In 2017, whilst serving as the official artist for the General Election, Cornelia Parker (b. 1956) attended the Houses of Parliament during a period of renovation. Tiles were being pulled up – including, notably, those lining the corridor between the Houses of Lords and Commons. The flooring had originally been designed by Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) in 1847, but its original patterns had been worn away by centuries of footfall. Realising the tiles were destined for disposal, Parker decided to rescue them.
These Victorian stones now form the foundation of Island 2022, a new sculptural installation unveiled as part of Parker’s major Tate Britain retrospective. Atop them sits a glowing glass greenhouse, painted with chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s a metaphor for our current political and ecological moment. “The glasshouse becomes enclosed, inward looking, a vulnerable domain,” the artist explains. “The Island in question is our own… in our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe. The spectre of the climate crisis is looming large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious.”
This up-to-the-minute piece fits into an oeuvre which has consistently engaged with our world – transforming everyday objects to address issues of violence, human rights and environmental disaster. Tate’s exhibition includes several such early works, including Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989), an installation of flattened silver objects including teapots, candle sticks and dinnerware collected from charity shops and car boot sales; and Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), a garden shed frozen at the moment of explosion, its fragments surrounding a single lightbulb. Other room-sized works are included, such as War Room (2015), created from reams of red paper left over from the production of British Legion remembrance poppies.
Tate’s show spans a variety of media – from large-scale suspended installations to drawings, photographs and prints. Shot in a Swansea flag factory earlier this year, Parker’s new film FLAG (2022) presents close-up footage of a Union Jack in production. But there’s a twist: the video is played backwards. Scissors seal fabric together and sewing machines unstitch the red white and blue fabrics against the sound of the hymn Jerusalem. “Like Island, it’s about this thing that is unstable and possibly coming apart,” Parker explains. “I’m hoping Flag will be a bit of sympathetic magic to stop that happening.”
19 May – 16 October. tate.org.uk
1. Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter – An Exploded View. 1991 Tate © Cornelia Parker
2. Cornelia Parker, Island installation view at Tate Britain. Photo: Tate Photography: Oli Cowling
3. Cornelia Parker, War Room installation view at Tate Britain. Photo: Tate Photography: Oli Cowling
4. Cornelia Parker, Thirty Pieces of Silver installation view at Tate Britain. Photo: Tate Photography: Oli Cowling