When she was a child, the idea of play was an abstract concept for Cornelia Parker. ‘I grew up working on a small-hold, planting vegetables, and doing a lot of manual labour.  I was made to feel guilty by my father for playing, so I had to work the land.’ One of three girls growing up on a farm in rural Cheshire, Parker’s childhood was spent ‘digging holes, pruning, laying hedges. A choreography of repetitive tasks which became a vocabulary I have in my head.’ 

It’s hardly surprising then, that Parker discovered she was tactile. ‘Sculpture was second nature to me’, she tells me over drinks in her local pub in North London. ‘I’d been using my hands throughout my childhood. For me it was a bit like extended play.’ Now one of the most prominent sculptors and installation artists of the twenty-first century, Parker’s art has been characterised by the way she alters her materials to such an extent that they lose all of their original essence. She explodes buildings, flattens silver-ware and slices through found objects, only to resurrect them once again in a re-conceptualized form. For one of her most renowned pieces, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), Parker enlisted the help of the British Army to blow a garden shed to smithereens, an explosion which she then recreated in the Tate Modern by hanging every fragment, large or small, from the ceiling.

Parker describes this process as a form of breathing. ‘I like the idea of a building exhaling or inhaling, or if you’ve got a wind instrument, the idea that it’s exhaling so much that its flat.’ She cites Piero Manzoni, famous for his ironic approach to avante-garde art, as one of her heros. ‘He was famous for canning his own shit, but he would also put inflated balloons on pedestals and label them Breath of an Artist. Breathing was something I was preoccupied with myself.’ This explains her frequent return to the destruction of buildings; in 1997 Parker created Mass (Colder Darker Matter), and was short-listed for the Turner Prize. It consisted of the burnt remnants of a church, and again each fragment was suspended from the ceiling to hover in the air. In the foreword to a new book about Parker, Yoko Ono called these pieces ‘among the most significant artworks of our time.’ Clearly, Parker has enjoyed enough bounteous praise to turn anyone’s head, but she is a pleasure to speak to: humble, with a contagious enthusiasm for her work.

Destruction is a defining characteristic of Parker’s art and I’m interested to see why she is pre-occupied with damaging her materials so irrevocably. ‘Demolition was on the mind’, she tells me. ‘I was living in Leytonstone and our houses were about to be knocked down to make room for a motorway, and so I lived with that threat for ten years in two houses.’ This coincided with her interest in collecting silver plate, a material she has returned to several times in her career. ‘I thought I shouldn’t be attracted to the silver plate, it’s bourgeois stuff. So in a way, I could play with that, it was a representational thing which had a lot of baggage attached  to it. I quite liked the baggage but I had to do something to counter-balance it, I had to destroy it and give it new value. If it had value as a piece of silver plate, what value does a broken silver plate have?’

Questions such as these gave rise to her first epic installation piece, Thirty Pieces of Silver, in 1988, which featured circles of steam-rollered silver-ware including teapots, cutlery and candle-sticks, suspended a few inches above the floor in the Serpentine gallery. Parker also flattens musical wind instruments; in large scale installations like Perpetual Canon they hang looking like they have exhaled air for the last time. She says of her ironing out of the materials: ‘I kill them off so they won’t breath again, but then they’re resurrected because they’re upright when they’re suspended, although still robbed of their use. All the objects I use are second-hand, they’ve had a life and are on the point of expiring.’

 As we talk, the concept of the cliché recurs repeatedly. ‘I started to look at these representational things around me and I felt compelled to use them; everybody knows what they are so I don’t have to worry about what they mean, because they already have their own histories and meanings, so that was very liberating. If you start to use a clichéd object, and then if you mass-produce that cliché yourself, it becomes part of the work. Somehow you hope that the inverse of the cliché will be the most unknown place.’

Inverted clichés appear invariably throughout Parker’s repertoire: iconic buildings like the Big Ben and the Empire State are cast from moulds in lead then flattened or hung upside down until their recognisable attributes are abstracted and ephemeral. One of her most iconic and diverse pieces, The Maybe, featured Tilda Swinton, apparently asleep in a glass vitrine, with objects belonging to famous deceased figures placed around her, including a pillow and blanket from Freud’s couch, Charles Dickens’ quill pen, and Queen Victoria’s stocking. ‘It’s a played out breath, the collaboration with Tilda. What I liked about it was the idea of breathing. She was an exquisite corpse, but still dreaming like us. Her lying there vulnerable in the first place made the absence of those in the past more present.’

I suggest that Parker enjoys making light of her materials, but she corrects me. ‘It’s more about making the material have a tragedy embedded in it…sort of like a tragic comedy.’

Parker is coming to the Ashmolean on the 21st June to speak in conversation with Iwona Blazwick.