‘Cornelia Parker has always been attracted to the backs and undersides of things’ the museum wall-text for the exhibition begins. Verso explores a different life of art objects by revealing what is typically unseen. Forty-eight photographs of the backs of hand-sewn button cards hang in six clusters of eight along a narrow gallery on the Whitworth Art Gallery’s first floor. The pared down, traditionally white exhibition space is somewhat clinical, but appeals to minimalist sensibilities and allows for the details of these images, which Parker calls ‘found abstracts’, to stand out.
When asking friends about the exhibition, a common and uncomplimentary response was that it was boring. Did some find it boring because it seems unimaginatively displayed? Is it that the work speaks more to an academic audience with a grasp of modern art history than to the occasional museum goer? Perhaps the underwhelmed response was because of the work’s engagement with conceptual strategies already well-trodden in modern and contemporary art? Or, maybe my companions weren’t bored by the exhibition, but boring in their lack of curiosity about or attraction to the backs and undersides of things. Whichever the case, the comments speak to the challenges artists and museums face to create artwork and exhibitions that are entertaining. While Verso isn’t entertaining in a traditional sense, its creative and critical engagement with ideas of labour, originality and definitions of art, allows viewers to get lost in the detail.
The exhibition’s title, Verso, uses the language of codicology. Verso is shortened from the Latin verso folio, meaning ‘on the turned leaf’, while its counterpart, recto folio, means ‘on the upright leaf’. In contrast to the smooth papyrus surface of the recto, or ‘right’ side for writing, the verso was rough and traditionally only used in exceptional circumstances. The left page of an open book is called verso, while the ‘right’ side is called recto. Using this terminology, the exhibition questions which sides of art objects are considered art – only those on display? Surely the front can’t be separated from its back? The exhibition catalogue further obscures the perception of a correct side by printing all of the images on the verso. The visual organisation of the catalogue goes against the way some visitors might have been trained to read books (and images) from left to right. In languages read right to left, like Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew, verso and recto are switched, and thus viewers used to reading from right to left may have had a quite a different experience with the catalogue. Verso challenges the ways in which its viewers have been conditioned to read images.
Problematising traditional notions of labour, authorship, originality and even definitions of art itself, Verso’s conceptual program is Duchampian at its core. Who made the original hand-sewn button cards? Who is considered the author of these photographs? Names of the original authors are not provided, but Parker highlights their labour by displaying the backs of the cards. Remnants of Sellotape yellowed with age bare signs of labour that would have otherwise been invisible. The different materials used in the creation of the work along with the emerging patterns of stitches reveal a few distinct hands. While some of the cards display a neat and orderly process of making, others are more loose and erratic. In displaying the backs of hand-sewn button cards, which would have probably been made by women, Parker calls attention to the labour of women so often concealed. However, Parker simultaneously diminishes the value of their labour by photographing them and making them her own. While on the one hand the work so beautifully makes visible what is invisible, her chosen medium of photography is an erasure of the original materiality of these cards, and thus an erasure of the original hand. This kind of quasi-collaborative element is found throughout much of Parker’s oeuvre.
While Duchamp’s ready-mades have been characterised as iconoclastic, Parker’s work makes something new out of objects previously tucked away in the archives of museums in Manchester. In a much earlier comment about her making practice, Parker stated, ‘I resurrect things that have been killed off… My work is about the potential of materials – even when it looks like they’ve lost.’ Parker not only resurrects Duschamp’s conceptual strategies, but gives new life to objects previously hidden away. Parker transforms popular hand-sewn button cards to elegant, minimalistic ‘found abstracts’.
While my companions may have found Verso underwhelming, I found it to be quite a thought provoking exhibition that engages with popular themes explored in contemporary art. The exhibition implores the viewer to focus on details in order to uncover some of its conceptual underpinnings. If you haven’t seen the show, I encourage you to get lost in the detail. Or, if you have already visited, I encourage you to return with a more imaginative eye.
Cornelia Parker is one of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary sculpture and installation artists. She studied at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design and Wolverhampton Polytechnic, before receiving an MFA from Reading University. In 1997 she was nominated for the Turner Prize. She has been awarded a number of honorary doctorates and is currently an Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester. This is Parker’s second exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery since it reopened in February 2015.
At The Whitworth Art Gallery until November 5.