The artist who likes to blow things up

One of the most enthralling works in the show, Perpetual Canon (2004), is a melding of tropes first experimented with in Thirty Pieces of Silver and Cold Dark Matter. Summoning the force of an industrial press 25 times stronger than the steamroller she’d used 15 years earlier, and a forklift truck, Parker crushed 60 tubas, trumpets, coronets and a hulking sousaphone into breathless skins that she arranged like flattened asteroids orbiting around a dangling lamp. “The squashed instruments,” Parker tells BBC Culture, “were hung in a ring, in a circle like a marching band. I quite liked the instruments becoming shadows because it means the audience is between the shadows and the objects. You can’t tell the objects are squished in the shadows. It’s like a ghost band, as it were. The idea of a Perpetual Canon that just keeps going on forever. It’s like these wind instruments have inhaled and never exhaled. Like they’ve just taken a breath and are in an arrested space.”

She is drawn to the interplay of light and dark. “I like the imaginativeness of shadows. You become a shadow. The light amplifies all the instruments, they become more cacophonous through that, so it’s almost like you’re getting visual amplification rather than audial. It’s like magnifying everything.”

“Magnifying everything” is what Parker does best. Her robust interventions into the lives of objects and her determination to squeeze meaning from the props of existence, never results in a diminishment of an object’s power, only an intensification. By pounding the wind out of things, she manages paradoxically to essentialise its breath. And it’s a trick she continues to pull off with fresh flair to this day, creating a new installation for the exhibition, Island (2022), that’s the final work in Tate’s show.

The curiously eclectic piece, which occupies a gallery of its own, is comprised of a greenhouse whose windows have been smudged with strokes of chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover (a recurring material in her work). Strobing in time to the rhythm of one’s lungs, a light inside the greenhouse gives intermittent glimpses of the structure’s floor, made from discarded tiles designed by Augustus Pugin for the Houses of Parliament in the 19th Century. “It looks a bit like a floating carpet,” says Parker. “All the most powerful people in the world have strode across them – Gladstone, everyone. It’s been worn thin by politicians. It looks like the greenhouse is afloat on top of this thing.” According to Parker, the light pulsates “very slowly, almost like breathing, so shadows fill the walls – a bit like the shed, or Perpetual Canon”.

The work is a fitting final note for a show that Parker says “is cementing something”. Less overtly aggressive than her crushed and exploded works, Island nevertheless packs a poetic punch, conjuring as it does themes of climate change in the disused greenhouse and fears of cultural isolation in its white-washed windows and wistful floor. Make what you will of the breathing light.

Cornelia Parker is at Tate Britain, London until 16 October 2022.

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