Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Cornelia Parker and the Aura

Mar 26, 2021 - Michael Swann

In 2007 the Ikon Gallery, in my hometown of Birmingham, put on an exhibition of works by British artist Cornelia Parker titled ‘Never Endings’. I visited this exhibition several times, aged 17, and to this day distinctly recall the experience of viewing the work.
‘Subconscious of a Monument’ was an installation pieces of earth, hung from wires and suspended in a loose cuboid that reached from the floor to about my waist height. The stillness of the installation brought to mind the freezing of freezing as the sea floor is kicked up. The piece itself was beautiful, serene and immediately impactful, but the magic existed within the small rectangular caption that modestly sat on the wall next to the installation. The earth that was suspended in this geometric form was taken from the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to prevent it leaning too far. At this point in my life, I was yet to travel abroad, but of course, this landmark was well known and these clumps of earth suddenly emanated that infamy.
In the same room, on a plinth in the centre of the space, sat ‘Shared Fate (Oliver)’. This piece was one I’m almost certain I spent a minimal few seconds observing the first time I went to the exhibition; the superficial impact was overshadowed somewhat by the aforementioned installation that sat just in my peripheral vision. On this white plinth lay a rag doll of the character Oliver, face scrunched up in pain at the invisible Fagin that would be clutching his ear. The doll was severed in two across the stomach (adding another explanation for the pained expression). Again, the caption brought the drama; this doll had been cut in half by the same guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette.
Appearing to be propped up against the wall, to the right of the doll, were a cluster of planks of old wood. On closer inspection, these planks were in fact also suspended, an inch or so away from the floor and wall, to give the illusion of levitating in place. ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ used pieces of wood reclaimed from a ghost town in Texas. All of the work that formed ‘Never Endings’ followed these same premises, objects that contained unseen elements. At the time, the only word I could think of describe these elements was “aura”. To me, each piece possessed an aura of the thing or person or place it was invisibly linked to. The clumps of earth possessed the aura of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the doll possessed the aura of Marie Antoinette and the wood possessed the aura of a ghost town. There was something mystical in these associations; the same experience we have when we look to objects kept as mementos of people, places or moments in time. Or the same experience of being stood in a room that was once occupied by a significant figure in history (I think to the time I visited Freud’s residence in Vienna as an example). Or perhaps even the feeling of being in the same space as someone famous.
Cornelia Parker’s exhibition has inspired me consistently since then, in particular with my project ‘Noema’, which was shot in two locations where the Virgin Mary has reportedly been seen.
One of the two locations is a tiny village in the North of Spain called Garabandal. During the 1960s, four young girls experienced regular apparitions of the Virgin, during which they would talk with her at length. Not long after the apparitions began, pilgrims began to visit the village to see for themselves what was going on, and to worship. With them they carried rosary beads, crucifixes, bibles and other religious objects, which they would give to the girls in the hope that they would ask the Virgin to bless them. There are many reports related to these objects, and many witnesses were returned objects and told that they had been kissed by the Virgin. In the town there are two small shops that set Catholic items of this type, and one of the objects that you can buy is a small pewter medallion embossed with the image of the Virgin and her name, on the reverse is a small round ridge filled with resin, inside which you will see a tiny piece of paper (maximum 2-3mm in width); this paper is cut from a prayer book that was kissed by the Virgin.