‘Cornelia Parker’s Photography’

Cornelia Parker, Tate, 2022

The catalogue accompanying Cornelia Parker’s major 2022 exhibition at TATE includes a short essay by David Campany on the artist’s relation to photography.

In 1997, Cornelia Parker presented a slideshow of her work at the Architectural Association, in London. I had seen some ofher exhibitions before then, but that slideshow made me think about her relation to the camera. Each work was photographed carefully and simply, and Parker spoke a line or two about what we were looking at. Somehow, I felt I was coming to know many works that I had not actually seen for myself. Obviously, a camera can offer only a partial account of a sculpture, but her images and words seemed disarmingly complete.  In the years since, I have followed Parker’s work(and words) closely, and with particular interest in her complex, playful, and elusive engagement with photography.

Sometimes Parker makes work with a camera and other photographic materials; sometimes she documents her sculptural work with a camera; sometimes she makes photographs of the making of her sculptural works, recordingthe process as if it were a performance; and sometimes her finished sculptures hit you with the force of a snapshot. Think of Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991, which feels like an instantaneous photograph in three-dimensional form. (It is also a piece many people have seen and known only as photographic documentation, in books, catalogues and online).

Parker seems to enjoy the slippery area where we relate to the photograph as both artwork and document, interpretation and record. This non-definitive, hybrid attitude has a lineage we can trace back via Conceptual Art and Performance Art, all the way through to Surrealism, Dada, and Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, Parker’s favourite photograph is Dust Breeding 1920, the strange image made by Man Ray of the surface of Duchamp’s unfinished The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23. Half abstract, half figurative, it is like no other photograph. In books on Man Ray, it tends to be regarded as pioneering work by a visionary artist. In books on Duchamp however, it is often presented as anecdotal document of the making of the Large Glass. I imagine Parker also appreciates the famous photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz of Duchamp’s Fountain1917, his ‘readymade’ urinal placed on a plinth as an artwork. The urinal was lost, and all the world knew of it was its reproduced image until 1964, when Duchamp issued replicas of his Readymades. Dust Breeding was also reissued that yearin an edition of ten. Both Man Ray and Duchamp signed it, securing its ambiguity forever.

Like those two artists, Parker comes up with titles for her works that are brilliantly potent and highly visual in themselves. They are often on the cusp between prosaically literal description, like a factual caption, and suggestivepoetry. Words that Define Gravity. Thirty Pieces of Silver. Inhaled Cliffs. Embryo Firearms. Negatives of Sound. Poison and Antidote Drawing. Premeditated Act of Violence. Such titles alone are enough to evoke lucid but enigmatic images in the mind. But they also allude, like the phrase “dust breeding”, to processes that a photograph could barely capture. That combination of almost comic literalism and enigmatic allusion runs throughout Parker’s work. And I have a hunch that all of it, regardless of medium and materials, is related somehow to the slippery qualities of the photographic image: the presence and the absence; the object and its visual impression; the immediate impact and the long-lasting impression; the economy of means and the lightness of touch.



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