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Reading the Magna Carta

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Professor Catherine Harper unpicks acclaimed artist Cornelia Parker’s major embroidery installation

Cornelia Parker is an English sculptor and installation artist according to Wikipedia. A 1997 Turner Prize nominee, her pedigree is best illustrated by the Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View installation of 1991, a quintessentially English icon, the garden shed, exploded - without heat or sound - by the British Army, and then suspended so that the explosion appears frozen in time and, lit internally, casts shadows on the surrounding walls.  Although Parker has said that she “resurrect[s] things that have been killed off...” [2006], she does so with a compelling lack of heat: her work has a mesmerizing attraction that seems to suck out animation and replace it with petrification. Is her Magna Carta (An Embroidery) project just another appropriation of textile means and methods by someone outside its complex culture?

pope-emroidery-magna-carta-cornelia-parker-british-libraryThe 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the great but failed English peace treaty, tainted charter of protection and justice, and iconic but flawed doctrine of personal liberty, is on 15 June 2015. The four original versions of the Magna Carta that are in existence are of ink on vellum, sealed with beeswax and resin, the materials of the living natural world – the animal’s skin, the tree, the bee. So this commission by the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University, in partnership with the British Library, of Cornelia Parker to create a new artwork on the Magna Carta for exhibition at the latter and running until 24 July 2015, perplexed me.

In fact, what Parker did is go to a different textual icon to that of the original, and in cerebral style she accessed the Magna Carta Wikipedia page on the 799th anniversary of the original, using that contemporary multiple and digital provider of contemporary contingent ‘truths’ to design the new work. This concept conjures and juggles with an idea of authenticity and origin.

Just as there was not one authentic and ‘true’ Magna Carta (there were four to begin with, and numerous and variable copies or ‘exemplifications’ subsequently), Wikipedia is a morphing text rather than a fixed and singular authoritative one.

cornelia-parker-magna-carta-embroidery-photograph-joseph-turp

Hence, another contemporary copy, based upon a digitally mobile text, seems peculiarly appropriate, as does another aspect of the Parker work – the creation by more than one hand of a hand-made work that is as inauthentic as an icon as the much-altered, always partial, ‘democratic people’s encyclopedia’ of Wikipedia…

manuscript-embroidery-cornelia-parker-british-libraryParker engaged many hands in the stitching of that single-date 13-metres long Wikipedia page: from prisoners to politicians, musicians to makers, poetic artists to political advocates, lawyers to laypeople, celebrities to commoners…she engaged key players in the textile community to provide discipline authority to the work – the exceptional and international organization of the Embroiderers’ Guild, the social enterprise of Fine Cell Work that trains prisoners in high quality and commercial level needlework, and Hand and Lock’s military, dress and theatrical embroidery service. In traditional, therefore conservative, therefore controlled, and therefore exemplary embroidery technique they picked words out that are significant in the lexicon of democracy and the consideration of rights in a time when those mucky bodies come right up against the other-muckiness of the digital realm. Stitched carefully is the relative coolness of the words ‘law’, ‘freedom’, ‘land’ and ‘people’. Sewn equally with care, but with a higher heat are ‘justice’ and ‘denial’ and ‘delay’ – that seamstress being Doreen Lawrence, those pricks both poignant and sore. Guantánamo’s former inmate Moazzam Begg embroidering “held without charge” ups the temperature with the notion of embroidered truth, while Paddy Hill, one of the so-called ‘Birmingham Six’ stitches out the word “Freeman” as though sewing up a festering wound.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is on display until 24 July at the British Library, Entrance Hall Gallery, British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB as part of their celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, www.bl.uk

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