire and Artist of the Year Apollo Award 2016, she was chosen as the official 'Election Artist' in 2017. Despite her establishment credentials, she retains a critical eye and a sharp commentary on inequity and power abuse. While viewing her show, I felt I was in the hands of a well-heeled English Governess instructing me in a no-nonsense fashion to have my wits about me. It was an extremely pleasant and satisfying experience.

Drawing black and white ink
Poison and Antidote Drawing 2013

Poison and Antidote is a series of four inkblot drawings. The work is delicious, however don't lick it. The black ink is mixed with the venom of a rattlesnake, the white combined with antidote. By using venom and antidote, the work cleverly neutralises itself.

The symmetrical butterfly form of the work creates a pleasing yonic shape, highly appropriate for a work that speaks to life and death.

This work sets the tone for the show and Parker's fascination with opposites. Black and white, life and death, right and wrong, master and slave.

Right and wrong continues the theme. Definitions of the words are embroidered by prisoners, the two definitions interleaved. I can see the large hands holding needles clumsily, stitching away, Madam Governess offering well-placed guidance.

The work leads seamlessly (excuse the pun) into Magna Carta - a masterpiece (I do not use the term loosely) of colossal proportions. The initial reference that comes to mind is the Bayeux Tapestry, a work made 250 years after the Magna Carta agreement (1215) of similar size and also grappling with power and prestige, if somewhat less objectively.

The artist has mobilised 200 people, on both sides of the law, including Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, along with prisoners, guards, and members of parliament. What an epic project. Together they have embroidered onto fabric the entire Wikipedia entry of the Magna Carta.

"That's what I like about Wikipedia; it's made by hundreds of people imparting their little bit of knowledge, rather than the definition being written by one authority figure."

Cornelia Parker

I walk the length of the piece, the first time I have ever walked a Wikipedia entry, as opposed to scrolling it. The work is soulfully beautiful, in the way of the hand-made. After a few minutes, the purpose of the work washes over me and I begin to feel: the bloated institutions of patriarchy harnessed to create a radically egalitarian message about collaboration and equality. What a lovely experience.

The experience is repeated throughout the show. Parker has capitalised on her considerable cultural cache to co-opt none less than the British Army (whom she prevailed upon to explode her garden shed in Cold Dark Matter: an Exploded View).

Flattened silverware suspended from gallery cieling
Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Some blokes with bulldozers flattened her silverware collection - what better symbol of British Colonialism - in Thirty Pieces of Silver (a reference to the amount Judith was paid to betray Christ). Six MCA installers took 2-3 weeks to unpack the work and suspend the work into 30 pools of silver hovering slightly above the floor. The work is shiny and flat and peaceful and meditative, and, like most of her works, extremely labour intensive and collaborative.

There are over 40 works in this exhibition, each one provocative whilst simultaneously reassuring. There are several large-scale installations, video works, sculptures and works on paper. The ten small sculptures are particularly articulate. My favourite being Shared Fate - a doll bisected by the guillotine that beheaded Marie Antionette.

Doll bisected by a guillotine
Shared Fate

I just love the expression on the doll's face.

Cornelia Parker is the most satisfying art experience I've had in ages. It's particularly instructive for those who are feeling disillusioned by some of the cynical, self-fulfilling statements we've seen in the field over the last years (not mentioning names). She is a perfect artist with a mastery of the language/s of contemporary art and an empathic understanding of her audience.

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