Cornelia Parker has generated many profound ideas by displaying objects damaged by stress and fragmentation. An exploded shed, scorched maps, smashed lightbulbs and squashed silverware all evoke the transitory nature of material existence and the destructive forces that fascinate and appal us. Her latest videos showing at Frith Street Gallery until the 21st June, are highly nuanced works that highlight human frailty and further enhance her reputation as a subtle political commentator, an excellent choice for the UK Election Artist.
War Machine, 2015 takes a hackneyed trope of video art, a mechanised production line, and imbues it with an intense emotional weight. Filmed at the factory that brings the paper and plastic material together to form the red poppies that we wear to commemorate the war dead, the absence of human life focuses our attention on the metaphorical load of the processing plant. The poppies become avatars for the fallen dead. Ejected down chutes into boxes they form piles as in a mass grave. Her master stroke is to stop the machinery and splice in the two-minute silence at the Cenotaph heralded by a muted cannon. We stare into a well of black plastic buttons that will form the poppy’s central motif and are impelled to consider our mortality. A gentle shift of sunlight and the black buttons glint back at us. Powerful stuff. It ends with shots of the cavernous warehouse where thousands of boxes of poppies are stored until November. The image forces us to confront the scale of warfare’s slaughter, the banality of our response and our desperate attempts to contain the enormity of war’s moral failure.
This short film bears comparison to a much more famous conceptual artwork. Huge crowds flocked to the Tower of London in 2014 to see an installation of a vast blanket of ceramic poppies one for each dead UK combatant. My objection to this piece was the implicit nationalism of only counting UK fallen as worthy of commemoration. Parker’s film elevates the red poppy to a more universal archetype and warns of its simplistic overuse as a symbol of national identity.
American Gothic, 2017 a four channel looped video installation shot on iPhone focusses on a Trump campaign rally and the street Halloween celebrations in New York in October 2016. There is much anxiety and anger on display and her forensic eye exposes the ambivalent feelings inherent in public demonstrations of group identity. Both enthusiastic role play and aversion to attention were both evident to me. To the Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones, who only gave this exhibition a miserable two stars it was a simplistic portrayal of Americans as “morons”. What did he miss?
Well, he clearly did not notice Parker astutely foregrounding the contradictions in the identity politics of the American election through the placards identifying the different group affiliation of the supporters. Although the Blacks for Trump, Women for Trump, and Hispanics for Trump groups all appeared vociferous, the lonely guy holding the Jews for Trump placard looked shy and uneasy by his exposure in the public arena. This contrasting response was also seen in her extended tracking shot as she walked along the line of Halloween revellers waiting to enter a clubnight. Some acted up to the camera, others ignored it. Some had costumed up, others wore sweatshirts. Some were behaving outrageously, others looked on in embarrassment.
Made in Bethlehem, 2012 is shot in the cramped workshop where thorny spiked twigs are fashioned by hand into the Jerusalem tourist staple of a “crown of thorns.” Muhammed Hussein Ba-our and his son are interviewed as they deftly work the unwieldy raw material. The lack of space means that the finished articles are amassed in a vertiginous pile that dwarfs them. The irony of a Muslim craftsman’s life long vocation to the manufacture of Christian icons goes unremarked. His comments that the thorns do not hurt him as his hands have hardened over time seem like a grim metaphor for the long Palestinian struggle for nationhood.
Identity politics theory needs to incorporate the often ambivalent attitudes we feel towards the groups we identify with. Our public alliegances and our true feelings will often be at odds and so the homogeneity of groups will always be overestimated. A member of the Trump campaign may feel they do not really belong to it. The work we do to survive may not reflect our values. The red poppy may tell us nothing about the wearers’ attitude to nationalism or militarism.