this issue contains
>> Portrait Cornelia Parker
>> Gerard Byrne: The world is a stage
>> Annelies Strba: Idyllic Worlds
>> Interview: Yehudit Sasportas

>> archive

At the still point of the turning world:
Cornelia Parker’s Abysmal Transformations

Her installations and photo works are hyper-aesthetic, sometimes idyllic shots that address both cultural and historical violence. Cornelia Parker employs scientific exactitude to explode huts and churches or flatten silverware with a steamroller. The photographs of her series Avoided Object portray peacefully drifting clouds. In reality, however, these pictures were taken with the camera of a Nazi mass murderer. Louise Gray met the London-based artist.

Avoided Object, 1999, © Cornelia Parker / Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London,
Deutsche Bank Collection

When you can’t look down, when life on earth is too awful to comprehend, where do you direct your gaze? When making the photographs that were to become Avoided Object (1999), the British conceptualist Cornelia Parker knew there was only one answer: up. And so it was to the sky that she directed her gaze – or the eye of the camera. The pictures – shot with infrared film to darken the darks and whiten the whites – show an ordinary blustery day in London.

Look carefully at the heightened contrasts of the monochrome: there is black, there’s white, there are shades of grey. If the photographs had been a video, the colors would have swirled into one another, leaking across a series of porous boundaries, rather like an osmotic process. And it’s this bleed, this neither-one-thing-nor-anotherness that Parker is interested in. “For me, art is friction,” she says, and in her work, this friction creates a constant to and fro, a motion between polarities. But whatever else her art is, it is also materialized truth – that no thing or motive in this world is ever simply black or white.

Avoided Object, 1999, © Cornelia Parker / Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London
Deutsche Bank Collection

To express this motion so necessary for her work, Parker has often borrowed or transmuted items into something else. But in making Avoided Object, Parker was to use possibly the most loaded object of her career. The camera that took the photos for Avoided Object had belonged to Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz between 1940-43 and one of the main perpetrators of the Nazis’ Final Solution. What would Höss, a man responsible for deaths in the millions, have photographed? This SS officer, who described himself as a loving family man in a testament written prior to his execution, was the epitome of what philosopher Hannah Arendt later described as "the banality of evil." And yet, in his professional life (if one can use such a term), he was a proud and inventive mass murderer. One of his ideas was the introduction of the Zyklon B gas that facilitated Auschwitz’s inhuman efficiency.

Cornelia Parker and Tilda Swinton, The Maybe (Detail), 1995,
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

Parker had originally, she explains, wanted to photograph the interior of the camera – its dark chamber – but when this proved too difficult, she took the instrument out of London’s Imperial War Museum, where it now resides, and turned it towards the sky instead. She recalls her reaction to handling the camera. "Having this object in my hands made me feel…" – she’s still lost for words and makes a noise that expresses a shudder of horror. "The camera is not evil, because an object can’t be evil, but I didn’t want its history to become inert. By using it myself, it was a way of reactivating the object and taking it forward in a different way." Parker had originally sought out the camera for use in The Maybe, the famous installation she and the actor Tilda Swinton – who appeared sleeping in a glass casket in the middle of the Serpentine venue – collaborated on in 1995.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991,
Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London

In the event, she never got to use Höss’ camera for The Maybe at all. The Serpentine Gallery’s staff lobbied against its inclusion, and Parker replaced it with that of Lee Miller, the American photojournalist (and Surrealist muse) who had been present at the liberation of other concentration camps – Dachau and Buchenwald – in 1945. "Miller’s camera had photographed Dachau and Vogue models – both ends of a spectrum, you might say," says Parker, indicating that this was her way around the Höss conundrum.

Political Abstract, 1999,
© Cornelia Parker / Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London,
Deutsche Bank Collection

But why use Höss’ camera? "A lot of my work is about destruction and resurrection," Parker says, adding that there is also a component in this particular work that carries enormous personal resonance. Parker herself is half-German (her mother, from Karlsruhe, was a nurse in the Second World War and subsequently a prisoner of war before moving to Britain and marrying), and she grew up in England’s Cheshire countryside with an acute and uneasy relationship to that recent past. In exposing Höss’ camera to a benign sky, was there an idea of some homeopathic principle: that the light of the photographs might triumph over the dark and so exorcise an idea of evil. "I like that term a lot," Parker answers, "the homeopathic premise of treating sick persons with extremely diluted agents that – in undiluted doses – are deemed to produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual. The idea to add a dilution of poison so as to negate it is interesting to me."

[1] [2]