Cornelia Parker and the Untimeliness of Waste

A version of this text was presented at “L’art Intempestif/Untimely Art”, held at the Institut du monde anglophone, Université de Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, 9–10 September 2010.

It has become, in recent years, quite common to equate concepts of waste with ideas of dirt, disgust or contagion. Following the work of Mary Douglas (1966), studies across the humanities and social sciences have taken for granted that ‘filth’ and ‘abjection’ provide a necessary condition for waste. Objects of waste, then, stand in opposition to all that is clean, hygienic or orderly. Of course, it is quite easy to think of situations in which we discard something without disgust or recourse to notions of dirt and abjection; objects that are considered technologically, architecturally or informationally obsolete, for instance, are frequently discarded without reference to the idea of dirt, disgust or repulsion. In what follows, I propose, instead, quite a different approach to the subject of waste that stresses the temporal problems that things of waste present. We contrast times of waste with the way in which use brings things into a contemporary and complicit time, made timely by our projects, our plans and our activities. Use makes objects projective in this way, throwing things towards a functioning future. Waste, on the other hand, describes objects that are no longer commensurable with our action. Objects of waste are therefore things that are no longer felt to be our temporal co-dependents. Cut adrift from the teleology of use, the time of waste is untimely, marked by a sense of temporal dislocation.

There are a number of reasons why I have chosen the work of the British artist Cornelia Parker to discuss the relationship between art, waste and temporality. The first reason is a matter of convenience – her work is full of waste things, stuff that has been discarded or is undergoing a process of disposal. The second reason is more specific to Parker’s method of interrogating things and the meanings that pre-exist her interaction with them. Her work demonstrates how these meanings can undergo change, transformation and translation. Her best known works, Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988–89), Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), Mass: Colder Darker Matter (1997), Avoided Object (1995), and The Negative of Words (1996), operate in a diffuse chorus to reassess how meaning becomes attached to and validated by material; explicating how these attachments can become located, detached and reconfigured. Parker does not so much create as recreate things, taking what pre-exists and manipulating this condition of pre-existence in order to query the time we distribute to things.

One of the temporal effects most commonly associated with Parker’s work is the relationship between object and action. This temporal effect is particularly evident in works where Parker includes, manufactures or engages with objects of waste, with things in which the problematic distinctions between use and non-use, the active and the dormant, the telling and the unintelligible motivate our critical engagement.

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

We begin with an explosion; a common garden shed exploded into hundreds of shards, fragments, particles. And, after this explosion, there follows a careful process of arrangement where each fragment is attached to wire and suspended within a gallery space. The shards are gathered around a single light bulb that has been found intact among the debris that the explosion has left in its wake. The creation of Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is a choreographic, almost photographic act, an assisted readymade that speaks of an event by which waste has been created – a waste, a remnant, a remainder of action caught in an unreal time that is neither fabricated nor factual, present nor absent. These objects have been retained and displayed to unfold this weird and wired tableau that, despite its apparent inertia, demands that we follow the course of things through a process of creative destruction. On the gallery wall a small piece of text tells us that Parker had taken a garden shed to the British army and, with the help of some explosives, dispensed with this rather diminutive yet functional piece of garden architecture.  The work’s subtitle, ‘An Exploded View’, helps us to trace the relationship between the artwork that is suspended before us and the creative work of destruction that the art required.  It is a work that seems to make exigent certain conceptual and temporal problems, particularly about the condition of ‘found’ materials and the temporal baggage they might carry. We are asked to juxtapose the rich artifice of Parker’s ‘exploded view’ with the explosion that has been instrumental in its making; each ‘explosion’ needs the other to be known, and yet we come to know both through these lowly and disreputable objects, through objects that come to be by having been.  In rendering the garden shed a porous yet tantalisingly opaque spectacle, our ‘view’ of the shed (both visually and conceptually) is exploded. Parker brings an assembly of objects and suspends them as if they were in flight, as if have they have been and are on their way to a temporal and spatial ‘elsewhere’. Throughout the course of this paper I’d like to argue that it is, in part, a particular quality of waste that gives this elsewhere an ambivalent presence. As objects that signal absent times, we identify things of waste precisely because they no longer do what they once did. I argue that Parker puts this quality of waste to work, showing that waste is not just ‘matter out of place’ (c.f. Mary Douglas) but matter that originates from a multitude of times and places. It is this sense of dispersal that Parker utilises, petrifies and makes mobile.

Although Cornelia Parker assembles her extinct shed into something that looks nothing like a healthy shed full of tools and old bits of rope, Cold Dark Matter is, nonetheless, an enclosure made of tools and old bits of rope. What kind of relationship has been established between shed and ex-shed? Jonathan Watkins has argued that, “by blowing up the shed Parker is taking away such a place, throwing doubt on all that it represents. Its contents are revealed, damaged in the process and yet somehow more eloquent” (Watkins, 1996: 30). For Watkins, the shed’s destruction performs a kind of exorcism, removing both the location of the shed’s meaning and its referential stability.  By erasing the shed’s reclusive, secluded and domestic qualities its conceptual fidelity comes under scrutiny. Parker has said that her work aims to take the clichéd beliefs that objects transport and, by unmaking and refashioning these objects, tries to reconfigure the ideas that are associated with them:

“I like the idea of the material already being loaded, or clichéd. By trying to unpick or dismantle something and remake it, somehow the perimeters get changed. What I’m trying to do is to take very clichéd monumental things, things that everybody knows what they are (or think you know what they are) and then trying to find a flip side to it or the unconscious of it” (Parker, 2000: 24).

Here we might recognise the ecstatic echoes of Heidegger’s notion of the broken tool: the failure of equipment produces a before and an after, a moment that brings to light all that was secret and hidden (1962: 98). But this shed has not failed in the Heideggerian sense; it was knowingly destroyed. Neither are the fragments of the shed taken up for repair or merely discarded as useless. Parker has taken the clichéd time of the shed – as a store of things, a retreat, a place of quiet seclusion – and, through the mediating function of its remains, strung this time up for examination. In what sense has the shed or its contents been removed? Clearly, the remains succeed in making the shed or the trace of the shed visible, but visible in a way that is felt to be somewhat divorced from the time of its ‘materiality’, to a time when it was for something. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the shed and the times and places it evokes have not vanished, but have become visible in a new way: suspended, caught in time.

If “the piece evolves out of the ambiguity of the material” (2000: 24), as Parker once observed, then from this evolutionary process we might narrate the effects of this ambiguity. In presenting these ambiguous and suspended things, Parker affects a lithe and fragile collage of associations between different events, times and places. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View mediates these events, times and places, issuing us a challenge to reconcile its temporal and spatial locations. Intensifying this challenge is what I term the ‘exigency of waste’, Cold Dark Matter behaves like a red rag to our reconstructive compulsions which have us reconstitute, explain and relocate what a particular waste object is, or was or yet might be.  The narrative exigency of Parker’s work is therefore an effect of the temporal problems we encounter with the material she employs. This emphasis on narrative responses shouldn’t give cause for critical abandon or blind, ‘anything goes’ subjectivism; quite the opposite is the case. Parker’s deliberate gesture of making, unmaking and remaking anew, precludes any sense of absolute plurality. Waste itself establishes estranged relationships within an object, a temporal break between an object’s use and non-use. This process of estrangement neither erases an object’s meaning nor does it make it more meaningful; it simply makes the task of narrating the biography those things a much more risky and compelling task.

Cornelia Parker, Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997)

In 1997 Parker was working as artist in residence at ArtPace, San Antonio, Texas. She heard that a small church had been struck by lightning and had burnt to the ground. Having gained permission to collect the charred remains, she arranged and displayed the fragments on wire, densely grouped towards the centre and more sparsely distributed towards its periphery. The results had so much in common with her earlier work that she saw fit to make the connection linguistically explicit, naming it Mass (Colder Darker Matter). The difference between this and her earlier work is that the objects that Parker has collected, suspended and displayed to an audience, create a kind of narrative ellipsis or aporia. Whereas in Cold Dark Matter many of the shed’s fragments were recognisable things from a shed, making immediate our narrative transition between shed and ex-shed, time of use and time of waste, the charred remains of the Texan church are less readily apprehended. This obscurity arises, among other things, through the difficulty of locating an event from which the work arose, a reliable narrative source.

“You can’t really tell it’s a church unless you read the label”, Parker observes, “I was reconstituting it. It’s now abstract” (2000: 58). The work is certainly more ‘abstract’ in the sense that our flights of interpretation seem to depend less on familiar ‘useful’ forms as they did in Cold Dark Matter, but, again, Parker is careful to provide a description that locates her source material. The label reads: “Mass (Colder Darker Matter), 1997 / Charcoal retrieved from a church struck by lightening / With thanks to the Baptist Church of Lytle, Texas”. Parker has deliberately assuaged the bafflement of her audience and directed us towards the disjuncture felt between the time of use and the time of waste. Her gratitude to the “Baptist Church of Lytle, Texas” simply underpins the dispersed geography of the work, as well as highlighting the humorous and ambivalent role that the church has played in the work’s composition. With the agency and identity of church and ex-church held in a rich state of temporal suspension, as it was with the shed of Cold Dark Matter, we begin to see how divergent times and places might hang together.

I’d like to suggest that one of the elements that prevents Parker’s work from becoming a pure abstraction, from falling beyond the reach of any sensible or determinate assessment, is the temporal structure drawn between the event that has destroyed the church and the presentation of its charred fragments. The pre-existing meanings of things and the events in which these objects participate provide Parker’s work its narrative energy: “The work really makes itself; you are just rearranging the materials” (ibid). Although it might be tempting to dismiss this comment as false modesty, we should take seriously the claim that her manipulation of waste renders her work in some way autopoietic, generating work that “makes itself”. The invocation of an event of waste, the moment where use has ceased and waste has come into being, can be seen as one way to think through this issue of autopoiesis and the self-generating and autonomous actualisation of an artwork. Mass makes itself because it takes the way in which time is organised around the use and non-use of things as an arbitrary point of narrative departure, it takes the relation between ‘church’ and ‘charcoal’ as a temporal arrangement ready for rearranging.

The last work we’ll consider, Heart of Darkness (2004), is more recent. But, by playing out the powerful marriage between objects, time, and narrative that we have pursued so far, this work reveals itself to be no more or less contemporary than Parker’s other works. It provides a useful conclusion to this paper because it emphasises an aspect of waste that has so far been obscured: repetition. Parker’s repeated use of waste objects in her sculpture insists that waste (and our responses to it) is not rare. Whilst waste always occurs within singular circumstances, the temporal inscription that seems to characterise a thing of waste, the divorce between its working ‘life’ and its ‘living death’, makes the labour of narrating waste much more common than it might at first appear. When we speak of waste we must automatically become time-travelling elegists that navigate the past in order to make sense of the now. Indeed, old shoes in the street or an abandoned ruin mean little without this ability to respond to a time that is both present and absent, cindered and supplemented. In Heart of Darkness, Parker employs a formula that should now be familiar to us, stringing up objects that have spent their existence in one time and yet seem capable of making a noisy demonstration of their non-use, re-use and reassembly.

Cornelia Parker, Heart of Darkness (2004)

The gallery description of this work, along with the title’s invocation of Conrad’s novel, sets our attention upon a particular tack. We are told that the Florida Forestry Division was ‘managing’ a woodland area by burning back what was adjudged overgrown, but the fire got out of control and quickly spread, burning large areas of woodland. As in Mass, Parker collects the remains of this event and arranges them in a cube, suspending the fragments on wire. Again, the human and the non-human are tragically interconnected; any attempt to apportion blame, to designate whose ‘heart’ has been darkened or where this heart is said to reside is rendered problematic by a work composed of a multitude of actors, times and places, all of which, through charred remains, are related to one another in subtly different ways. What does become clear is that the gesture of taking these remnants, and stringing them up in order to make those objects speak in new and peculiar ways, must traverse and enact the problem of their manufacture. To interpret Parker’s work is to already engage with how objects carry, mould and are given time through the cessation of their use and functionality. One must, then, respond to the contingent and incomplete termination that waste objects can suggest; these are things neither dead nor alive but perpetuating a spectral and untimely afterlife. Their employment within sculpture is necessarily the result of their redundancy elsewhere, in a time and place that is also felt to be actively redundant. These things neither become useless, nor do they take back the use they once enjoyed, they remain uncanny remnants.

Through the work of Cornelia Parker, I hope I’ve been able to propose a new vocabulary for speaking about artworks that include, manufacture or engage with objects of waste, as relevant to the work of Cornelia Parker as it might be to Duchamp, Tinguely, Schwitters, Beuys, and so on. We should question how a work of art can be made timely or, indeed, untimely by using stuff that has been exhausted, discontinued and cast aside. I think we could generalise here and call objects of waste, and the sculptural works that employs this material, ‘multitemporal things’: stuff that does not seem to belong to any particular time but is the sum of many different and diverging periods. These are not objects with a clear or uniform tense; they are, instead, those things that feel as if past, present and future have tumbled together. It is through this temporal conflict between passing and persisting, transience and endurance, cessation and survival that makes the relationship between art and waste one that is so rich with generative potential. This is untimely art but not through any intrinsic, counter-temporal or atemporal quality of art itself, but an untimeliness that originates out of the type of matter that Parker has puts to work.

Works Cited.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. 1966; London: Routledge, 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Being in Time. Trans John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Morgan, Jessica. ‘Matter and What it Means’ in Cornelia Parker: Second Edition. Ed. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Boston: Art Data, 2000. 11–44.

Parker, Cornelia. ‘Cornelia Parker interviewed by Bruce Ferguson’ in Cornelia Parker: Second Edition. Ed. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Boston: Art Data, 2000. 45–65.

Watkins, Jonathan. ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ in Avoided Object. Ed. Stuart Cameron Cardiff: Chapter, 1996. 25–38.