Friday February 03, 2017

Artist reworks charred remnants of school fire to help fund rebuilding

Artist Cornelia Parker and her work "A Slippery Slope Between Chalk and Charcoal," created from charred remanants of the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art.

Artist Cornelia Parker and her work "A Slippery Slope Between Chalk and Charcoal," created from charred remanants of the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art. (Courtesy of Cornelia Parker)

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The Glasgow School of Art was destroyed by a fire in May 2014  Now the school has asking artists to help resurrect its library by making something beautiful from the charred remains. 
    
Twenty-five artists were sent remnants from the damaged building and asked to make a piece of art. 

Cornelia Parker is one of the artists taking part in this project. She spoke to As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from London. Here is some of their conversation. 

Britain Art School Fire

A firefighter attempts to douse the fire that overtook the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014. (David Barz/AP )

Helen Mann: Ms. Parker, each of the artists taking part in this project was given a piece of debris to work with, along with a note. What item were you working with?

Cornelia Parker: I was working with part of a bookshelf from the wrecked [Charles Rennie] Mackintosh library  — a turn-of-the century bookshelf. So it's an original part of the architecture.

HM: How large was the piece you were given?

CP: It's about 15 inches — 38 centimetres tall — and a few inches across. It almost looks like a mountain peak. It's got a pointy tip. And I decided it was such a beautiful object I didn't really want to destroy it. I thought of grounding it up and making pigment, which I've done many times with various things. But I thought I'd combine it with other elements.  

HM: And was it completely charred when you got it?

"You've got a piece of nature and piece of culture and something in between — which is perhaps what art is." - Cornelia Parker

CP: Yes, it was all blackened and charred. So I decided to use it as it is — as a material, as an object — and then combine it with a piece of chalk from Beachy Head. And these two objects pin down a drawing, a chalk and charcoal drawing made in the 1920s, which I bought in an antique market . . . And I liked the three elements together — it's almost like the drawing had been made out of these two elements, although it hasn't. And it's called A Slippery Slope Between Chalk and Charcoal

Slippery Slope art

"A Slippery Slope Between Chalk and Charcoal" (Courtesy of Cornelia Parker)

HM: What did the note that accompanied the piece you were given say?

CP: They just hoped that I might make something interesting out of it all, make it into an artwork — cast a bit of magic on it. It took me to some different places. The drawing is very evocative. I'm not a technically-wonderful draftswoman and perhaps I could have done a drawing of my own. But I like the idea this drawing was almost 100 years old. The chalk, which is eons old because it's been part of a cliff face, and the wood obviously was a raw material for a long time and then it became a famous piece of architecture. So they've all got these different provenances — you've got a piece of nature and piece of culture and something in between — which is perhaps what art is.

"It must be the most beautiful art school in the world, really. I think people were drawn to apply to that school from all over the world because of the architecture. So it's a very tragic loss." - Cornelia Parker

HM: You taught at the Glasgow School of Art. It's a magnificent building — I was able to see it a couple of times before the fire. How did you respond when the library was so damaged?

CP: Oh, I felt very upset, really, 'cause I'd stayed in the Rennie Mackintosh suite where they put people up overnight. So I knew the building intimately and I really was quite shocked. Somebody on my street — his daughter was an art student there at the time and lost her degree show. She lost all her work in the fire. So it's almost on home territory . . . It must be the most beautiful art school in the world, really. It's an art-nouveau landmark. I think people were drawn to apply to that school from all over the world because of the architecture. So it's a very tragic loss.

 "I don't want to feel like an ambulance chaser, but very often when I hear about a fire my first instinct is to make a piece of art out of it." - Cornelia Parker
Britain Earth Art

A 2004 work by Cornelia Parker, entitled "Heart of Darkness." The installation uses charcoal gathered from remains of a forest fire. (The Associated Press)

HM: Next year is the 150th anniversary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's birth. I know the city of Glasgow is planning a big celebration . . . What does it mean to you to be a part of that?

CP: It's great. I mean, I don't want to feel like an ambulance chaser, but very often when I hear about a fire my first instinct is to make a piece of art out of it. In past works I've used vast quantities of charcoal, but in this piece, I only had a very small piece to make the work. So that was great to have those limitations. But we've all made a small contribution to a bigger whole. 

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to the full interview with Cornelia Parker.