James Putnam
Biography # Press # Contact # Credits
  Inventory Suscribe to James Putnam's newsletter  
# Interviews
# Publications
# Exhibitions
# Conferences
# Talk & Debate
# Salon
# Collaborations
In conversation with Cornelia Parker, December 1996.


James Putnam: Do you feel some kind of connection to the past and an affinity with old things from past cultures?

Cornelia Parker: The basis of my work is that I take things that are very well worn in terms of their cliche value, things that are monumental, that we could refer to as icons because they’ve become so revered in society. ... in a way I’m interested in things that have existed for a long long time just because they are useful to be able to measure intangible things with - what has not yet happened or that which we cannot quantify. So all the stuff that is in museums and all the things that are used in society are measures as things for the future - I’m interested in the past it for that reason really.

JP: I know you are very interested in taking rubbings from artifacts could this be that you are fascinated by their history of human contact or do you believe that they are invested with some kind of energy ?

CP: I think the reason I like rubbings is because the surface of something is almost a kind of interface between the object and the world and raises the issue of where the object finishes and where the world begins. Like for example on a silver object a patina or tarnish builds up and that is very often polished away. This oxidisation is a chemical reaction between the object and the world and I like the idea of doing a rubbing off something because you must be taking a little bit of the surface of the object away with you, however microscopic that might be. For example when I was in the Hans Christian Anderson Museum, I did a rubbing of his writing desk and I was hoping somehow to pick up a little bit of the negative of the words he might have written. From these embossings there may be some kind of relic or tiny piece of the whole thing.

JP: That thing is it in your mind or is it actually physically or scientifically traceable?

CP: If I take a rubbing off something, then I’m sure there is some kind of microscopic trace but it"s more like taking the skin of the object, a bit like the Turin Shroud. If you polished a candlestick that belonged Napoleon for instance what you would end up with is a rag with his tarnish on it and somehow it’s almost like a three dimensional object being made into a continuous surface, a black trace, on a piece of paper or cloth. I really love the fact that you have physically touched the object and the paper bares the imprint of you and it also bares a trace of the object you"ve looked at or felt. They’re almost like feelings and I quite like the whole idea of rubbings as being something you have felt in both the literal and the emotional sense of the word.

JP: So in the Museum do you think that the remoteness of an object in a vitrine - the big distance between it and the spectator is a problem for inspiration to an artist?

CP: No I don’t think so - I’m inspired by looking as much as feeling. I’ve just done a show in Cardiff where I’ve put alot of objects in vitrines, some of them are very ordinary and some of them are things I’ve borrowed from museums. But just because I’ve chosen to isolate them in a very spare display in vitrines this has made them appear quite precious and so that distancing device and context can change an object enormously. If you take something out a museum and put it elsewhere, like a shopping mall for example in a glass case, people will look at it in a completely different way they will be amazed that it can enter their ordinary space this thing that usually is usually kept in so-called cathedrals of culture.

JP: I’m also very interested in what you might think about the degree of supporting information with an object in a museum. Do you think you come across that dilemma between meaning and being - is the contextual information about an object more or less important than what it is?

CP: Well I think that’s very interesting - when I visit a museum, for me the information you read about the object is almost as important as the object you are looking at - I like the gap between those two things. ... I think when you look at a little fragment of a pot in a museum you have to know it’s three thousand years old before it becomes exciting to you. ... I think it’s similar in art to the idea of using titles or captions - for some artists a title is insignificant but for me particularly it’s incredibly important because it can change the way you read the thing.

JP: Do you feel disturbed by the increasing tendency in museums for information overload with all the graphics panels and supporting visuals distracting the viewer from looking at the real thing ?

CP: Yes perhaps its all becoming a bit like a theme park. For instance at the Science Museum (London) there’s a very tall fulgurite which is a piece of glass made by a lightning strike in the desert and behind it they’ve put an electronic lightning flash. They’ve dramatised it - the object itself is Victorian but they felt they needed to make not only written information but an almost tabloid style delivery of this quite poetic object. Yet backstage at the Natural History Museum (London) there is another fulgurite in a Victorian display case which has been merely labelled as a ‘lightning glass’ with its Latin name beside it and that’s much more exciting. The idea of a lightning glass rather than this huge display panel with flashing lights and typography that totally overwhelms the object.

JP: Do you think that museums have a role to play in the emergence of contemporary art and culture ? or to put it another way although they could be seen as repositories full of dead things do you believe museum objects themselves have an inner life that can continue to influence artists?

CP: Yes I really think museums are very important in this respect. I probably spend more time in museums than in contemporary art galleries! They’re a constant inspiration, they’re catalysts, like dormant seeds in that they trigger something. All kinds of people - jewellery, costume designers, writers, artists etc. come with all their own different agendas to look at these objects and they’ll be inspired in all kinds of different ways. While people are still alive and therefore responding to something that had a past life I think there’s a chemical reaction going on between them - the inert and the active and that cross-pollination is enormously important.

Cornelia Parker

back to interviews back to top