Artist: Cornelia Parker
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
On the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta – 15 June 2014 – artist Cornelia Parker printed the Wikipedia page about this famous contract signed by King John and marking the beginning of constitutional democracy. Now, almost a year later an embroidered version of that very page has gone on display at the British Library. The Magna Carta is something you should expect to hear quite frequently in the next few weeks as the 800th anniversary draws near and for those unsure of its relevance this single-exhibit showcase has much to say about its relevance today.
At almost 13 meters long, this is a work as impressive in scale as the Bayeux Tapestry which will naturally be a comparator. In some sense it is a ‘state-of-the-nation’ piece much like Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Difference which used images rather than words to make a social, cultural and political point. To realise Parker’s work, over 200 contributors were called upon to sew single words as well as whole sentences and pictures, which makes this piece as interesting for what you can see as for how and why it was made.
At face value this piece is a beautifully crafted statement about how much we value our political system and its cornerstone The Rule of Law. Despite it being essentially a sewn internet page, the slow and detailed process of creation emphasises the timelessness of the subject and the centuries in which this fundamental document has endured. The details are extraordinary – from the blue text of the hyperlink to the small symbols that denote it will open in a new page or is a PDF – it’s fascinating to see the care with which this piece has been put together. The images especially are astounding, each taking around 400 hours to complete, including the 1225 version that looks like a paper document complete with holes and scuffed edges, and the Wiki logo.
Most revealing though are the people who made this, a combination of prisoners, judges, solicitors, artists, MPs, peers, celebrities, campaigners and many more. The level of organisation just to bring these people together is unthinkable but the idea that they each submitted a word, phrase or sentence relevant to them gives a real insight into the wide ranging effects of Magna Carta today. These stories behind the art are incredible, including the Embassy-trapped Julian Assange and former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham Buller each sewing the word ‘freedom’, Jarvis Cocker appropriately supplying ‘common people’, while Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger smearing his own blood on his piece ‘Contemporary Political Relevance’ all add an enormous backstory to this work.
The problem is that none of these stories are obviously told in the exhibition, their names just sit on a wall as contributors. Without the important context in which the piece was created you lose an important purpose of this work and how it has overcome age, position and legal boundaries to exist. One way to mitigate this would be to introduce some digital screens around the work to allow members of the public to delve more deeply into the story of its creation. While they can go downstairs to the Library’s Magna Carta exhibition and learn about that document, they can’t learn about this one. If all those people made this happen, then they should be celebrated more obviously, whether they are known celebrities, members of the Embroiders Guild or prisoners.
Cornelia Parker and the British Library have created something with interesting social relevance as well as a multi-layered piece of art. Should it go on the hoped-for tour later in the year it will certainly reinforce the 800-year importance of Magna Carta in British history, and why it remains relevant today.
Runs Until 24 July| Photo Joseph Turp