Tate Britain's summer shows: politics in art – more urgent than ever!
During the heatwave, I headed to Tate Britain early morning, while it was still relatively cool - returning in a sizzling 37 degrees. My trip wasn’t exactly essential – but I had the week off and I didn’t fancy spending it indoors hogging a fan. But fear not, I don’t subscribe to Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab’s approach to heat waves that ‘people should be resilient enough to be out enjoying the sunshine!’. 40 degrees can actually be dangerously hot with people and infrastructure struggling and/or collapsing – with those who are working, especially outdoors, at increasing risk! In a country with no legal maximum working temperature, something trade unions have long campaigned for, we know who will pay the consequences of the worsening climate crisis … Sorry, I’m digressing!
The Cornelia Parker exhibition (on until 16th October 2022) had been on my wish list for some time and an early Monday slot seemed appealing. It was also an opportunity to walk the full length of Hew Locke’s Procession (on until 22nd January 2023), which I hadn't had a chance to properly explore. Large scale exhibitions in the Duveen Galleries (the huge first floor space at Tate Britain) are memorable experiences – remember Heather Phillipson’s post-apocalyptic Rupture No1: Blowtorching the Bitten Peach.
Silently moving through our violent history
As you enter the space, protagonists in The Procession are coming towards you – a whole 150 of them - unique figures filling the space and marching forth in extravagant, colourful attires – in what should be a raucous, cacophonous affair, but is eerie with silence. The Procession goes on and on, in its own powerful, unsettling way. Groups of people on the move, people on foot, on horses, some on stilts, others holding banners, flags or drums, all of them wearing masks or some form of face covering. The Procession evokes different ideas – demonstrations, carnival, funerals, pilgrimages, migration; it feels at once familiar – think of how many ‘processions’ you’ve joined - but also not.
‘What I try to in my work is mix ideas of attraction and ideas of discomfort
– colourful and attractive, but strangely, scarily surreal at the same time.’
Locke’s installation takes the history and character of Tate Britain’s building and its original ‘benefactor’, Henry Tate, the colonial sugar magnate, as its starting point. He invites us to ‘reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people, finance and power.’ The link between Tate and Locke’s work reminded me of an excellent play I saw recently – The White Card, by Claudia Rankine – and whose work I highly recommend. One of the characters in the play also happens to be an art ‘benefactor’ with a very dubious business and blood on his hands …
As your eyes zoom in on the various figures, extravagant costumes and objects, they are drawn to the overwhelming intricacy of the fabric used to create the garments, flags and banners. Images of cargo and sailing boats, slave ships and crumbling Guyanese architecture all bear witness to colonial and capitalist violence and oppression – spanning many centuries. A child like figure, at the front, is banging a drum – its skin made of a ‘Russian General Oil Corporation’ bond, giving it powerful present-day significance. Every single personage is fascinating in its own right and the attention to detail extraordinary. As you walk at contraflow, you’ll see women, some pregnant, children and men on the move - two men carrying a wooden chest of ‘shares and mining rights’, while two others are carrying the white porcelain head of a British general in a hand-held carriage on a piece of red velvet.
“The refugee crisis, the climate emergency and colonialism are, to a certain extent, eternal themes. These concerns are concerns I’ve had for a very long time. And it seems that tragically they’ll always be with us. We have a current situation we’re looking at in the news every day, and it’s traumatic.”
Nearby, hiding between two columns, you’ll spot a Queen Victoria figure – a recurring theme in Locke’s work - looking in the direction of a funeral procession – possibly her own – followed by a group in formal dress, including a child covered in tiger skin and a man with an ominous fabric replica image depicting the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square stitched on the back of his suit. Everything is exuberant and yet so subtle. After spending time carefully absorbing and reflecting about The Procession, I wasn’t sure whether I'd still have the energy for Cornelia Parker …
Our world in pieces
… and so, as I slid from one immersive installation to another. Within seconds, she drew me in! To be fair the first room, Thirty Pieces of Silver – gives you little choice. Hanging by threads in semi darkness are thirty times thirty pieces of steamrolled silver - a process repeated later with Perpetual Canon.
Pause for a second. Cornelia Parker started crushing things from an early age. She used to place coins on rail tracks and watch them violently transformed from mundane objects into … works of art! Therein lies her genius and you are about to be served a whole nine rooms of it – expect visual metaphors, storytelling, political content … and a seriously wild imagination buzzing throughout. Go prepared to have your mind blown … because blowing things up is something she is particularly good at.
By the second room it becomes fully apparent that Parker has a knack at making something out of nothing and an exceptionally, unusual creativity … with a penchant for exploring violence, death and destruction. In Shared Fate, for instance, an Oliver Twist doll is chopped in half by the guillotine used to decapitate Marie-Antoinette. As part of the same Avoided Objects series, she wrapped Rodin’s The Kiss (yes, the one in the gallery's foyer) in meters of string, renaming it The Distance (A Kiss With a String Attached). Oh, and her titles are just brilliant and tantalising plays on words!
And so, you keep going – each room utterly different and jaw dropping. For the spectacular Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, she enlisted the help of the Army School of Ammunition, and some Semtex, before pressing the plunger to blow up a shed and its content. The carefully re-assembled pieces now dangle from the ceiling, like a giant mobile of discarded, broken objects whose shadow engulfs the entire room. It is this incredible mix between the big picture and the intricate detail that Cornelia Parker absolutely nails. A little part of me struggled with the idea of enlisting the army to execute an act of violence to create art – maybe it was a visceral dislike of the army, their use of explosions to kill, maim and traumatise countless people globally and our desensitisation to that – an issue she addresses. Still, the thought lingered until I got to the films section. Because, of course, Cornelia Parker’s career comprises sculptures, photography, embroidery, drawing, installations … and film; and this superbly curated retrospective has it all!
Her short films are all different but all share a political thematic. The War Machine, which shows the production of Remembrance Day poppies in slow reveal, brought me full circle from the exploded shed. Sheet upon sheet upon sheet of perforated red paper discarded – a bit like the soldiers killed in a war. The mundanity of death and violence is omnipresent – almost irrelevant … until you are confronted with it. Entering the War Room, a piece of work about the First World War, does just that. The gallery was quite empty when I went – so I found myself alone in the War Room - it was a truly sobering experience.
The latter part of the exhibition is where her commitment to politics and social justice is more prominent. There is the ‘Medal of Dishonour’ - We know who you are We know what you have done – which depicts the backs of two heads (no tails) modelled on Tony Blair and George W Bush, or Magna Carta (An Embroidery), a truly gigantic project involving a whooping 250 people – from all walks of life. from prisoners to baronesses. The retrospective aptly ends with Island – a project that encompasses such rich conceptualisation including the greenhouses of her childhood, the cliffs of Dover, Brexit and climate change.
This is just a tiny morsel of a gargantuan smorgasbord that is this exhibition - Cornelia Parker is astounding - deeply so. Days later, I’m still wondering: where does she get all these ideas from?
You’re in for an extra treat because there’s lots more going. In a game of hide and seek, Cornelia Parker pops up in other parts of the gallery, and there are new sections. Some personal highlights included Sixty Years: The Unfinished Conversation – a display exploring the complex nature of diasporic identity, which amongst many gems includes Chris Ofili’s 1998 Turner Prize win No Woman No Cry, a tribute to Stephen Lawrence. Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are also on show.
All must sees!