Cornelia Parker’s sculptures and installations have often captured the transformation of common matter in ways that blend physics and metaphysics (or at least the human desire to find metaphysical meanings). She is perhaps best known for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), in which she suspended the shattered remains of a garden shed midair, having first commissioned the British Army to blow it up. Working with Peter Kosowicz at Thumbprint Editions this past year, Parker revisited two earlier sculptural subjects, now considered as light traces over time in photogram-photogravures.
In her 1988–89 installation, Thirty Pieces of Silver, Parker flattened hundreds of found silver objects—from trophies to trombones—with a steamroller, then suspended them in tidy circular groupings that float just above the floor. Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed) takes as its starting point a set of large glass negatives, taken for a Spink silver auction in the 1960s, that Parker had found some twenty years ago—pre-flattened silver candlesticks, baskets, sugar bowls. Treating the negatives in their glassine sleeves as objects rather than as pictures, Parker exposed them as direct positives, which means the negatives stayed negative. Gleaming silver is rendered as matte darkness and where the glassine is crumpled or the glass has cracked, the photogravure image is slashed by shadowy shards and black webs.
One Day This Glass Will Break borrows its title from Parker’s 1997 tottering tower of lowballs on which those words were etched, one per glass. At Thumbprint, Parker arranged a variety of glassware—some broken, some whole—on the plates, as well as liquids in different states of matter. On one, a jug of ice was laid on its side and the cubes spilled out; the exposures were long enough and the lights bright enough that the plate recorded the melt. Condensed into one moment in the image, the gentle action of melting appears as an explosion, a reminder that destructiveness is a question of speed. “I wanted to do something in printmaking,” Parker said, “that wasn’t achievable in any other medium. Like capturing ice melting on a plate.”
One of the things that is so moving today about early cyanotypes—particularly Anna Atkins’s British Algae—is their modesty in the face of nature. Atkins was trying to record what is rather than suggest what should be. Parker’s portfolios, for all their artifice, have something of this quality. Silver and crystal are partyware—manmade celebratory artifacts (one could say the same of ice cubes). Parker has rendered these things strange and elegiac by setting them down and letting them be, physical objects in a physical universe, with and without us.