Until 31 May 2015: Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth | Exhibition Review

A review I wrote for an art course while at university.

Cornelia Parker

The Whitworth Art Gallery, 14th February to 31st May 2015


 The Whitworth reopened in February after renovations and this inaugural exhibition gives the revived gallery a fresh and compelling new beginning, showcasing its potential. The exhibition combines many highlights of Cornelia Parker’s career over the last few decades with several works from 2015, providing a strong and compelling visual journey. Parker’s work is itself innovative; her preeminent interest involves transforming everyday materials and objects into works of art, often unrecognisable from their previous identity. The exhibition showcases a variety of forms and pieces are grouped together to create a manageable and coherent narrative spanning five rooms, two of which showcase single pieces; her renowned ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ from 1991 and ‘War Room,’ from 2015.


The first room of the exhibition begins the narrative, using smaller pieces to exhibit Parker’s versatility and key ideas she demonstrates in her work. At this point the viewer gets the sense that Parker takes materials associated with danger or controversy and transforms them into pieces of art with powerful connotations. For instance, this room features a sawn up shotgun, cocaine and a ‘Pornographic Drawing,’ not in its visual content, but in its material, made from ink created by dissolving a pornographic videotape. This causes the viewer to think about these objects, how they have changed from their original identity and why they are considered pieces of art. The display of this room appears scattered with different sized frames and kinds of work, yet there is uniformity in a sense, with the grouping of particular works and just enough distance between to differentiate between groups. For instance, four pieces hung in a row vertically titled ‘Poison and Antidote Drawing’, created using rattlesnake venom and anti-venom compliment each other, all reminiscent of anatomical parts. Placed next to this group are ‘Bullet Drawings’, which Parker has crafted by turning bullets into wire. These examples reveal the unusual and diverse assortment of materials Parker uses in her work.


This idea is developed further by ‘Room for Margins’, a collection of canvas linings from the paintings of JMW Turner. What would most often be considered inconsequential, Parker transforms into art. Showcased in white frames the markings from light and dust on the canvas create an interesting unseen story of pieces of art history. Three pieces of Parker’s work also infiltrate the watercolour section in the same room. The positioning of Parker within the collection of paintings by artists such as William Blake and JMW Turner, dating back to the 18th century creates a meeting of old with new. The display also continues the narrative, as her three pieces are paper used to blot Turner’s works in a flood. Parker’s pieces are watercolours of another type, stained, with a very unusual connection to art history. This is an exciting discovery as her work amongst the closely packed together watercolours, prompts the viewer to look closely at the other works.


Between the several different rooms the exhibition has a range of atmospheres and backdrops that compliment the variety of works. The first room is dimly lit with grey walls however the white framing and spotlighting highlights the art, a reversal of the white cube technique. From the first room you must walk through a gallery of other artists’ work to enter the main exhibition room for Parker, which in contrast is very bright from natural sunlight and use of white walls. The gallery in-between interrupts these sections and the experience of Parker’s work, making the exhibition somewhat disjointed. However, the effects are not too detrimental as in the main exhibition space the full impact of her work is achieved. Information about the artist is given upon entering the space, which may have been useful in the previous room, however, it also suggests the previous room is intended as a taster, and the audience is encouraged to gather the artwork’s meanings independently. The previous room also focused on smaller pieces, whereas this room features the much larger installations, an enjoyable progression, to experience quite literally the larger significance and intentions of Parker’s work. Pieces suspended just off the floor are especially intriguing and innovative as the gaze is drawn to all levels giving a complete view of the exhibition. Different materials are grouped together, many unrecognisable from their previous identity. The main exhibition hall contains a variety of pieces including self portraits made from Parker’s own blood and a sculpture titled ‘The Distance (A Kiss With String Attached)’. The exhibition’s disjointed nature seems intentional, to make the viewer consider the pieces and their content individually as well as a collective. Parker’s work is mesmerizing on its own but the captions accompanying the artworks provide another dimension; they highlight the unusual materials used, giving understanding to the viewer of the artist’s intentions and themes, making the pieces even more compelling. The exhibition pamphlet written by Parker also compliments by providing very detailed explanations of how some of the key pieces were made.


The two dimly lit rooms with just one piece allow quiet reflection of the bigger themes, an effective sequencing and play of light and darkness amid the bright main exhibition hall. In their simplicity these rooms are highlights of the narrative structure of the exhibition. To the left is ‘War Room,’ which is covered in perforations of poppies from a factory that manufactures them for memorial. The walls and ceiling become the exhibition; the audience becomes entombed in the poppies, or the absence of the poppies. Despite the absence it is interesting that we still know the meaning and the piece highlights the loss of life to war. The installation room to the right is ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’, which has just one bulb, central to the explosion of the piece. The white walls are key, as the shadows projected by the objects become part of the piece; the walls become filled with art too. The exhibition’s intermingling of old with new, small pieces with large, produces a captivating narrative of Parker’s career and complements the innovative and intriguing nature of her work, the transformation of material identity.



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