Dicky tummy aside, Parker does enjoy her “nosh”, ordering more bread to mop up the sauces. Her roasted lamb rump with marinated red peppers and my grilled King George whiting with salmoriglio and lemon are accompanied by twice-cooked russet potatoes with garlic and rosemary and a green salad.
Parker has built an international reputation with her major installations and sculptures that juxtapose violent destruction with domestic objects such as silverware, jewellery and haberdashery items, as well as “feminine” activities such as craft and embroidery.
The exhibition of 40 works spans three decades and includes a visitor favourite from the Tate Gallery – Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). For this work, she stuffed an ordinary garden shed full of junk, had it blown up by the British Army and then reconfigured the mass of burnt wooden shards and destroyed objects.
There’s also Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988–89), consisting of 30 suspended pools of silverware collected by Parker from friends, car boot sales and charity shops, then flattened by a steamroller; and Subconscious of a Monument (2001–05) which displays thousands of dried lumps of earth excavated by engineers from under Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Her installation War Room (2015) utilises discarded strips of red paper from the Poppy Factory in Richmond, London. The exhibition also includes three works from her 2017 stint as the first female election artist for the UK’s general election including Thatcher’s Finger (2018), a shadow-play featuring a sculpture of the former prime minister.
A sewing circle of hardcore British prison inmates known as Fine Cell Work were central to Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015), a 12-metre piece of embroidery, hand-stitched by more than 200 people to recreate the charter’s Wikipedia entry on its 800th anniversary.
“They were brilliant stitchers but some of them had been inside so long they didn’t know about the internet,” she said. “We had to tell them Wikipedia was like a dictionary.”
Disconcertingly, she discovered her best embroiderer had bludgeoned someone to death with a baseball bat. In addition, a host of famous folk were assigned to stitch an appropriate word or phrase including whistleblowers Julian Assange (freedom) and Edward Snowden (liberty), musician Jarvis Cocker (common people) and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (users manual).
“I went to meet Julian Assange at the [Ecuadorean] embassy but he was so f–king egotistical it was a joke,” she said. “He was a real creep. He wanted to put a lipstick heart on the work. I said no. I was quite annoyed.” In contrast, Edward Snowden was “very sweet and nice. He sent a lovely note apologising that his sewing wasn’t very good.”
Parker grew up in a half-timbered cottage on a small holding in rural Cheshire. “It was almost like peasant farming,” she tells me. The middle of three daughters, Cornelia was her father’s surrogate son and bore the brunt of her father’s overbearing character.
“He was not very nice psychologically. It was all very disturbing. You never knew when he was going to get angry; you were on tenterhooks. He wouldn’t allow me to play because I was supposed to be helping. I fed the cows, I could milk them by hand, muck out the pigs, sweep the yard.
“If it wasn’t for him being a bully, I would have enjoyed it.”
The artist attributes her father’s behaviour to a bad childhood marred by Crohn’s disease. He was pampered by his mother and a victim of his own father, a former prisoner of war who was scarred from the battle of the Somme.
“My grandfather was a real character, funny and entertaining and I liked him being around. But I think he had been responsible for bullying my father. They came from a grim background.”
Although he ruled the roost, Parker’s father could be incredibly pleasant and was well liked outside the family home. “He had a great sense of humour.” While he thought studying art was a waste of time – “he wanted me to leave school at 16 and work in a factory” – he made quite an impression at one of Parker’s shows when he turned up a flat cap and, anonymously, quizzed exhibition-goers about what they thought of the work. “He was in his element.”
It was all very disturbing. You never knew when he was going to get angry; you were on tenterhooks.
Cornelia Parker on her father
In contrast, Parker’s mother encouraged her daughters to study. She was German, had been a young nurse in World War II and then an Allied prisoner of war. “They needed her to nurse the guys.”
She was working for the estate office for the Duchy of Lancaster, saving to go to Canada, when she met Parker’s father, who had worked on the land through the war and, although in his early 30s, was still living at home. “He hadn’t had much time to meet women. She was a rare sighting.” At school, her German first name drew negative attention. “My sisters were called Jennifer and Alison so they were never bullied.”
Parker’s mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia exacerbated by “her war experience, menopause, marrying my father … the way she behaved to us girls was like jealousy. We took attention away from her. She just disappeared into mental illness so that was sad.”
Both parents died within seven weeks of each other in 2007, “which was quite tough”.
So does her predilection for exploding and destroying objects have its roots in her damaged childhood? “I know psychoanalysts could have a field day,” she said. “My father was dreadful and he was not containable. Blowing up a shed or steamrolling silver is.”
A self-confessed maverick, Parker also concedes she enjoys working with “authoritarian figures. I was used to my father so it’s very good.”
As well as the military, her technical collaborators have included police, engineers, gun manufacturers and explosives experts and manufacturers. She once toyed with consulting the IRA for their expertise, “but, bing bing, I went for the British Army as it was a little easier than terrorists.”
Her works are part of an ongoing continuum, which also draw on cartoon and movie tropes of her childhood – Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick violence and the Roadrunner where his nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, is forever being flattened by a steamroller or pursued off a cliff.
“I was very attracted by that,” she laughs as our main courses arrive. “No one gets hurt in my explosions. It is a controlled thing. I think violence is around us all the time – in real life, in film, in TV – and perhaps my fascination with it is because it is around us all the time. In a way it’s fictional, in a way I am trying to make it real.”
It is clear that Parker’s brain buzzes with bright ideas. Luck and opportunity are grabbed with enthusiasm. Visiting Hartford in the US, she noted the Colt factory was in town and wangled an invite which resulted in her work Embryo Firearm (1995) and inspired her to shoot a string of pearls into a man’s suit, piercing the fabric with their terminal velocity.
At a dinner, she sat next to the owner of an explosives factory. “I really wanted to do something with Semtex,” she said. “Did you know they make it in different colours? It’s actually benign until you put an electrical charge through it so I had an idea! I was going to get schoolchildren – oh God! – to model it like plasticine.
“Then we would present it to say something about their naivety and their innocence that would ring true as in so many countries children are victims of explosives … but it didn’t go ahead. Something happened. Maybe it was 9/11.”
This show has offered some peculiar challenges for the MCA. Several items from in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View were forbidden entry to Australia including a toy donkey with its stomach hanging out as its skin was suspected to have originated from an endangered species. The gallery had to apply for a gun licence to display certain works and also applied to the relevant authorities for a pile of incinerated cocaine for her piece Exhale Cocaine, which has been shown in the UK and Peru.
“When cocaine has been seized by Customs and Excise and incinerated it just becomes a powder,” she said. “A waste product. In Lima they gave me an enormous pile, signed off by the president. It looks quite nice but I couldn’t take it out of the country.”
A week after our lunch, I learn that her request for incinerated cocaine has been declined, although the waste soil excavated from beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa to stop further subsidence has been allowed into Australia.
“I met the engineers a few years before; they were going to suck out a wadge of earth but I had to wait for it.” Pregnant with her daughter, Lily (now 20), when the excavation finally happened, she found her truckload of soil was completely wet at first “so I got children to make creatures they thought they would find under the tower”.
Parker is currently working on a new show. “All my work is part of a continuum,” she said. “I have lots of conversations and then ideas emerge. I think ‘if I do this, this might happen’. A lot of my work is about hunches. A good idea will stick around and I will worry away at it.”
She looks up from her lamb for a minute. “This is lovely.”
Cornelia Parker will be at the MCA until Febuary 16. The artist will be in conversation on Saturday at the MCA at 1.30pm with chief curator Rachel Kent.
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Shona Martyn is Spectrum Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald