Cornelia Parker and Everything Everywhere All at Once
No, everything, everywhere, all at once isn’t a description of Cornelia Parker’s practice, although it could be. It’s the title of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s movie, released in the UK the same week as her exhibition opened at tate Brittan. I offer a connected reading of these cultural moments; both oppose things, with their tangible thinginess, to the muddy conditions that give them meaning. Although the exhibition only includes a scatter of Parker’s filmography, all her work is touched by cinema, drawing on film’s promise to be a factual document, its evidence a guarantee of truth. It is truth that Everything Everywhere All at Once sets out to decimate. The movie’s central character, Evelyn, played with coping sighs by martial arts megastar Michelle Yeoh, is a matriarch stoically hiding the truth of exasperation with all aspects of her life. She and her feckless husband (Ke Huy Quan) live upstairs from their family business, a failing laundromat. Evelyn’s breakout comes at the laundromat’s gloomy Spring Festival party. A rift in the multiverse connects her to myriad alternate possibilities. She must battle a Thanos-like malevolent entity that wants to rip it apart. In Evelyn’s everyday life, the entity is embodied in her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), petulant and dissatisfied.
So, like Cornelia Parker’s extensive exhibition, it’s about lived reality and other realities. What you see before you and what lies behind it. The parker show is punctuated by six large works. Two involve flattened silver and Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988–9), found in the first gallery, established recurring themes and approaches from the get-go. Items of silverware are gathered in 30 suspended circles, making a flat plane about 30 cm. above the floor. They are held by a grandiose but near invisible structure of fine wires. The groupings waver subtlety in air currents like effluent eddies on calm tides. Each item is uniquely pummelled and malformed as if through the alchemy of flattening the pure metal reveals a despicable barbaric essence. The work’s title references the payment made to Judas for the betrayal of Christ. It was but one payment in silver coins, but the expansive horizontal plane suggests something comprehensive, a ledger of many debts. The spectator peers down at the arrangements, teetering at the perimeter as they would at the rim of an unfathomable round shaft.
While the circle may suggest absolute geometry, tableware is cultural, not eternal. These things came together, the knife with the fork, the salt with the pepper, side by side onto the table in the 17th century, coincident with the expansion of international trade in people and commodities. These are not random forms. The pepper represents the spice of the Indies. The salt is of the sea. The fork can signify Neptune’s trident, the knife the cutlass, domination of oceans, continents, fish, and mammals in a functional tableau. And the pure silver, where does it originate? The bewildering quantity of suspended items before the viewer evokes the celebrated black and white photographs of Sebastião Salgado of countless teaming workers at the Serra Peleda Gold Mine of Pará, Brazil (1986). The image circulated widely around the time Parker must have been evolving her work. She draws the imagination further back to the Athenian Mines of Laurion and the Potosí mines of Bolivia, where the Spanish extracted silver using the forced labour of indigenous people.
In Everything Everywhere, Evelyn dwells on a similarly problematic O motif. It too has a liminal character, an entry point, instigating Evelyn’s interdimensional experiences, and connected with money. The ring is drawn in a marker pen on a receipt and pasted on the forehead of a psychotic IRS inspector. The circle is present in two forms. It is the epicentre of Evelyn’s current life problems, tax irregularities, and a fantastical black bagel, a bewildering unknown in the multiverse that cannot be quantified or contained. Like Evelyn, Parker faces a conundrum, the disjuncture between elegant valuables and the unfathomable suffering and blood spilt to bring them here. Worse, the objects are no longer even considered especially precious; her horde was gifted to her or got from e-bay and car-boot-sales, all paid for with a measly arts grant. Evelyn experiences a comparable transmutation facing the ridiculous enormity of multiple realities. Her heroic battle with ultimate destiny finally implodes and can be resolved with a quick cosy group hug and by putting her accounting in order. It is a familiar story — a woman’s rage stymied by her maternal role.
Parker presents her relics of extraction and plunder in extremis and faces the same conundrum. The artwork, made from objects out of attics, cupboards, garages, and sheds, is just too affectionate, silver too pliable. Despite her absurdist act of transformative destruction, the treasures’ homely domesticity cannot be totally squashed. She cannot purge the material of its association with the design of wholesome family life.
Parker elaborates on the works with anecdotes displayed as wall captions throughout the Tate exhibition. These tell the truth about the genesis of her art but skirt around her purposes. Usually, she highlights something theatrical, an act often accomplished in conjunction with national agencies such as the army, police, parliament, or law courts. The story for Thirty Pieces includes a quaint steam roller trundling over the silver. The same room displays a pendant to the sculptural work, Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed) (2015), a series of 21 photogravures. Parker relates how the prints are derived from glass photographic plates she came across in a street market; they were illustrations in an auction catalogue. The images reinforce the connection of silver to trade and acquisition. When Parker found them, they were in protective paper sleeves. These are a feature of the printed images, like gift bags for the charming objects inside. Now, the paper becomes an aesthetic veil for these prestige utility goods fashioned from the primal elemental material that supported the rise of global financial systems. Where compression in Thirty Pieces returned the silverware to its flawed origins, containing awards critical distance. The objects are returned to a natural order, an unassuming role in beautifying life, denying the possibility of looking back and realising they are ugly.
Regression initiates Evelyn’s experience of the multiverse. It becomes her mission to travel to alternate realities. In these worlds, her past choices were different. She is not a frayed laundrette mum but is possessed of wonderful and exceptional powers. She deploys these powers to battle random adversaries. After much fight and fantasy, she confronts her nemesis. She now can overcome him by scrolling back to her childhood, an emotional moment when she was sent away by her parents. Through this origin story, she acknowledges the violence of family fracture. She understands that her physical adversaries and combative approach are anxiety symptoms derived from unresolved trauma. Knowing other possibilities, Evelyn chooses to revert to her stereotypical maternal role, the centre of the constellation of her extended family. She restores calm. It is not difficult to read Evelyn’s experience in line with the pathologising of female trauma, where acceptance of patriarchal order is the only resolution.
In Parker’s artworks, too, origins are essential. There is not much to be understood from her contrasty pictures of clouds or Rorschach Inkblots until you know their history. In fact, the photos were taken with a camera formally owned by Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hess, and the ink was made from snake venom or pornographic videotape dissolved in a solvent. Exhibition reviews often featured Parker’s personal artistic origin story: she visited Tate Britain on a school trip aged 15. And she dreamed that she might have an exhibition there one day in the future. One of the exhibition’s new works, Flag (2022), explicitly defines such sources as unimpeded by the awkward associations of accrued symbolic meanings. Flag is a short film of flag-makers in Wales. The sequence is screened in reverse. The audience watches the Union Jack separated into its components, ending with the red, white, and blue cloth returned to rolls of raw material. Like pure silver, raw fabric is not an innocent beginning. It is anomalous and potentially embroiled in exploitation and environmental pollution.
Reversal, endlessly returning to other unresolved realities, leads to fatigue for Evelyn. She tires of reinventing herself, capitulates, and resigns to her situation, settling back into ‘reality’. She includes herself when she says, “when you love someone, you don’t try to change them.” Walter Benjamin remarked that the original’s authenticity is of the here and now. Parker often interrupts phenomena before they are resolved as definite things. She locks them in a preliminary state, such as the unminted coin before its face defines its value; the engraver’s swarf before the inscription pronounces importance; the template of the remembrance poppy; and the expansion of the explosion, not the destruction it causes. But can this absolve things of culpability? Can a process be innocent? Behind Parker’s works are unseen hands, often many, not least the museum workers stringing up her installations with thousands of fine wires or the prisoners who did the spade work stitching the endless text of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015). The latter work is an exhaustive facsimile of the Wikipedia article describing the eponymous protective charter. Celebrities were brought in to add embellishments, and members of the Embroiders Guild did the intricate bits. Division of responsibility mirrored the privilege of those protected under the charter, but the labour imbalance is unfathomable, unseen in the exhibited work where the privilege of expressive opportunity is cherished and unchanging.
Ultimately Evelyn is manipulated. Those around her convince her to stick around in this dimension and try to be a better mother, wife, and daughter. Parker invites her audience to smile at a crumpled and degraded nation. Artist and the nation-state are not in harmony but in equilibrium, that is all. Evelyn pays a high price to restore balance to her world. She forfeits her potential, turning a blind eye to what she learned lies beyond the everyday. Beyond Parker’s everyday is just more everyday but with confusion engrained in tangible things. Her gestures can reveal a creative multiverse of other possibilities in things when they are not yet fully resolved. But, everything is forever in freefall back to normality. Normality. The spurious truth of who we are and what we came from.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert 2022)
Cornelia Parker was at tate Britain 19 May-16 October 2022