By virtue of their unstinting permanence, monuments and institutions court destruction. Perhaps that is why a bolt of lightning struck a Baptist church in Lytle, Texas and burned it to the ground. This event interested visiting British artist Cornelia Parker, so she headed out to the church to see what she might find.
In her work, Parker performs sensitive, yet decisive surgery on targets so often ridiculed or raged against: the monument or the museum, the church, the institution of marriage—virtuous, dead, lumpen things with explanatory texts attached to them. These are the institutions which so often leave us no room to breathe—which, in fact, do not themselves breathe. And breath is what allows our bodies to be other than a corpse: to pump, to move, to grow. “Monuments,” Parker says delicately and correctly, are “difficult to digest.” Even as we live and breathe, we drag around the corpses of our culture. If only these things were as magical as they ought to be. If only they could come to life—not in the form of IMAX movies, but as the powerful, mythic presence they are meant to be. Perhaps then they would be digestible as well, and we could possess culture, religion, even government as a true part of our civic selves instead of lugging them about in huge decorous parcels.
Though monuments are good targets, neither ridicule nor rage can be counted among Parker’s strategies. Rather, she focuses on resuscitation, on leavening the institution with a delicate charm. The real test of life is breath—the perfect cycle of inhale and exhale, with tiny little deaths on either end. Parker finds the breath of things and removes whatever obstructs it. The Baptists believed their church was destroyed, dead. But to Parker, it had simply paused. Similarly, in Exhaled Schoolhouse, when Parker found a British schoolhouse choking on chalkdust, she performed an “exhalation” by patterning the chalk dust all over the outside of the building.
Just as the Big Bang was a creative event, Parker’s “exploded” works provide the viewer with a new way to experience an object through destruction. In Thirty Pieces of Silver, Parker steamrollered hundreds of pieces of silver, trophies and vases and trays purchased from car boot sales in London. Suspended in the shape of disks, these heavy heirlooms became lighter than air, shimmering pools of gorgeous reflection. In Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, Parker persuaded an army school corps to assist her in blowing up a garden shed full of everyday items, which she then collected and displayed. Similarly, here in an empty gallery, Parker envisioned chunks of charred wood from a burned Texas church rising again as an ordered cube, like still atoms filling a much larger Mass (the double-entendre’d name of the piece). With all the grace of a Calder mobile, this basic formal element, which connotes pure art and geometry, is suspended rather than hung—this is an important distinction. To be suspended is to be immaterial, like breath. To be hung is to die by your own weight.
An institution can be too pristine, and thus exist outside of life. Evidence of time, of a real world, betrays the cracks in the facade, and while that may be anathema to the preservationist or the historian, Cornelia Parker will seek out such a crack and offer it as a doorway into the monument. If, in days of yore, a hero was someone who could fight the enemy, in modern times a hero might be one who can navigate institutions for the rest of us, one who can go behind the lines. At the Alamo, that morgue of invented history, Parker convinced the Daughters of the Texas Revolution to let her polish Samuel Colt’s silver. The resulting tarnish became a “drawing” on her white handkerchief, a powdery admission of life and change. Likewise, the projected shadow of a tiny spider she found in Mark Twain’s house becomes a drawing—a tiny mandala of legs with a heavy center—of how individuals live and die within history.
It is true that Parker’s actions are destructive, even violent: steamrollering, exploding, dismantling. But this destruction is also a conversion. Take her wedding rings, for example. The ring is a closed symbol that yokes two together with a fair measure of finality. Yet Parker draws the metal of the ring out into a thin wire, stretching it to the perimeter of a living room, the site of domestic tranquility and war. The wire then, coiled and sandwiched between glass, elegantly traces the looping criss-crosses of a marriage path. The point of all this is to bring the institution back to life, to usher us through the little cracks in the facade to find our own place within, a place that is heavy with beauty rather than compromise.
Of course, one can see Mass as effigy as well as elegy. There is no more pulpit, no more pews, even the Bible of the church was blackened by the ironic wrath of God. Why is God angry? Because the church has allowed itself to die or because the life-breath has been sucked out or what? Yet in Parker’s cube, the larger charred pieces are clustered in the center of the cube, the little ones toward the perimeter. There is an implied (but not embodied) center, a core of impetus from which the little Big Bang emanates; divinity, science and the void all are present in the evidence. And the mass of the church floats like a miracle, rising in somber, ethereal beauty—simultaneously everything it once was, but far more pure.
Shaila Dewan is a writer and art critic in Houston, TX.