Cornelia Parker is one of those British artists who manages to create art to suit almost all tastes in almost every size possible, and now Tate Britain has filled much of their gallery with a retrospective look at her varied career.

Some of the monumental pieces are famous, but many more so for being monumental and the sort of art that can only exist in a world where big galleries buy big art, and big galleries bring in big audiences to see the big art.

So it’s famous big art.

And the Tate opens with one of Parker’s most famous big arts, the floating flattened forks. And other cutlery, that she bought from second-hand shops in the 1980s and then flattened into 30 suspended sheets of dinnerware. First shown in 1988, it fills a whole room that people either walk around quietly or get too close to and trigger the proximity alarm. That happens a lot.

Elsewhere, a huge exploding garden shed is displayed a fraction of a second after the explosive inside was detonated, creating a three-dimensional photograph of a moment in time that you can walk around. It’s a clever idea when seen in the flesh, as images can end up looking, well, rather flat.

What’s much better are the artworks on a more domestic scale as they show the artist’s huge versatility in working with different materials and ideas, and her evident persuasive skills in getting hold of the raw materials used. She’s a recyler and someone who tinkers around with things we might not think to use.

A series of blotch paintings turn out to be made from ink that was extracted from the VHS pornography tapes destroyed by HM Customs, and here we’re almost challenged to find something lewd in the splashes of ink on paper.

A pile of round discs are money ready to be stamped, a cast of metal will become a gun one day, and a pile of powder is destroyed cocaine. A pile of plastic string is the residue cut out from a vinyl record when it is being created. Oliver Twist has been decapitated by the guillotine that decapitated Marie Antoinette in 1793, and is now to be seen in Madam Tussaud’s waxwork museum.

A display of dirty fabrics turns out to be cloth that’s used to clean silver, and what we’re shown isn’t the famous silver but the echo it leaves in the cloth.

There’s a message in each of the works on display, but also a playfulness with it that rewards reading the explanatory cards and often makes you smile when the secret is revealed. The art makes us think a bit thanks to its alternative viewpoint about things, often reusing that which we unthinkingly discard.

Parker is also a video artist, and has somehow persuaded Parliament to let her fill the House of Commons with newspapers and blow them around the room then filmed the result. It’s probably more astonishing as a work of video art not because of the art, but because of her ability to borrow the heart of democracy for art.

More political is a huge canvas that has been hand-stitched with a copy of Wikipedia’s page about the Magna Carta. Sections stitched by people with a strong connection to civil rights and then combined to create this huge work of art that’s hard to take in at once because of the size, and feels more fascinating to peer up close at how it was made than what it tries to say.

A red tent-like space is uncomfortably fascinating as the red drapery is the discarded material that remembrance poppies are cut from. A whole room is given over to one idea. Likewise, she shows her remarkable persuasive powers in a photo of a cloudy sky — taken from outside the Imperial War Museum with the camera owned by Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz. She took photos of the sky to avert her mind from the fact that she was looking through the same aperture as a mass murderer.

She often challenges herself, and us, with this unsettling reuses of the past, but never in a way that makes you look at the art and are repelled. It’s only by reading the explanatory card that you get the hidden meaning in the art.

It’s a huge exhibition, and so wide-ranging in scope and form that it’s a bit easy to be bewildered by how one person can have created all of it. In that though, it becomes more enjoyable as you never really know what the next room will bring – something huge or something tiny – each corner is a pleasant surprise.

The exhibition, Cornelia Parker is at the Tate Britain until 16th October

Adult: £16 | Concession: £15 | Child: £5 | Child (<12): Free | Members: Free

Tickets are recommended to be booked in advance from here.


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