Cornelia Parker, Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

British Library, London. 15 May – 24 July 2015.

Reviewed by Emma Shercliff

Emma Shercliff is a textile maker, writer, researcher and educator. She is Senior Lecturer in Textiles at the Arts University Bournemouth. Her research explores textile making in social and educational contexts, the differences between implicit and explicit forms of knowledge, and the meanings of hand-making within post-industrial digital cultures. http://aub.ac.uk/staff/eshercliff

The ambition to capture and commemorate a significant event in embroidery follows time-honoured traditions, both noble and popular. The Bayeux Tapestry springs to mind – a meticulously executed document of international historical importance – as do numerous recent hangings and banners made by committed volunteers in communities around the country such as The Great Tapestry of Scotland (2012-13), recounting the history of Scotland, initiated by writer Alexander McCall Smith and stitched by 300 volunteers from the country, and the Greenham Common banners stitched by women protesters in the 1980s and hung along the perimeter fence of the military base.[1] Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery), commissioned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and on display at the British Library, pays homage to these varied traditions of monumental embroidery. Measuring almost thirteen metres long this collectively stitched document has involved more than 200 contributors including prison inmates working with Fine Cell Work, embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework and Hand & Lock, members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, and invited individuals many of whom have been selected because of their connections to law and civil liberties.

In a double twist of sophisticated irony Parker has managed to convey both great sensitivity and bold irreverence in the work. This isn’t a facsimile of the Magna Carta document; it’s a detailed replica of its Wikipedia entry as it appeared on 15 June 2014. An embroidered version of the actual document would have no place today; the words enshrined in it no longer resonate directly with viewers. More precisely, it is the history, evolution and impact of the Great Charter that we celebrate, and this is perhaps best represented today by its Wikipedia page.

Figure 1. Wikipedia logo, embroidered by Janika Magi, Hand & Lock. Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) on display at the British Library. Photograph © Tony Antoniou

 

With echoes of the original, this artwork was conceived by Parker as a snapshot of history in the making. The virtual Wikipedia page normally recognized as a transient, openly accessible secondary source of information has been transformed into a carefully handcrafted, primary source of reference in material form. In turn it has brought the legend of the Magna Carta to life and is making history in its own right.[2] In one sense it has literally been ‘made’, and in another it has raised the debate about civil liberties in the digital age.

One can’t help asking why the document has been hand-stitched. It could have been printed on cloth at the same scale, would have existed as a tangible object, and contained the same information. But the fact that it is hand-stitched multiplies the layers of meaning. Since the Women’s Suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, embroidery has been used as a powerful tool for political subversion.[3] It is both troubling and intriguing that needlework has provoked crucial questions concerning the representation of law and justice and how legal documents are made accessible.

In spite of the technically masterful embroidered vignettes, symbols and logos representing the visual references included in the Wikipedia page, I found myself drawn to the stitched words. The embroidery is pieced of eighty-seven panels recounting the history and development of the Magna Carta documents and clauses. Parker’s incisive wit is apparent in the words attributed to some of the invited individuals, again by turns both deeply poignant and provocatively subversive. For example, Baroness Doreen Lawrence stitched “justice, denial” and “delay”; Julian Assange “freedom” and “ancient liberties”; Edward Snowden “liberty”; and Moazzam Begg “held without charge”. Parker herself stitched “prerogative” rebelliously asserting her “exclusive right” as artist to have made such a laboriously decorative material copy of virtual text.

Figure 2. Detail of Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) on display at the British Library showing the subtle differences in stitching made by different contributors. Photograph © the author.

The impersonal uniformity of screen-based text we have become so accustomed to is challenged by the work. In a poetic representation of democracy the subtle insertion of individual histories into what is otherwise a large collective artwork acknowledges and symbolizes the contribution of each individual to society. The voice of each participant comes through in the slight differences of stitching noticeable section by section, and word by word.

I am an embroiderer too. I am acutely aware that the slow steady rhythm of hand-stitching can instil a reflective frame of mind and I can imagine the individuals who have worked on this piece dwelling on the significance of the words as they stitched, their intervention thus democratizing the artwork through the very act of making. The contributors have literally made history; their engagement with the document through their hand-stitching will have rendered the issues raised the more pertinent because they “wrote” it. The embroidery is participatory art at the sharp end, achieved not through spontaneous performance but through hours of crafted labour, conversation and quiet contemplation.

 

Notes

[1] Other notable examples include The Leeds Tapestry (1992-2002) embroidered by hundreds of volunteers to celebrate life in Leeds for the occasion of the millennium and The Patchwork of The Century (1951) made of 100 panels, each commemorating a key event from each year and exhibited at the Festival of Britain.

[2] The updated Wikipedia page now contains a section about Parker’s embroidery.

[3] For more on this subject see Roszika Parker’s 1986 seminal text The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: Woman’s Press, 1984).

 

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