British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker with her artwork Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, at the MCA. Picture: Adam Yip
British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker with her artwork Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, at the MCA. Picture: Adam Yip

SUperstar artist falls foul of Customs over drugs work

Australian Customs pounced when the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia was attempting to import a key artwork for its big summer show by British artist Cornelia Parker, which opens tonight.

What displeased the Customs service was a bird's nest, a straw-stuffed donkey and a toy gun. Oh, and also some cocaine. But more of that later.

The nest, the donkey and the gun were supposed to be included in one of Parker's key works - a wooden garden shed that was blown up by the British army at Parker's request.

In the artwork, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, the shards of the shed and bits of its humble domestic contents are suspended from the ceiling as though caught in mid explosion.

From gumboots to hubcaps, the work is an encyclopaedic catalogue of your average backyard shed. And like all sheds, it tended to accumulate things the owner didn't realise she even had.

Parker didn't even know there was a bird's nest in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, until Customs rejected it. But she was aware of the wooden toy gun, and was surprised when Customs gave it the thumbs down. "It was like a little pistol - obviously not going to shoot anything," Parker said.

Rather boldly, the MCA also tried to source some incinerated cocaine for another of Parker's works, Exhaled Cocaine. Chief curator Rachel Kent said she went to police and forensic services for a quantity of cocaine that had been seized by police and then incinerated. But the answer everywhere was a firm no.

British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney with her work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Picture: Adam Yip
British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney with her work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Picture: Adam Yip

Parker had more luck when she showed Exhaled Cocaine in Lima, Peru. "I couldn't get my cocaine in, so the museum on my behalf asked for Customs there to give them some cocaine and they had to get the prime minister to sign off on it," the artist said.

Although incinerated and supposedly inert, Parker was certain the cocaine was still to some extent potent.

"I was arranging this mound of cocaine on the plinth and I was getting quite high," she said. "And then I had it on my hands. I had to wash my hands before we went to the airport. We thought we were going to get sniffer dogs."

Straw, toy guns and cocaine might have been a no-no, but Rachel Kent did get some equally unusual things into the country for the Cornelia Parker show - namely a rifle, a handgun and some snake venom. The rifle (which had been used in a real crime) passed muster because British police had already sawn it into lengths "like a sausage roll", Kent said. The rifle appears in Parker's work, Sawn Up Sawn Off Shotgun. The handgun, likewise used in a felony, had been reduced by scientists to brown powder. And the snake venom had been mixed with ink and used in drawings.

"We did have one other thing that didn't make it (through Customs), which was an explosion drawing because it contained saltpetre," Kent said.

British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney with her work, Sawn Up Sawn Off Shotgun. Picture: Adam Yip
British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney with her work, Sawn Up Sawn Off Shotgun. Picture: Adam Yip

Among a large range of other works in the show is Shared Fate (Oliver), a doll sliced in two by the guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette. How did the artist find the guillotine?

"I think I went to Madame Tussaud's and I saw it there, and I thought, 'wow, this is the most extraordinary object in the whole place'," Parker said. "Madame Tussaud was there at the French Revolution. She did death masks of Marie Antoinette. I asked Madame Tussaud's if they could let me borrow it."

Another work, titled Magna Carta (An Embroidery), is an epic needlework rendition of the Wikipedia entry for the Magna Carta. Parker succeeded in getting a variety of people to contribute to the needlework, including Julian Assange who was seeking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. How were Assange's needlework skills?

"He was very good. He had lots of time to do it," Parker said.

For Rachel Kent, this "uncanny ability to involve and then twist and bend authority figures to her will" is part of Parker's strengths as an artist.

The newest work in the show is War Room, where a large salon is draped in red perforated paper from the factory that makes commemorative poppies. The negative spaces are where the poppies were punched out.

For Parker, the blank shapes are poignant reminders of the war dead. Her own unusual war story involves her grandfather Frank Parker, who fought in the Somme and was given a funeral service when he went missing as a POW. Frank Parker turned up alive, but when he really did die in the 1970s his second funeral was held in the same church as his first.

Parker's exhibition is one half of the Sydney International Art Series, with the other half being Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of NSW.

 

ELIZABETH FORTESCUE

Cornelia Parker, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, until February 16, mca.com.au



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