Sculptor Parker Takes Boston
Cornelia Parker is already a smash hit in her native Britain. Her current show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is the first real survey of her work in America, our first chance to take a good look at her.
The Harvard Crimson: Much of your work seems very scientific--calculating entropy, defying gravity. How much does science influence your work?
Cornelia Parker: Quite a lot, I think. Over the last few years, I've spent more time reading about science than I have about art. It's very intimidating, though, for an artist to enter the science world because they're doing things for very different reasons. Very often I'm trying to do things that a scientist might do, like I'm trying to send a meteorite back into space.
THC: What artists have influenced you the most?
CP: There are loads of people who I love: Jan van Eyck, Uccello, Piero della Francesca. They're usually painters rather than sculptors, curiously enough. But, I suppose, writers possibly more. I think literature is very inspiring to me.
THC: Such as?
CP: Have you heard of Wilkie Collins? He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, he was sort of a melodrama man. He wrote these amazing cliffhanger novels, like The Woman in White and Moonstone, which I think are brilliant. I don't think they're necessarily that influential but they really fire up the imagination.
THC: Did you read a lot as a child?
CP: Yes, I did. I lived in the countryside, miles from anywhere. There weren't many children around to play with, so I spent a lot of time either reading or kind of making up. I lived on a small farm and much of my childhood was spent working--manual labor--stringing up tomato plants, milking the cows by hand, mucking up the pigs, planting vegetables, raking hay, very ephemeral, process-oriented things. Then I'd sneak off into the attic to read. I don't think I went to an art gallery until I was about sixteen. So I wasn't very aware of art at all; I was very much literature-based.
THC: Was there ever a conscious decision to become an artist?
CP: I think so. I first went to London when I was 15 or 16 with my art teacher. I went around all the galleries and thought "Wow, this is amazing." It just blew me away and I decided to become an artist. I wanted to exhibit at the Tate...which I have now done. It's just fantastic to have that idea when you're 15. But it seems like an almost useless thing to do, it would seem to be just for people to look at, and be great treats for people's imaginations. But I think it is a good thing to be doing with my life. Sometimes I wish I was a writer or a musician because that's much more immediate, especially for somebody who can sing or has a beautiful voice. Nobody ever worries about what a piece of music means or why they wrote it. Usually they're allowing it to play on their senses and their encounter with the music. While I think contemporary art, especially in England, is treated very suspiciously.
THC: What has been your most rewarding project?
CP: I think my blown-up garden shed was one of my favorites. Also, a piece I did in collaboration with the actress Tilda Swinton called The Maybe, which I really enjoyed. It was very unique because you are working someone else, having someone who was alive, actually part of the show, who's there as a presence. She is also a pretty famous actress. She became part of a reliquary, she became the only living thing in it. Surrounded by all these relics of dead people, you suddenly became very aware of your own mortality. Everybody was dead, except for Tilda and you. And she, somehow, was absent too, because she was asleep. I think people were very confronted with themselves more than anything.
THC: It seems like chance and luck often come into your work, like the time that church was struck by lightning four days after you arrived in San Antonio. I don't know, do you feel God is on your side?
CP: I'm not religious. It's when you're looking for things. Say you're looking for yellow cars--then you start to see yellow cars everywhere. You just kind of focus and suddenly everything starts pointing in that direction. When you get that focus, then those connections come to you. I think you make your own luck. Sometimes nothing seems to gel, because I haven't got my antennae out. And other times, ideas come thick and fast.
THC: What feather are you looking for next?
CP: I want one from Alcatraz. You know, Birdman of Alcatraz. The fact that it's an island and for prisoners, the idea of flight. The feather has to do with defying gravity, up or down. Also, the feather, white feathers particularly, can be a symbol of cowardice. I like the story of Icarus flying into the sun. It seems like a very banal, everyday object; they're floating everywhere. I think I have one from the Alamo, you know, famous sites...I travel a lot. If you're traveling, you can't carry much with you. Feather, dust, tarnish rubbing--those things are easy to collect and they're not things that people mind you taking. The feather came from Freud's pillow when I borrowed it for The Maybe and I saw the feather sticking out of the pillow and I got terribly excited about the feather. The feather seemed to be about the subconscious and sleep, sweet and soft. I did a piece with the feather where I projected it on the wall and it looked like a missile. I like the feather being something potentially lethal.
THC: Is there a project you dream of doing? Is it sending the meteorite back into space?
THC: Do you think it's possible?
CP: I think it's going to happen. I'll make it happen. If I do that I'll be very happy. There will be nothing there to show for it! It will be an invisible work. I like the idea of that. There won't be any issue about what it looks like.