When lightning struck a church in Texas in 2005, the pastor considered it a stroke of luck: a blessing from above to build a bigger house of worship. For the sculptor Cornelia Parker, the conflagration presented a different kind of opportunity: a chance to source art supplies with a numinous backstory. With the pastor’s consent, she assembled a sculptural installation from the burnt remains.
Parker was not expecting to work with ecclesiastic embers again, but a year later she heard that another church burned to the ground in Kentucky. This time the mood was anything but jubilant. Whereas the Texas congregation was white and affluent, the Kentucky parish was black and poor. The fire was racially motivated. There were no plans to rebuild.
Parker set to work on a second installation. She applied the same structure, arranging the charcoal fragments in a cube, suspended in the air with invisible filaments. To a casual onlooker, the two pieces might almost seem interchangeable. But for someone knowledgeable about the disparate circumstances underlying Mass and Anti-Mass, the distinction couldn’t be more pronounced.
In the imperceptible gap between these works is the bulk of Parker’s art. A new retrospective at Tate Britain shows how much can be achieved in that space, confirming Parker’s place in the first rank of artists working today.
Parker counts Marcel Duchamp as one of her primary influences. The connection is readily apparent in her use of found objects and materials, often beguilingly modified, always evocatively titled. Duchamp pioneered this practice in the early 20th century with his Readymades: commonplace things such as bottle racks and urinals given the status of art by the act of selection or modest manipulation.
Parker’s oeuvre includes blank strips of canvas removed from the backs of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings during restoration – reframed and presented as minimalist abstractions – and old musical instruments such as trumpets and tubas physically deflated by crushing. These works are always aesthetically compelling – often more visually arresting than Duchamp’s– but relatively conventional given the profound influence of the Readymade on late 20th and early 21st century art history.
What is more original to Parker, and crucial to works such as Mass and Anti-Mass is her interest in Duchamp’s idea of the “infrathin”. Duchamp defined the infrathin as the subtlest of differences, which he explained by example as “the warmth of a seat which has just been left”. Even at the beginning of her career, Parker was intrigued by this concept. Shortly after graduation, she started recasting cast-iron souvenir buildings, exploring what happens “when small differences become the work”.
Since then, Parker has persistently sought meaning in the infinitesimal and evanescent. She has exhibited the slivers of silver left over from engraving with a burin (titling her work The Negative of Words) and the pile of rust remaining after a firearm has been oxidized in a corrosion chamber (dubbing it Precipitated Gun). She has also tried to capture the origins of things, for instance exhibiting unstruck coins as Embryo Money.
What is the essence of language or lucre? When does a gun cease to threaten? In each of these cases, Parker has effectively magnified the invisible, paradoxically revealing the substance of the insubstantial. In her hands, investigation of the infrathin becomes a science.
Duchamp is not the only important influence on Parker. Her Catholic upbringing also made a deep impression, especially the mystical aspects of religion such as transubstantiation. The two incinerated churches she reconstructed have kinship with holy sites that retain spiritual power even when little or nothing remains of their physical structure. Parker has also explored the second-hand enchantment of objects associated with iconic figures. For instance, she has made drawings using the tarnish from silver once owned by Henry VIII and Charles Darwin: the secular equivalent of second-class relics such as the True Cross or the Shroud of Turin. She has chopped up a doll using the guillotine blade that beheaded Marie Antoinette. She has taken photographs with the camera once owned by the commandant of Auschwitz.
What most stands out about these extraordinary things is their utter normality when put to use. The camera takes ordinary pictures. The blade slices like any other. Tarnish is tarnish. Silver is silver. As obvious as this may be, it still seems surprising given how attuned our minds are to infrathin qualities such as celebrity. (Is a rhinestone-covered dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe really worth more than $1 million?)
Through Parker’s work, we perceive the infrathinness of most of what defines civilization, from status to faith. Seeing the illusions that make us human can be humbling, but also edifying. After all, self-awareness is the infrathin distinction between delusion and imagination.