June 3 2011: Never Endings: An Interview With Cornelia Parker (Metro, 2007)
Cornelia Parker: Never Endings
Cornelia Parker is one of the UK’s leading artists, and her highly evocative brand of conceptual art spans sculpture, installation, photography, found objects and many unusual methods of transforming everyday materials. Books are shot, sheds exploded, toys cut in half and silverware steamrollered, while in her 1997 exhibition The Maybe her own works were presented alongside such museum curiosities as the brain of computing pioneer Charles Babbage and a glass vitrine in which the actress Tilda Swinton slept. The following interview took place at the Ikon Gallery café in Birmingham in September 2007, while Parker was in the city to install Never Endings, the first major UK showing of her work for a decade. The interview first appeared in a very truncated ‘five questions…’ format in Metro during 2007 and a full transcript was published in Staple 71: The Art Issue in 2009.
Wayne Burrows: I was talking to the gallery last week, ahead of meeting you here, and it seems that this upcoming show is the first you’ve done in the UK for quite a while
Cornelia Parker: Yes, it is. The last one was around 1998, at the Serpentine in London, and after this these pieces are going on to Lima in Peru, and maybe after that Mexico City, so I’ve had to bear in mind that the exhibition will be seen by audiences who don’t know my recent work too well. So there’s new stuff, including some Avoided Objects, which are part of an ongoing series, but the new pieces are shown alongside older work, going back to around 1995. So there are a series of new Stolen Thunder tarnishes, including one featuring tarnish wiped from Charles Dickens’ knife, and next to that I’m showing a doll cut in half by the guillotine, which of course represents a character from Dickens, Oliver Twist. Quite often with the Avoided Objects, I try to put different pieces together and create these connections. In the same way, there are the Embryo Firearms, from 1995, which seemed to fit nicely with the bullet drawings, from 2007, which are lead from bullets, melted down and drawn into wires. Then there’s a Wedding Ring drawing, and a pulled tooth drawing, made from a gold tooth, all created by the same process. Those are placed beside Blue Shift, which is the nightgown worn by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, and a series of polaroids I took from a screening of the film on TV, trying to capture her character’s expression when she learns her baby is the devil, all taken at the same moment in the film, as she cries out. But when hung beside the pulled tooth drawing, there’s another layer, as though she’s crying out because she’s had a tooth pulled, and I like creating these confrontations and links between different works. Then there are some bigger, more recent pieces, including Chomskian Abstract, a video of Noam Chomsky talking about the end of the world.
WB: I was going to ask about the use of video, because I don’t think I’ve seen any video work by you before.
CP: No, nobody in the UK has, the videos have only been shown at the Sharjah Biennale so far, and were jointly commissioned by Sharjah and the Ikon, so they are making their UK debut here. The theme of the Sharjah Biennale was Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change, so it was really about what’s happening with the environment, Iraq and all that stuff, things I’m passionately interested in, especially having a small daughter. I was trying to get Noam Chomsky to come and talk at the Biennale, and he’s written a lot about the Middle East anyway – oil and nuclear weapons, American foreign policy, basically – and there are links from all that to climate change, so he seemed perfect. But he couldn’t come to Sharjah, due to family commitments, and he tries not to travel so much these days, being quite old, so instead I compiled some questions and went to MIT, where he teaches still, and interviewed him. I put about 8 questions to him, and he talked around the themes I‘d raised, but in the video I show his responses, but edit out the questions; you watch him listening to the questions, but you don’t hear them. Normally, standard interviewing technique when you do that is to ask the subject to incorporate the question in their answer, but I didn’t do that here, so the viewer has no idea what question he’s answering each time. Which is why it seems quite abstract, because you don’t know exactly what he’s referring to, but you quickly forget that, and become engrossed in what he’s saying.
WB: I suppose Chomsky’s other hat is his work in linguistics, the structures of language and so on. Was that device intended to echo his own ideas about deeper structures, digging under the surface of the interview to find the textures of his own language?
CP: A little bit, I suppose, but I was more interested in him as a person, being what he is, which is one of the foremost radicals in America, such an eminent guy now that he can say what he wants, and many don’t like that, but there it is – he can turn his mind to any idea at all. He’s also 79 years old now, there’s no way of knowing how much longer he’s going to be around, so I really wanted to hear what he has to say about the world, and its possible fate, at this point in time. In the film, he quotes MacNamara about the twin apocalypse that will soon face us, which comes down to ‘will we destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons – which could happen at any point – or will the climate get us first’, you know? Hopefully these things won’t happen, but they’re much closer than we think and within that is the whole issue of resource wars in that most conflicts are about resources, questions such as what impact China’s industrialisation has on climate, all that kind of thing, and all the politics involved in causing it. Why are the deserts losing their water? Most of these issues could be resolved quite easily, but they’re not being dealt with due to political resistance. George W. Bush is an oil guy, and I suppose that partly explains why he’s doing nothing about it. Yet he’s got children and grandchildren of his own, so it starts to seems like a kind of madness, too. It was that kind of thing I wanted to talk to Chomsky about, and in a way the video with him looks at the general theme of fear in America. What you see are essentially these ten minute monologues by Chomsky as he simply talks about the various subjects that have been raised…
WB: When you said earlier that you liked different works to connect, and cast light on each-other, does that suggest we should explicitly connect Chomskian Abstract to, say, the idea of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, and think of the whole exhibition as being about fear as a cultural phenomenon in that broader sense?
CP: I don’t like to hang signs on the work, but yes, there’s the Mia Farrow piece, and in the multiple for the show, I used a photograph I took in 1999, which seemed to tie into that theme, too. It was taken at a different, maybe more open time, and it comes from a series of 54 snapshots I made of people in various locations, each holding a stick of fake dynamite. Different people, the same dynamite, and how you interpreted the scenes was very much in the eye of the beholder. In the multiple, the guy might be mistaken for someone middle-eastern. He’s actually from Essex, and he poses in this outside corridor with the dynamite and looks into the camera. If you saw it without a caption, you wouldn’t necessarily know what you were looking at, which was what I quite liked about it. Of course, it takes on different connotations now to those it had when I took the picture, so the title is Man with ‘Dynamite’ in 1999, but it’s dated 2007, so it’s located both when it was taken, and now, and I kind of liked that. It was chosen from among other images, some so far beyond the pale I could never use them now, so there are a few showing bits of graffiti – ‘Hamid Is A Pussy’ or ‘Islam Is The Best’ – taken just a couple of streets down from were I live, in quite a big Bengali and Bangladeshi area. It’s curious how things have changed. The dynamite was a prop I found at a car boot sale before I did Cold Dark Matter, the exploded shed, and in a way, it was a catalyst for that explosion. There is a circular thing there, these ideas that go around in my work, and one of those, this time, is certainly fear…
WB: Was part of the appeal that it’s such a common image in cartoons – the big red stick of dynamite – the sort of thing you’d get in Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, perhaps?
CP: Oh yes, that contrast between cartoon and real violence is fascinating, and while it wasn’t a cartoon explosion that blew up the shed in Cold Dark Matter – it was a very real one – this is very obviously a fake piece of dynamite; it’s what we imagine dynamite would look like, even though real dynamite probably looks nothing like that.
WB: There’s also the Blue Shift piece, which includes the nightdress worn by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, of course, which is very much an iconic object signifying fear.
CP: Yes, I bought it at auction, and to be honest it’s in a real state, the fabric is a bit dirty and worn…though I didn’t realise that when I was bidding on it. I made the piece in 2000 when I was heavily pregnant and hormonally-charged, so for me, about to give birth at the age of 45, it obviously tapped into worries I had about what the baby might be like, you know, I was having all the usual nightmares about my child being born with two heads or something. At the same time, I was making work for a show in Turin, so I suppose I wanted to make something that connected to the Turin Shroud, which is really the ultimate found object, isn’t it? It was one of the reasons I started making the Stolen Thunder pieces, using tarnished cloth, some of which are in this show, so I’ve long had a fascination with the Turin Shroud that has influenced my work. When I was thinking about what to do with the Mia Farrow nightdress, it struck me that the gown was related to the birth of the devil – albeit in a fictional context – so it’s the real nightgown from this iconic fictional film, and within that, of course, carries all the tragedy of the Sharon Tate murders, so there’s a lot of resonance attached to this object, making it almost a perfect mirror-image of the Turin Shroud. At one point, I considered wearing it when I gave birth, but decided against that…I suppose it was a way of warding off the fears I had, confronting my own worst nightmares at the time. In the end, though, the work I made isn’t about me at all, and the title, Blue Shift, is both literal – a ‘blue shift’ is what the dress becomes when light shines through it – but it’s also a scientific term for measuring light in the universe, one of the elements used when looking for the Doppler effect…so there’s that connotation, too, and then the idea of a ‘blue shift’ as a change of mood, an emotional state. It’s a very mundane thing, a slightly grubby nightgown, but because of its context and the themes of the film it featured in, it’s also an icon of fear, though I like to think it’s an ambiguous one. After all, the way the film is directed, it’s never clear whether the events are all in Mia Farrow’s head or really happening to her, and that ambiguity says something about the fear in our own culture at this point, too.
WB: You mentioned the way external events can change the meaning of works you’ve made, and that might also apply to another point you made earlier, about when a new piece of work is added to the Avoided Objects series, say, and shown alongside older pieces…did you feel that adding Chomskian Abstract to your wider body of work teased out some of the submerged political meanings in other pieces?
CP: There’s definitely a sense in which I’m trying to relocate the works and their meanings in each exhibition, and the brief for the Sharjar Biennale probably played a part. I mean, I don’t usually look at the brief – I don’t like being given a brief, or a theme to work to – but one piece I showed there was a work I’d already made, Heart of Darkness, from 2004, which is chunk of burnt forest from Florida, which came from a big fire that burnt hundreds of thousands of acres of forest there. But I was talking to a forest guide who told me it began with a controlled burn. They were burning off a tiny bit of land, but it got out of control; there was a high wind, and it spread too fast. It seemed to link to many things in the air around that time, you know, things like the ‘hanging chads’ and Bush becoming President because of events in Florida, so it also seemed emblematic of the whole Iraq war situation, too… They thought they were simply going to manage a situation, but it became the worst possible kind of conflagration, running out of control. I called it Heart of Darkness because of the connection with Apocalypse Now, with Joseph Conrad and the Vietnam war, but it also had the idea of a war between nature and man. Initially I thought I’d put the pieces on the floor, but then I decided to suspend them, organise them in space as though they’ve been mapped back onto the original forest. It creates an atmosphere, and perhaps that taps into this idea of fear as well…
WB: One piece I’ve always remembered, from the Serpentine show in 1998, was The Temple Of Dagon Is Destroyed, a Bible you’d retrieved from a chapel burnt by lightning. You displayed it on a lectern, open on a colour picture showing people running away from a temple that was being destroyed by lightning; a piece like that has added layers now that it didn’t at the time, I imagine?
CP: Yes, absolutely, the idea of a Bible showing an act of God, that has been burnt by an act of God…
WB: Is it the irony of these things that interests you, or the idea of the apocalypse that underscores them?
CP: When I was making the Chomsky work, there was a certain kind of humour there in the tragicomic aspects of it, the way the viewer is put in the same position as a child being warned by a parent about all the things in life that are out there to fear, and perhaps there is a parallel – the more we learn about world culture, for example, the worse these fears seem to get, and the more of them there seem to be. But Chomsky himself also touches on the whole sense of simplification around what’s happening, and that over-simplification is a large part of what drives these fears, that division of the world into black and white, good and evil. So when I’m making these pieces, which might seem overtly political or didactic on one level, I also want them to be open to other interpretations. The majority of people, I think, bring their own thoughts to pieces like that, so hopefully it’s not propaganda, it’s simply one person, in this case Noam Chomsky, talking about the things that interest him, discussing some of the things he thinks about. Some of those things are deeply political, especially around subjects such as the Middle East, Iraq, and the American role in these places and conflicts. But it also needs to be remembered that I only had 45 minutes with him – though it did stretch to an hour of filming in the end – and when I raised a subject like fear, he just went off on his own journey through the subject, linking it to things that were really happening in Baghdad. There was no sense of me pressing him for the answers I wanted, no particular emphasis on the apocalyptic, political or any other idea that might have fitted my own intentions for the work, insofar as I had any beyond that basic interest in what Chomsky had to say on a variety of subjects.
WB: One of the things that seems significant about your work is the sense that the things you use have to be of a very particular origin, so a feather you photograph has to be from Freud’s couch, or a fountain pen from the desk of Emily Bronte at Howarth. I suppose you could have used any old feather or nib and just said it was from those places, and made the work as a kind of fiction, but clearly the authentic provenance of your materials is important to the meaning of these works.
CP: Well, I’ve always liked the idea of the found object, and if the found objects in question are clods of dirt, dug out from underneath the leaning tower of Pisa during maintenance work to stabilise the foundations, or a set of planks from a ghost town in the American West, or charcoal from a burned Florida forest, these things have their own contexts and stories to share. Heart Of Darkness, the wildfire piece, for example, relates quite nicely to ideas of culture and nature, those apocalyptic themes, but in other works, like Killing Time, the video piece, I show people waiting for something to happen, something that we as viewers never see for ourselves, but have to read through the response of the crowds. It could be an eruption, a geyser or something else entirely, but the camera points away from the event, which makes it a bit like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, Godot in this case being the ‘something’ that finally happens, that we only see in the way the crowd’s reactions all simultaneously show on screen as a climax or anticlimax to all the waiting we’ve observed. So the way the subjects are used varies, but both Heart Of Darkness and Killing Time touch on that man and nature idea. In the video it doesn’t matter too much what the crowd are waiting for, in the Florida charcoal piece it matters deeply in terms of the meaning of the work that the material comes from where it does, but both use found materials of one sort or another to create their effect.
WB: There’s also a sense that the use of authentic objects – the blotters used by the Bronte sisters, the tarnish from Charles Dickens’ actual knife – ties in with what I suppose is a very contemporary obsession with celebrity and things touched by the hands of the famous. Would you say you were tapping into something much older here, the Saints’ relics in Catholic churches, say, and maybe drawing parallels?
CP: I think that these works are about belief in a way, and there is the idea that we nominate certain places – whether natural locations such as Niagara Falls, or man-made structures like the Statue of Liberty – as famous or iconic spots, the things we might travel to visit in that ‘ten things to see before you die’ frame of mind, so those places take on a kind of celebrity status in our culture. Places like that are similar to famous people, in that way, but my interest in them is less in the fame itself than the underbelly of that, the meanings that are coded into them, whatever it is that all the thousands of people who go there every day or year are looking for. So they’re the most visited places – well-worn, clichéd things in the wider culture – but the work is not so much about their celebrity, but their cliché value, their monumental value, how we nominate these people and places in society to carry certain meanings. The work I made at the Freud museum, for example, touched on the way Freud has shaped aspects of our language and thinking, so that even if we’ve never read Freud, we still know roughly what the word ‘Freudian’ means, in the same way that we know what ‘Victorian’ means, or what ‘Dickensian’ means. All the things I’ve used in those series have that quality, so there might be things connected to Henry VIII, or old boys like Davy Crockett, so we know who they are, but our response to them is about what they mean in the culture, and the meanings we give to them, rather than the reality of who these people were, or what they really did.
WB: So it’s that sense of these figures as touchstones, people or places that we tend to invest with some kind of broader significance and meaning?
CP: Yes, we can talk about a Turner-esque landscape or sunset in nature, and in doing that we’re using Turner as a shorthand, a marker for something we associate with his work. In that sense, we also use people like art objects, taking a certain flavour of that person to look at the world around us. So that’s the aspect of those connections I’m interested in, and when I have material linked to Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt 45 revolver, there are associations between the pieces that focus directly on him, and the Embryo Firearms or the extruded bullet drawings, and the same applies with the tarnish taken from Charles Dickens’ knife, which is hung in this exhibition beside the Oliver figurine cut in half on a guillotine that was itself used during the French Revolution, which of course Dickens wrote about. It becomes a never-ending circle of connections that goes around, as works I made ten years ago connect with things I’m making now. Whenever I begin a piece I think I’m making something new, but subconsciously it all relates to other work I’ve made, or the meanings change as time passes, so the Embryo Firearms and Man With ‘Dynamite’ have different connotations today to those they had when I first made them. It’s curious, because sometimes it’s only when I talk about my work, long after it’s been made and shown, that many of these connections start to become noticeable to me.
WB: In the Serpentine show there were other pieces that now seem to carry significant connections with religion and money, so for example the silverware flattened by a steam roller, then suspended in circular patterns, was given the title Thirty Pieces Of Silver, after the coins taken by Judas in exchange for his betrayal of Jesus. Then there are the two figures of Matter And What It Means lying side by side – a little like the couple described in Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb – but made entirely from what seem to be magically suspended coins…
CP: I do find myself fascinated by religion, and the psychology of ideas about redemption and damnation, and there I was definitely influenced by history, where priests would shout about how you’d go to Hell if you didn’t follow their teachings. That comes out again in the tarnishes, which are made by lifting stains from metal objects onto a white handkerchief, so it’s a bit like the state of the soul described in those sermons. The soul is white, but you get dirty marks on it as you go through life, and can only make it white again if you repent. You might be born with a dirty mark on your soul, that of Original Sin, so you can’t win, there’s no escape… Although I’m personally not religious at all, those ideas do feed into the work in all sorts of strange ways.
WB: There might also be a similar sense of that being how the politics work, as a sort of submerged current running through. Perhaps that’s also an aspect of your interest in coins and money, especially in that not having it damns us, possessing it is seen as a kind of blessing or grace, and the existence of money as a system depends on our belief in it in much the same way that religion does?
CP: I think that’s true. Money is very like another kind of church.
WB: It’s an idea that turns up in ‘Embryo Money’ – two bags of coins that have yet to be properly struck, a bit like metal communion wafers spilling from a bag – and those were made, I think, around the same time as the ‘Embryo Firearms’?
CP: Yes, they were, and I especially liked the idea of money that had yet to acquire or had lost its value, for example when its face has been worn away because it’s been handled too much. I like the Embryo Firearms a lot, for similar reasons. They’re an old piece, but they anticipate something, and because they’re not actual guns – you can’t load or fire them, yet – but they are on the way to becoming guns, they are ‘loaded’ in another way, with the meaning and potential of the objects they might become. They’re ‘loaded’ categorically, if not literally. There are also the Bullet Drawings, about nine of those so far, created by extruding bullets into a fine thread. Each has been made from a different weight of bullet, so the results are related to the calibre. Most of them are based on Magnum bullets, and the calibre determines how fine and how long you can make the wire thread. The drawings create a line, a bit like a pencil drawing, and the compositions that result are determined by the process by which the threads are made.
WB: Could you explain a little about the process?
CP: The wire drawings involve working alongside people with hugely complex skills, and as I have none of those technical skills myself, it’s quite a big process to get them made. First, the bullets and tooth-fillings or whatever it might be need to melted down, then they’re extruded into six millimetre wires, which then go to another factory where that wire is drawn out as a finer wire…and so on. I sometimes ask myself why I don’t just buy some ready-made lead or gold wire, because it would cost considerably less to do that, and viewers probably wouldn’t know the difference. But it wouldn’t be the same, and making the works from wires laboriously and expensively drawn from real bullets does have something that wire alone doesn’t…by making them into drawings, I’m also taking the bullets out of circulation, a sort of ‘swords into ploughshares’ idea that would be lost if the wire wasn’t made the way it is, if I didn’t use actual bullets and put them through this quite arduous, roundabout process to create the end result.
WB: I think there was an earlier series where you used lead models of famous buildings, such as Big Ben, sometimes flattening them, sometimes placing them into flooded drains and photographing them…does the material of lead have any special significance, as it did for the alchemists?
CP: Well, I love lead as a material – the fact that it’s a metal, and very heavy, but also soft – and I have a lot of lead around my studio, from spent bullets and souvenirs to the cast words of a definition of gravity that were thrown from the white cliffs of Dover and then suspended for Words That Define Gravity. But I’ve always liked working in series, and coming back to ideas and materials I’ve used before, so besides using lead in different ways, I’ve had phases of shooting things, phases of steamrollering things, phases of blowing things up…and I seem to have periods when I’m interested in making large scale installations, and others where I focus on single objects or series of related objects. But with the lead in the bullet drawings, my interest was in the formal quality of the threads. Part of their origin was when I took down some of the big suspended installations after a show and saw the leftover wires on the floor, where they resembled line drawings, existing between two and three dimensions. It started me thinking about how I could make a single wire into something with the formal qualities of a work, which then brought me to the process of making wire, and the sense that wire is literally made by ‘drawing’ out the metal into ever-finer threads. Meaning isn’t something I set out to illustrate, but something I make the work to discover, and the materials are selected as part of that process rather than with an end result in mind.
WB: I’ve often thought of your work’s openness to different materials and forms as being connected with ideas that arose among many other artists around the time you began, for example someone like Helen Chadwick, who would combine techniques from art and science, or use materials ranging from photography to cellular biology in the same body of work. You seem to share that willingness to bend many methods from art and non-art to the purpose of a work. It’s hard to define what you do purely as sculpture, photography or installation, say, as a work might feature processes from all those areas, but also from forensic science, or industrial manufacturing…
CP: I suppose if you’re a sculptor, which is what I trained as, there’s an idea of truth to materials, which is an old fashioned idea, in some ways, but was certainly the big thing when I was at art school, anyway. The idea was that you’d go with the forms dictated by the things you used, so metal should look like metal, carved stone like carved stone…for me, it’s always been a mix of that and the desire to tell stories. With something like the Oliver doll in Shared Fate, part of my interest was finding the doll at a market and wondering what you might make of it if you’d just landed from Mars and knew nothing about the story behind it, nothing about Dickens or the Victorian age. If you just had to go on this thing as an object, what could it possibly mean to you, why does this doll look so distressed? If you know the back-story, it’s obvious, but my intervention, slicing the doll in half on a guillotine, gives another reason for that look of distress. It’s not a linear narrative I’m looking for, but there’s always a process that adds content to the raw materials I use, sometimes due to the connection between the way things are made, sometimes due to the origins of the materials I’ve used. Marcel Duchamp has always been one of my heroes, and I love his collaboration with Man Ray on the Large Glass, where Man Ray photographed the dust that had gathered on the work, and that became another work, linked to, but independent of the Large Glass itself. Anyone else might be horrified by that idea – take a few shots of some dust, and there’s your work – but I find Duchamp’s insight, that things like this can be meaningful, very inspiring. I made a reference to it when I was invited to do something for the Donald Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I asked them to clean out all the dust from the Judd sculptures there and send it to me, which they did; I then scanned the dust and found all these bugs and bits of sand in it, and the dust and its contents became my piece. It had a gothic, horror-film look to it, with dust breeding on dust, and there was a contrast between that and the minimalism of the Donald Judd sculptures that had unconsciously generated this dust that I liked very much.
WB: When I was a child, there was a campaign which had posters showing dust-mites, looking like alien creatures, and claiming millions of them lived in your pillows…in the current exhibition, you’ve made some images like this from the pen-nibs of the Bronte sisters or the holes in a pin cushion stabbed by Charlotte…
CP: I know, I’ve always liked the effect of showing things magnified. There’s that sense of your having to guess what the original object is, whether a teaspoon, a needle or a pin head…and I was interested in these Bronte pieces in the damage, looking for harshly excised lines in the manuscripts or stabs in the paper, that sense of something quite aggressive going on inside this supposedly quite genteel pastime of writing. I’ve always liked things that look like other things, objects and images with an ambiguous presence. Charlotte’s deletions are like that. I went to her original manuscripts and on one final set of proofs she’d crossed out and rejected certain words, in favour of new ones. So she’d cross out ‘blighted’ and put in ‘humid’, but the crossings out were often very emphatic, to the point where I’d think, ‘blimey, blighted really didn’t make it’. In Jane Eyre I noticed she’d crossed out a word that looked like ‘Cornelia’, though it turned out be ‘cornelian’, a kind of stone…but the sentence with the word in was certainly cut, and not without some force, giving me the odd sensation that I’d been personally deleted from Jane Eyre. But that book is also one of the great iconic novels, something that we tend to think of as fixed and unchanged…yet here was evidence that, had it been published a week earlier, all these words and phrases would have remained part of it, and if another week had passed, who knows what other changes or restorations she might have made? Either way, the book would be subtly different to the version we know, and by taking these deletions, I was able to make my own work from them, something that hopefully reveals a hidden aspect of the book.
WB: Could you look at this kind of work as a kind of forensic examination, with the original artwork or object as evidence?
CP: I prefer to think of it as a kind of portraiture. I was making portraits of the Bronte sisters, but rather than taking the usual route of showing their faces, it’s about something else, an abstraction from their lives and activities. In the Chomsky piece, of course, we do see what he looks like, but the emphasis, the abstraction, is on his voice and ideas. One of the Bronte works I particularly like is the magnified image of Emily’s pen-nib, which is so suggestive. It’s worn down by her scribbling and the pressure of her hand, and there’s a very revealing animal quality to the image, as though it’s a beak, something that reveals Emily’s feral side in a way that fits what we think we know of her after reading the poems and Wuthering Heights.
WB: It also resembles a fragment of landscape, the kind of eroded rock she would have been using the pen itself to describe when writing…
CP: Absolutely, which is why I think of these pieces as abstractions found in the most representational places. I want to take a recognisable thing and find something in it that is the opposite, so with Emily’s pen it’s that magnified image, with the Leaning Tower of Pisa it’s the contrast between the mental image everyone has of it – whether you’ve seen it or not, it comes to mind as this beautiful, sculptural marble form – and the clods of raw earth, suspended in Subconscious of a Monument. They were literally part of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but formally they are its exact opposite. Instead of the elegant mass of the tower, you’re presented with the dirt it once stood on.
WB: One thing I always feel about works like these is that they’re often like a species of poetry by other means?
CP: Yes, or philosophy by other means. My working method is like a digestion system, where I take in ideas and they pass through a process that results in finished pieces. But the process is also more like a way of working things out for myself than a method of deciding what I want a particular work to say or be when it’s done. In that sense, it’s very much a way I have of thinking about things, which I suppose does have something in common with writing.
WB: I was thinking about the Einstein Abstract in this context, a piece showing an extreme close up of a blackboard, on which equations were written and rubbed out by Albert Einstein. At first glance the photograph you’ve made might be taken for an image of stars and galaxies, or the scatter patterns made by smashed particles, but that obviously relates to what the equations would have been trying to describe mathematically… The effect seems to be very like poetic analogy.
CP: Well, what I liked was the way the visual image seemed to relate to what he was thinking about more strongly than the equations themselves might have done. As a non-physicist, the blackboard full of closely argued equations would mean nothing, that language is a closed book to me, and even a lot of people who are more au fait with the science would probably find Einstein’s calculations hard to follow. So the image is indirect, but perhaps more immediately comprehensible to most viewers than an image of Einstein’s actual equations on a blackboard might have been. That was just an ordinary microscope image, and in this show I’ve used similar techniques, but with electron microscopes, particularly in the Bronte work. In one, there is a pattern of pinholes made by Charlotte, in others close-ups of the marks found on the lined paper that sat underneath the sheets on which the Brontes wrote letters, or ink on pieces of blotting paper; it’s all a kind of marginalia to the work they did, but with no meaning, a kind of abstraction from writing, the portraiture I was talking about earlier. The pinholes, seen under the electron microscope, relate to Einstein’s chalk, because they seem like a glimpse into the void. In the photographs of Charlotte’s deletions from Jane Eyre, the image brings the excised words together as a series of changed courses and lost possibilities.
WB: It’s noticeable that your investigations often refer to historical and literary figures, to scientists, but not too many painters or sculptors that I’ve noticed.
CP: Well, at the Serpentine there were pieces like Room For Margins, made from the liners of canvases by Turner, removed during conservation work at the Tate, so there have been a few painters, but on the other side, yes, I did turn down a residency at Rene Magritte’s house, mainly because, much as I love Magritte, I didn’t know how I could work with him without it being too obvious. I suppose my choices are partly about opportunity, but also about what draws me on a personal level. I probably couldn’t articulate exactly why the Brontes appealed to me and Magritte didn’t, but that’s how it turned out.
WB: Perhaps there’s also an awareness that each new piece has the capacity to change the meanings of older works? I remember when Andre Breton’s collection was auctioned, there was a good deal of debate about how far its importance lay in the individual pieces it contained, and how far breaking it up destroyed the portrait of Breton and his thinking that it embodied.
CP: It’s very like cooking in that respect. As an artist or collector you bring the various ingredients together, and those are the parts…but then the way you mix, select and arrange those ingredients can produce very different results even when the ingredients are the same, so an egg in a cake is very different to the same egg in an omlette or boiled by itself. It’s something I notice all the time with my own work. Yesterday, we were hanging the Bronte section of the exhibition, and it became very clear that every time we added or removed a piece, or placed the pieces differently, the meanings and emphasis changed. So if we place the two bits of blotting paper – one Charlotte’s, one Emily’s – side by side, that has one meaning. But then we place those with other blots, and the meaning shifts again, so I like that sense that each piece can become a very different work simply by being placed in a certain way, or seen in a new context. I suppose it’s not unusual: a writer can put two words together, and the meaning is greater than the sum of either of those words seen in isolation, or the same two words in a different order, or with a third word added. I like things not being fixed. When I started out, my training as a sculptor was all about fixed forms in space, sculpture as a medium for solidity and permanence, perhaps. I like things to be more open than that, so that the works are exposed as having different interpretations and readings not just as you move around each single piece, or through the exhibition, but over time. I suspect the Chomsky piece will have a very different feel when viewed in this show to that it might have in another five or ten years’ time, in the same way that the image of Man With ‘Dynamite’ looks very different today to how it seemed when I first made it. It’s far more transgressive after September 11 and the War on Terror, than it was in 1999. Another example is Cold Dark Matter, which was made in collaboration with the army, who staged the explosion in 1991. I spoke to someone I worked on that piece with recently, and the climate inside the army is completely different now, to the point that I don’t think that piece could have been made today.
WB: There are also the burned A to Z pieces you made by touching the pages with a heated meteorite, which also seem to carry a different resonance after 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks in London.
CP: Exactly, and I did an American series of those which if anything are even more transformed, because one featured a burned map showing a place called Baghdad, Kentucky…obviously, that was done before the World Trade Center attacks and the invasion of Iraq. Before the 11 September attacks, the pages I made showing maps of Roswell or Paris, Texas burned were more like references to fictional scenarios; now it’s virtually impossible to show them, given the sensitivities about terrorism in America.
WB: You’re also quite interested in displacements of time and place, so something like the fact that there is a Baghdad in Kentucky or that a defunct meteorite can be made to burn a map or a shirt seems to fit in with that.
CP: At my last show in Birmingham, I launched a meteorite from the top of the Rotunda, which was a meteorite that had landed in China in 1517, but was brought to Birmingham in 2001 and relaunched, so it could land again in a different time and place. That idea of time-lapses fascinates me, and it has been suggested that my work seems to anticipate things, though I suspect that’s more because much of it is about making objects that face up to some of the things I fear before they happen. Perhaps there’s a slightly superstitious sense on my part that by making these concerns into works, I might help to prevent them happening in some way.
WB: The forensic approach often suggests that you see the world and its culture as being like crime scenes, or your work as an analysis into a cultural subconscious?
CP: Perhaps it can be seen that way, and another inspiration is archaeology. There’s a piece I’ve made but not yet shown in the UK where I bought things on the internet that people have found using metal detectors; Roman coins dug up in Chester, for example, which I scanned, made an image of – with the day’s newspaper held up above them so you can see the objects and the date – then reburied in Athens, Georgia. I also reburied harmonica parts, originally found around a US Civil War campfire, in Glastonbury. The idea is that at some point in the future, someone might dig up these things again, and assume the Romans were in Georgia, or the American Civil War spread to Glastonbury. I remember doing an ‘in conversation’ session with Colin Renfrew, a professor at Cambridge who has written on the connections between art and archaeology. He didn’t know about this project of mine, but when I told him he went white, he seemed to find it painful, as an archaeologist, to think about what I was doing. That, of course, leads to other connections, so during the conversation, Colin mentioned that bullets with tooth marks are often found at Civil War sites because injured men would bite on them during amputations and operations, so they’d literally ‘bite the bullet’ in the absence of adequate anaesthetics, which is obviously where the term we have today meaning to face up to something, to bear the pain, comes from. Anyway, it ended with me burying one of these bullets, dug up in Pittsburgh, in Colin’s own garden in London…but what I like in all this is a sense of things that have been lost, found, and then lost again, on purpose. This ties in with some of the other work I’ve been making recently, in that there’s a political dimension, a blur between British and American history that obviously relates to Iraq, but hopefully that’s not too didactic, and has resonances beyond that immediate political context as well. I’m not interested in my works reflecting my own opinions, necessarily…
WB: You’re making suggestions and allusions rather than explicit points?
CP: Yes, that’s why so many things in literature – such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the play can mean different things to different people at different times – are so great. Put on a play like Happy Days in a London studio theatre and it might mean one thing, but put it on in a politically charged situation – as when Godot was staged in Sarajevo and Croatia – and it takes on entirely different resonances. It’s this flexibility I’m interested in. I have my own opinions, of course, and I have my own ideas about what my work actually means, but I don’t feel my interpretation is final, or even the best one available. I like my work to gather its meaning in the same way that many of the objects and places I’ve used as its subjects do, which has happened in many surprising ways. Someone delivering a sermon at a church near Tate Modern used Cold Dark Matter as an illustration in his text, then afterwards took his whole congregation over the river to see the installation for themselves. He gave his own interpretation of the piece inside the gallery, and I like the idea of people finding their own meanings in these things very much, so even though we’ve talked a lot about the work this afternoon, and I’ve given a lot of my own opinions, my job is really to take myself away from it once it’s finished, and leave it to find its own response in those who see it.