Frith Street Gallery, London
7 June - 27 July 2013
Review by Maggie Gray
Cornelia Parker’s tactic of suspending her sculptures above the floor is familiar now, but still effective. At the entrance to the Frith Street Gallery several weathered wooden planks lean in neat disorder, seemingly propped against the wall, when in fact they hang by thin wires from the ceiling. The visual disconnect is minimal and easily overlooked, but once seen, it is distinctly unnerving. Immobile, the planks nonetheless seem charged with potential energy, as if they might spring further out of line at any moment, repelled like magnets, or thud back onto the hard floor, spent. It may not possess the arrested drama of the artist’s famous exploded shed* (nor does it try to) but ‘Unsettled’ (2012 - 13) is of the same family, its careful ‘suspension’ having the opposite effect of reanimating the materials in some way.
To the right of this piece, three carbon-black sculptures (casts of the cracks between paving stones) appear to hover just above the concrete floor like solid mist. Again they seem poised, and mildly hazardous, ready to trip up the unwary visitor. Parker notes the children’s games of hopscotch and ‘don’t step on the lines’ as informing her theme - activities where whole stretches of streets become perilous, enjoyable obstacle courses, and to tread on the cracks is to lose. This notion of watching your step takes a darker turn when you learn that the largest sculpture - ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) - was cast from a cemetery pavement. Visitors stand ankle deep in what would be the burial plots, where custom teaches many of us not to stray without respectful care. Childhood fantasy morphs into more uncomfortable adult superstition; the risen, black cracks beginning to suggest splinters, breaks and ruptures of a more emotional sort, resurfacing.
Throughout the exhibition dislodged and distressed objects act as metaphors for human struggle and displacement - some more specific than others. The wood in ‘Unsettled’ turns out to have been collected on the streets of Jerusalem, while two photographs, ‘Oil Stain (Bethlehem)’ and ‘Spilt Milk (Jerusalem)’ (both 2012 - 13) depict liquids seeping slowly into dry pavements in the same part of the world. The troubled context colours the images almost literally: there’s no use crying over spilt milk, but spillages and stains aren’t necessarily trivial, they have their visceral counterparts. The allusions in ‘Cloudburst (Jerusalem)’ (2012) are more specific still: the rusty apparition of a dark cloud punctured by shafts of light was found in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, on an old bomb disposal vessel. It’s a simple but compelling visual and verbal image, hitting upon our distinctly human tendency to seek signs and visions of hope in a tarnished reality.
The closest Parker comes to imposing a narrative on an image is in ‘Prison Wall Abstract: A Man Escaped’ (2012 - 13), a photographed series of accidentally expressionistic marks made by workmen with white filler as they repaired the perimeter walls of Pentonville prison. We learn that the marks were promptly covered with magnolia paint, and that only a short while after that a prisoner scaled the walls to escape. It’s a bizarre story, pitching the notion of flight against repeated and organised attempts at containment - a struggle incompletely summed up in the restless urgency of the marks themselves. It’s also the only passage that specifically refers to actual people, in a show otherwise characterised by mute absence and stories untold.
Parker’s works communicate with a sort of evasive power that is more akin to poetry than prose. Minute and particular observation is put in the service of more abstract, expanded ideas or moods, and her imagery is selected and tightly controlled for its combined formal, emotive and symbolic impact. The artist weaves her allusions across the entire room: splashes of white filler on a prison wall echo spilt milk on a city street; oil trickles into cracks in the pavement to solidify on the gallery floor; everything is meticulously arranged but totally displaced, unsettled. Standing in mutely for lives and stories that have somehow fallen between the cracks, the exhibition is both seductive and sad; things had to be broken before any of these works could be made.
*‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ (1991)