Cornelia Parker: Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

Whitworth Gallery, Manchester
Till 1st November 2015

Reviewed by Ashley McGovern

Wikipedia is a dangerous website to reference. Most articles are likely to be false, badly written or vandalised by surreal humour. Eric Hill’s literary reputation was questioned, only for a short while, when one witty contributor thought that his successful Spot the Dog series, with its child-friendly sparse prose style, was in fact the late work of Ernest Hemingway, clearly seen in the great modernist’s unmistakeable macho-minimalist style: “Where’s Spot? Is he under the stairs? Is he in the box? No. He’s at the bar: Sipping whiskey. Sucking on cigarettes. Suffering.” This has since been removed and is just one example of the editorial battle that rages everyday between genuine researchers and sly humourists on one of the world’s most searched websites.

On display at Manchester’s beautifully renovated Whitworth gallery is Cornelia Parker’s attempt to tackle the instability of such a phenomenon. She has assembled a tapestry that reproduces the Magna Carta’s wikipage word for word, emblem for emblem, as it was for a brief second on 14 June 2014 - 06:45 to be exact, as the stitched digits inform us – to tie in with the 800th anniversary of the iconic legal charter. She then divided the printout into 87 sections and sent out slices of cloth to people from a wide spectrum of class, status and fame, including MP’s, judges, celebrities, children, academics, civil rights activists and prisoners – the Royals refused. Most of the hard graft was done by nearly forty prisoners working for the Fine Work Cell, which trains and pays inmates to work on their sewing skills, and the impressive expertise of the Embroidery Guild. Each hyperlink, bibliographic footnote, handy translation button and Wikiquote soundbite is rendered with skill. On top of all the webpage paraphernalia, the Embroidery Guild has also copied all the miniature illustrations, like the grisaille from Cassell’s History of England and the flat icon of red-robed Pope Innocent III.

She has, supposedly, united all the classes of this country in a sewing bee, an art and crafts togetherness that joins lawmaker and lawbreaker in one project. Every time a word is repeated by an individual sewer the meaning changes, of course, for the word “freedom” means something entirely different to Julian Assange as it does to a petty thief. The iteration sounds profound but it’s just a third-rate conceit. The points are too obvious. The tapestry is supposed to be some silken De Profundis, expressing the angst of prisoners and political exiles as well as ironically freezing the most rampantly fluid of internet sites. One of the very few points of interest in the whole piece is the thought that Parker’s insistence on working with Fine Cell Work means that she may have introduced medieval Latin into prison slang - ‘Oi! Magna Carta! = Oi! Fire starter!’ - which would be a more interesting social process that this overblown fact-based dishcloth.

Cornelia Parker studied at Wolverhampton Polytechnic (1975-8) and then Reading University (1980-2) and has pursued a varied career of dabbling in installation work, sculpture, photography and graphic art. Most of her work foregrounds a silly and unexciting conceptualism, obsessed with transforming objects into parodies of their original form. To create Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), she blew up a garden shed, with the help of the British Army, and then dangled the smithereens of cladding from the gallery ceiling, where the pieces clustered around a single light bulb that sprayed the shadows of blown-up planks across the room. A profound installation about thermodynamic chaos and the explosive potential of humdrum life? In a way, I suppose this is a type of Higgs Boson – if Higgs Boson is the name of a middle-England bumpkin subject to laughable gardening accidents.

Parker enjoys tampering with existing materials. Neglected objects from history, the forgotten marginalia and fingernalia of dead famous people, are of particular interest to her. She once had Tilda Swinton nap in a glass vitrine while surrounded by historical odds and ends like Sigmund Freud’s blanket and Queen Victoria’s stockings, all of which was supposed to communicate “the potential of materials”. Even Rodin’s The Kiss was wrapped in a mile of string, obscuring large parts of the marble make-out, to make some point about desire or something. In Pornographic Drawings (1997) she drew Rorschach blots using ink made from melted down tapes of confiscated porn. What can we see here? Is that a bat with a caterpillar’s body, erm could be, or could those splodges be a Scarab-man with five ears? No. It’s tedious conceptualism.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) wears its obvious political connotations (contemporary meanings of ‘freedom’, class boundaries) as heavily as the sludgy wax stamp that obscures the bottom of one the surviving original copies. The fault with the ‘clever’ nature of this piece is that it doesn’t engage with any of the political processes of the internet itself. With superfast broadband, unlimited access to news and, on the darker side of the coin, the shady snooping by the NSA and GCHQ, many other artists have embraced the uncontrolled nature of the internet.

The Solomon Guggenheim museum has an interesting department of Internet Art curated by John Ippolito. Among its collection is John F Simonds Jr’s computerised series of opening pages that unfold like a splayed cardboard box according to the patterns of internet searches at that moment. The first internet art piece bought by the museum was Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon (1996). Ostensibly about the rape and murder of a transgender man in 1993, the piece was itself a website that combined photographs of body parts with words from chatrooms and academic papers about the subject.

Most relevant to Parker’s tablecloth is Scott Kildall’s and Nathaniel Stern’s Wikipedia Art project. At 12pm on February 14th 2009 an article called ‘Wikipedia Art’ was added to the encyclopaedic site and within minutes people had begun to cite and debate the content. Angry at the flouting of its standards, Wikipedia marked the piece as “AfD” (Article for Deletion) an hour later, which in turn sparked around fifteen hours of debate before the entry was finally deleted. Kildall’s self-creating text was erased from public access because it messed with the authority that Wikipedia likes to maintain, despite the fact that users of the site enjoyed and devoured the original article.

This type of internet art, like hacking and rogue leaking websites, is a cyber-game with authority were censorship becomes part of the pleasure. Parker’s Blagna Carta embroidery is just a British Library bore. Needle and thread in hand, Parker could maybe copy the Labour party constitution and stitch clause IV back on, or just teach weekly classes in Strangeways - anything except this stuff.

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