In her 1994 essay The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, the feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, cites the French Revolution, and the guillotine in particular, as the symbol that finally severed the stranglehold of ancient autocratic power and ushered in an era of radical, more fluid politics and culture. Fragmentation has become the very hallmark of modernity, symbolising the destruction of the prevailing orders of church and state, the hierarchies of traditional privilege in favour of a greater diversity and inclusivity from the margins. Although written in 1994, before the grip of the digital age, Nochlin’s proposition that the fragment expresses the flattening and democratisation of meaning still appears to hold true.
Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead – SH
In 1991, just before Nochlin wrote her essay and a year before Damien Hirst exhibited his iconoclastic shark in formaldehyde, the artist Cornelia Parker exploded a garden shed with the help of the British army. She’d contacted them for advice and was invited to the Army School of Ammunition, where they demonstrated the potential of various explosives by blowing up a table and a car. In the end, she decided on plastic explosives as these seemed to provide an ‘archetypal explosion’ without pyrotechnics or special effects. Blowing up a shed was something she’d long wanted to do.
Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead. Cold Dark Matter, as Cornelia Parker’s 1991 piece was called, made connections between the world of science, space and the everyday. After the explosion, she collected and suspended the blackened, twisted objects from transparent wires in the Tate Gallery. These were lit with a single light bulb that hung in the centre of the installation. The apparently floating debris might have been the result of the Big Bang, a terrorist attack or be a 3D model demonstrating chaos theory. The dramatic shadows on the walls added both drama and a sense of disembodiment. Boundaries were blurred. Edges dissipated. Underlying Yeats’ famous quote from his poem The Second Coming that: ‘Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold.’ Here, then, was a visual metaphor for the political, spiritual and cultural decay of a world constantly being altered by violence that, through its reconfiguring, signalled the possibility of regeneration. For Cornelia Parker, the world was constantly being bombarded with images of violence from action films and comic strips, along with relentless, never-ending reports of conflict and war. Exploding a garden shed was a simple yet effective visual embodiment of the end of history. A history defined by capitalism and industrialism, where issues such as colonialism, global warming and traditional gender roles were beginning to take centre stage.
Walking around this three-dimensional sculpture, the viewer became an integral element of the work. The charred debris mirrored Baudrillard’s premise that no matter how valuable an object is, its principal value resides in how it mirrors and is an object of prestige in a capitalist society. The industrialism of modernity tended to treat people as herds, as a means of production. Postmodernity shattered that hegemony giving – at least theoretically – a greater voice to diverse positions and to the marginalised. The centre was no longer holding. Suspended in the gallery like the bones of some prehistoric fossil, the charred and buckled remains of the shed functioned as a collection of memento mori, tokens of death and of past lives. It represented a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints, each as valid as the other. Before being hung up, they’d been laid on the gallery floor like the shards collected from an archaeological dig or the detritus found in a mass grave. Suspended and lit, they threw off the aura of death to embrace a new existence outside their previous category. They might have been meteorites or planetary bodies—new worlds.
The very mundanity of a garden shed – that ubiquitous image of suburban England embodying the fantasy of a private, secret and inviolate space – being blown up suggests the destruction of class systems and historic hierarchies, the opening up of new spaces and possibilities. Cornelia Parker has long been fascinated by artistic processes and the transmogrification of materials, flattening and stretching them to test their physical as well as metaphorical limits. In one case, she stretched two wedding rings into a thin 40-foot wire, changing not only the form but the meaning from one of containment into one capable of delineating a border between two spaces.
The middle of three sisters, she grew up on a Cheshire smallholding and, like Hirst, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and a number of other artists, was raised a Catholic. She ‘went to High Mass every week’ where the one-and-a-half-hour mass conducted in Latin gave her a good deal of time to contemplate the Stations of the Cross. It’s no surprise, therefore, that her work evokes reliquaries and votive offerings. She’s said that due to her Catholic upbringing, ‘I grew up thinking that Armageddon was just around the corner – now I know it is, with global warming and all. I can keep it at bay by doing the work. It’s sort of reverse sympathetic magic. I’m always doing it, so it doesn’t happen to me.’
She has squashed a whole brass band of instruments, stretched lead bullets into wire to make Spirograph drawings, and fired the pearls of a necklace through a shotgun. Despite its apparent violence, her work is full of pathos, ritual and renewal. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Out of death and destruction comes resurrection. Out of the wreckage of her apocalyptic pieces, to use Yeats’ phrase, a ‘terrible beauty is born.’