Cornelia Parker

Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon


Cornelia Parker born 1956
Glass, wire, card and wood
Displayed: 630 x 630 x 41 mm, 8.2 kg
Purchased 1998

Not on display


Created by the British artist Cornelia Parker in 1997, Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon is a coiled length of silver wire mounted on a square of dark grey card that is set inside a glazed, pale wooden frame. The silver that makes up the piece of wire previously took the form of a Georgian teaspoon which, as the artist explained in a 2003 interview, has been melted and ‘“drawn” to the height of Niagara Falls’ – a set of three waterfalls situated on the border between the United States and Canada (Parker in Lisa Tickner, ‘A Strange Alchemy: Cornelia Parker’, Art History, vol.26, no.3, June 2003, p.385). While the precise length of the piece of wire is unknown, in 2013 the artist stated that it measures ‘approximately 187 feet’ (Cornelia Parker, ‘Works’, in Blazwick 2013, p.123). It is coiled into a thick ring that occupies a small portion of the grey card near to the centre of the frame and has numerous strands curving outwards around its edges. The frame is made from untreated ash wood and has mitred corners, and its reverse side comprises a sheet of fibreboard secured with masking tape.

This work was made by Parker in London in 1997. It is one of an ongoing group entitled Wire Drawings that she has made by mounting lengths of ‘drawn’ wire in wooden frames, the earliest of which were created in 1996 (see, for instance, Wedding Ring Drawing (The Circumference of the Living Room) 1996, private collection). To make this work, Parker took the teaspoon to a jeweller called Blundell’s in Wardour Street, London, where the silver object was melted down and then cast into an ingot. Heating the metal also annealed it, meaning that it became more malleable even when it cooled and re-solidified. The jeweller then turned the ingot into a piece of wire by pulling it through a series of progressively smaller holes in a device called a ‘draw plate’ until it was stretched to the desired length, a process that is termed ‘drawing’.

Despite the apparent emphasis on precision in the process for making the work, Parker’s 2003 statement that this object is ‘a teaspoon that’s been “drawn” to the height of Niagara Falls’ is somewhat ambiguous, since Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls that are different in size and Parker has herself noted that the stated height of each of the Niagara Falls differs ‘depending on which encyclopaedia you consult’ (Parker in Blazwick 2013, p.123). Based on the rough measurement she has given of 187 feet, it seems likely that the wire’s length is broadly equivalent to the approximate height of Horseshoe Fall on the Canadian side of the border, which is 188 feet high and is the largest of the three falls.

The title of this work evokes the absurdity of Parker’s task of using a small household object to measure an enormous natural landmark. In 1998 Parker suggested that this work conjures the idea of

trying to measure nature on an epic and violent scale with something as domestic and mundane as a teaspoon, this little thing we use to stir our cup of tea and which has such limitations. It’s like trying to quantify matter in the universe, which is impossible.
(Parker in Cornelia Parker and Lisa G. Corrin, ‘Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Truth and Beauty’, in Serpentine Gallery 1998, unpaginated.)

The teaspoon used to create this work has completely lost its original form and function, shedding its previous identity as a household object. Broken and altered pieces of Georgian cutlery feature in a number of Parker’s works (see, for instance, the large-scale installation Thirty Pieces of Silver 1988–9, Tate T07461), but they generally retain at least some aspects of their original appearance, whereas in Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon and her other ‘drawn’ pieces they are rendered unrecognisable through the act of melting and stretching. Curator Bruce W. Ferguson has noted that the transformation of materials has been a key theme in Parker’s practice since the 1980s (see, for instance, Another Matter 1994, private collection), arguing that ‘her chosen materials are reconceptualized precisely to reveal that there are no truths in materials, there are no reducible and essential traits in any matter whatsoever’ (Bruce W. Ferguson, ‘Introduction – Improbus Materia: Maybe’, in Blazwick 2013, p.11). Indeed, Parker has stated that she was initially inspired to produce works using ‘drawn’ metal when she ‘was reminded of the various analogies used to describe how ductile material is: in theory you can make a wedding ring into a thread that will go around the world, or flatten it into gold leaf that would cover a room’ (Parker in Blazwick 2013, p.123).

Further reading
Cornelia Parker, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1998, unpaginated.
Cornelia Parker, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston 2000, p.27, reproduced p.28.
Iwona Blazwick, Cornelia Parker, London 2013, pp.106, 123, reproduced pp.106, 123.

David Hodge
March 2015

Supported by Christie’s.