2.3 Contextual Focus – Cornelia Parker

Poison And Antidote Drawing (2010) is part of a series of drawings started in about 1997 and several such drawings were created in 2010.  Parker is drawn to dangerous materials and processes. The substances from which her pieces are made matter as much as the visual content, ‘The material is often where my thinking starts.’ ( Aesthetica Magazine Ltd, 2016)

Originally the drawings used only ink to which poison had been added, but at some point she decided to look at opposites and contrast two opposing ideas or substances together. “I began with the idea of different sorts of oppositional things. “I was thinking of Hitler and Freud, for example, in terms of how they seem to personify contrasting parts of the psyche. I also wanted to make something physically dangerous.”(Drawing, 2000). These blot drawings reference the Rorschach test created in 1921 to help unlock deep seated emotions and characteristics through a patient’s interpretation of a blot. Parker is challenging us to make our own interpretation of these drawings. She may also be making the point that opposites exist as counterpoints to each other; black is only identifiable as black if we have the concept of white.

The series developed to use Quink and correction fluid to which poison and antidote had been added respectively. These carrier materials mirror the subject, correction fluid being the antidote to ink. The materials and technique mean that the outcome of the process is unknown to the artist. She has added jeopardy at each point, the danger of the material, the lack of control over the outcome, the uncertainty of our interpretation.

In this Poison And Antidote Drawing (2010), the correction fluid was viscous enough to have created texture which gives the blot an organic feel, adding to the psychological context. These later drawings look rather like sections through a brain or a skull. The inclusion of organic substances increases this association and amplifies the significance of the work.

The inclusion of culturally significant materials of objects in a work heightens our emotion response to a work. This can be negative or positive. Since the mid 1900s, artists have included their own or others bodily fluids (or in Manzoni’s case, solids) as a provocative element of their work. Warhol got friends to pee on canvases treated with copper pigments and Quinn used his own blood, frozen to cast a self-portrait. These inclusions create a physical link between the work, its creator or context and the observer.

One of the most moving experiences of my life was visiting the caves of Lascaux. These caves contain some of the greatest prehistoric art ever discovered but, due to the increased humidity caused by visitors’ breathe, access to the caves is now closed to the public and one visits a replica nearby. Does this matter? It is clearly necessary to preserve the caves and the replica is an identical 3d copy of the main chamber and passages of the cave. The paintings come to life in the simulated flickering of lamp light. The 3d nature of the paintings, which isn’t apparent in reproductions, is demonstrated with bulges in the rock (fibreglass) utilised for haunches, fissures for manes. But it isn’t the original. It has been tidied up, in particular the floor made safe.As an amateur astronomer, I cannot look at it and this ‘I am standing just were the artist stood about 17,300 years ago’. The hand prints and finger marks no longer really represent the physical presence of a fellow human across time.

I can look at wonderful NASA photographs of the universe, especially other galaxies. These are produced by combining images taken at a variety of wavelengths and therefore do not represent anything we could ever see with our eyes, even if we were in space. As an amateur astronomer, I look through my telescope at a distant galaxy and, if I am lucky, it appears as a faint grey smear, but I get a huge thrill out this because I am directly connected to what I am viewing; photons which left that galaxy millions of years ago are falling directly on my retina. I think that this is exactly analogous to being in the presence of a work of art rather than an illustration, and even more so if the physical content, rather than the visual content of the piece, is culturally significant. I feel particularly moved in the presence of sculpture, say, which preserves the thumbprint or other sign of the presence and intent of the artist.

Finally, I had a bit of fun making my own take on the blots in the context of my current ongoing project on Presence/Absence. No bodily fluids were included.


Presence/Absence, liquid graphite on Washi, A4


Aesthetica Magazine Ltd, A.M. (2016) Aesthetica magazine – Cornelia Parker. Available at:
http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/cornelia-parker-2/ (Accessed: 22 September 2016).

Drawing (2000) Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=691360&partId=1&school=13279&page=5 (Accessed: 22 September 2016).


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