Review - Cornelia Parker, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia

Visually interesting but something is missing.

Cornelia Parker is obviously one of the most well known British artists working today. Much feted, her solo exhibition at the MCA features some of her best known work, which previously I had only seen in installation photographs - Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View; Thirty Pieces of Silver; and Subconscious of a Monument among them.

Famously, much of Parker’s work revolves around transforming material - squashing it, expanding it, freezing it in apparent motion. Some of it is quite visually engaging, such as the exploded shed of Cold Dark Matter and the suspended earth of Subconscious. They have a cinematic nature that makes them attractive to the eye.

Aside from the visual engagement, however, it is hard to find great depth in much of her work. The work references, for example, the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Subconscious), the First World War (War Room), engaged the British Army in production (Dark Cold Matter), or evoke the Christian story of the betrayal of Christ (Thirty Pieces of Silver), but do not offer a perspective or commentary on these. There are elements to her work, such as interviews with Noam Chomsky, or street vendors of crowns of thorns, which seem to hold greater import, but they float free, without anchor in the body of her work.

Similarly, Magna Carta (An Embroidery) seems to be at arm’s length from its own subject. I was fascinated to see this work, but surprised to see it was not a recreation of the Magna Carta itself, but of a brief Wikipedia entry about the document. Contributions from some notable people such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange were listed, but the nature of the material did not allow for the potential poignancy of the connection to have real power.

On watching the interview with Parker herself, I was brought to mind of the effect of intergenerational trauma on emotional expression and engagement. As publicly known, her mother was German, and suffered through the aftermath of World War Two, traumas which she never spoke about with her daughter. The generational effects trama on the descendants of Holocaust survivors have been widely discussed; obviously the effects on the descendants of the German population would be similar: emotional distancing; inability to articulate some emotional processes.

I began to wonder if it is these qualities I felt in Parker’s work; although I am aware of the dangers of biographical determinism in assessing an artist’s work, it is one possibility that this transmitted trauma is a significant aspect of her artistic expression. This does not take away from the engaging qualities of her work and the playfulness of her material transformations, but is just one reflection on the many qualities of her work.

8 November 2019 – 16 February 2020, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.

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