Cornelia Parker looks at the world around her, and all she wants to do is destroy it. So she smashes it to bits, grinds it to dust, blows it to pieces and squeezes the life out of it.
But Parker isn’t into destruction for its own sake. The British conceptual artist – at 65 now one of the most instantly recognisable artists working today – destroys to remake, to uncover new ideas. She’s like a kid pulling apart a radio, not to see how it works, but to find out what stories all its bits have to tell.
This big retrospective show opens with dozens of flattened bits of silverware hovering inches above the ground. Parker has steamrollered them and taken away their volume in the process, leaving them as squished ghosts of themselves. It’s obvious that this is work about destruction, about what remains after violence has left its mark. The silver tells the story of its own annihilation.
The same thing happens with her iconic exploding shed (it hangs here, reconstructed mid-boom, a frozen moment of wild vandalism) and her band of suspended flattened trombones and trumpets. Obliterated and smooshed, these works hum with stories of loss, anger and a desperate urge to make sense of the world.
It’s not all dour and serious though, Parker’s a humorous artist, and the smaller works are like visual puns. There’s a pile of discarded metal shavings from an engraver, a line of dust made from grinding a whole gun down to nothing, cloths marked from polishing famous bits of silverware, drawings made by mixing venom with its own antidote. They’re high concept art gags, and the wall texts – all beautifully and simply written by Parker herself – let you in on the jokes.
At its best, Parker’s art works because it’s simple, because the ideas are direct, intelligible, little slaps around the chops that you understand as soon as they hit you. She takes pornography confiscated by UK customs and turns it into ink, a gun used in violent crime and turns it into a sculpture, paper left over from making poppies and turns it into a haunting installtion. Most powerful is a series of photos taken with a camera that belonged to the commandant of Auschwitz. A lot of this is beautiful, a lot of it is physically imposing and often shocking, but some of it also feels a little clinical, like it’s all in service of the idea, and the actual emotions of the work have been forgotten.
What Parker does is destroy and remake, destroy and remake, over and over. She does it because the world is big and confusing, and maybe if she pulls it apart she can start to make sense of it. It’s not beauty of nothing, or order out of chaos, it’s meaning out of meaninglessness.