Cornelia Parker OBE

5 x 7 Interview
By Lena Fritsch

This year, Photo Oxford focusses on women. The 2020 festival highlights the variety of their viewpoints and relationships with photography.

My own relationship with photography might be best described as that of a “translator”: I love looking at photos, interacting with artists, and explaining the historical or cultural contexts of images to the readers of my books or the visitors of my exhibitions. Connecting with photographs emotionally and intellectually, I seek to “translate” visual forms into written or spoken words. Hopefully, my work as a curator and writer helps photographs to be seen and to be appreciated. Wondering what photography means to others, for this series I’m interviewing 5 women working with photography in different parts of the world. I ask them 7 questions each, curious to hear their individual stories. My first interviewee is British artist Cornelia Parker.

Cornelia Parker OBE (b.1956, Cheshire) is an internationally acclaimed artist working across a wide range of artistic media. Although she is best known for her large-scale installations and sculptures, she has also experimented with photography and print making techniques, creating innovative photographic art. In recent works, Parker has drawn on the photogravure and early techniques pioneered by the 19th-century photographer Henry Fox Talbot.

Parker has had numerous solo exhibitions worldwide and is represented in major international collections including Tate, the Met, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1997, elected to the Royal Academy in 2009, and won the Apollo Magazine Artist of the Year Award in 2016. Between 2016 and 2019 Parker was Visiting Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She was also on the Photo Oxford 2020 judging panel for the Open Call submissions.

Cornelia Parker. Photo: Jessica Taylor

Lena Fritsch: Let’s start at the very beginning: do you remember when you first became interested in art and decided to become an artist?

Cornelia Parker: I was interested in art at school. Luckily, I had very inspirational teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Broad. I went on a school art trip to London when I was fifteen. Visiting various museums, I saw a lot of art in the flesh for the first time in my life. This was hugely influential, a myriad of creative thoughts opened up in my mind. It was then that I decided I wanted to do a foundation course – the first step in becoming an artist.

You have worked across a wide range of artistic media. When I think about your art, the first images that come to my mind are your large-sized slightly moving sculptural works that include suspended objects, such as Cold Dark Matter, 1991 in Tate’s collection, or The Heart of Darkness, 2004, which I still remember vividly from the 2014 Gwangju Biennale. After creating such sculptural works, how did you first become interested in photography?

I have always been interested in photography. An installation like Cold Dark Matter which has a light source in the centre of the piece which casts giant shadows, I think touches on the frozen moment illuding to the photographic. From Plato’s Cave to Fox Talbot trying to fix shadows.

Cornelia Parker, Einstein’s Abstracts, 1999. 4 x Cibachromes on aluminium. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London © Cornelia Parker

You took photographs of a blackboard in the History of Science Museum Oxford in 1999: close-up images show chalk marks by Albert Einstein made during a lecture on general relativity in Oxford in 1931. How did these works come about?

I was doing a residency at the Science Museum, London. I found it quite overwhelming making art surrounded by the certitude of the artifacts there. I struggled to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, so I took images of his equations (from a blackboard, in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford) through a microscope. His neat chalk equations looked so free enlarged, the chalk seemed like snow or radiation out in space. I felt I understood them in a totally different way by looking at them through the lens of Science.

Cornelia Parker, Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped), 2012/13. 12 x Digital pigment prints. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Photo: Steve White

Another photographic series, Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped), 2012–13 presents random black and white marks made by builders on the walls of a prison in North London. If I remember correctly, you took these photographs on your Iphone. Could you tell me more about the work?

I used to travel past Pentonville Prison daily and I observed workers busy repairing cracks in the black perimeter wall with white filler. They were making gestural patterns worthy of any Abstract Expressionist painter. I had been admiring their mark making, meaning to return and record them with a good camera, but I saw they were beginning to paint the walls with fresh Magnolia paint that would within minutes obliterate the prison abstracts. I captured the cracks on my phone before they got painted out for ever. A few hours later on the same day, a murderer escaped from the prison after scaling the walls.

Over the last years, you have experimented with photogravure and print making, creating large-scale still life images – some are on display at Cristea Roberts gallery, London in October/November this year. You laid ordinary three-dimensional objects, such as crystal glasses, directly onto a photosensitive plate. Similar ‘Photogenic Drawings’ techniques were used and pioneered by the 19th-century photographer William Henry Fox Talbot; whose archive is held in the Bodleian Library’s collection in Oxford. How did your interest in Talbot and photogravure develop?

I have been inspired by Fox Talbot since student days. He was a pioneer of photography, who invented both the photogravure and the negative. I love his photos from the 1840’s of objects on shelves, a catalogue of his collection of ceramic, silver and glass. I made a sculpture a long time ago entitled One Day This Glass Will Break, a precarious balanced stack of glasses engraved with the prophetic mantra. Years later when I was experimenting with photogravure techniques in a print workshop, I returned to stacking glass, this time lying horizontally on a photosensitive plate. I was combining two techniques, photogram and photogravure, to make a new kind of print.

Cornelia Parker, One Day this Glass will Break, 1995. 6 etched glasses (stacked)Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London © Cornelia Parker

I was exhibiting my Magna Carta embroidery piece at the Bodleian Library when I realised that some of Talbot’s objects (glasses and wine decanters from his famous photograph ‘Articles of Glass’) were in their collection. There are only a few glasses left, the rest has been broken or lost over time. I asked if I could borrow them, which thankfully they allowed. Back in the print workshop I exposed them to photosensitive plates and made photogravures from them. I liked the idea that these objects had not been used photographically since Fox Talbot used them in the 1840’s.

Cornelia Parker, Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass (tagged decanters), 2017.
© Cornelia Parker. Image courtesy the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Photo: FXP Photography, London
Cornelia Parker, Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass (all that are left), 2017.
© Cornelia Parker. Image courtesy the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Photo: FXP Photography, London
Cornelia Parker, Sunrise, 2020.© Cornelia Parker. Image courtesy the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Photo: FXP Photography, London

Fascinating timeless works – I really like them, aesthetically and conceptually.

A link that I see between your sculptural work and your recent photogram works is a fascination with light and shadow. Like the glassware on the photographic prints, your sculptures often create shadows that become a major part of the installation, turning the complete gallery space into a sculptural environment. What do you like best about photography and working with photography as an artistic medium?

There are so many things about photography that I love. You don’t even have to have a camera to capture shadows. I’m perpetually attracted to the idea of negative, of inversions and reversals. Silver was used in early photography, and I made a series of contact photogravures of large glass negatives in their protective glassine bags (the images depicting silverware), taken in the 1960’s for a Spink Auction catalogue. The title of this series of prints was Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed).

Cornelia Parker, Coffee Pot Hit by a Monkey Wrench, 2015.© Cornelia Parker. Image courtesy the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Photo: FXP Photography, London

Ever since it was a requirement, as part of being Election Artist in 2017 [the British House of Commons chooses an official artist to document the campaigns in the UK’s general elections], I have been posting photos and videos on Instagram. I find the practise hones my visual attention; it gathers together a lot of my interests; reoccurring themes appear, obsessions get developed. It serves both as a source book, a sketchbook, all filed in a place where I can find it.

Cornelia Parker, Left and Right, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London © Cornelia Parker

What advice would you give to young artists who are at the beginning of their careers?

If they don’t do it already, I would encourage them to do Instagram. They can make a different account if they like, one that is just a place to collect ideas and inspiration. Add images daily. They will have a ready audience who will give instant feedback. From small acorns oak trees grow!

Thank you so much, Cornelia!

Cornelia Parker's recent works are on view at Cristea Roberts gallery, London in Cornelia Parker: Through a Glass Darkly, 23 October - 21 November 2020.

Read more about this exhibition here.