This section of the resource looks at some of the different locations in which Cold Dark Matter has been exhibited; and how slight alterations in its installation, the physical nature of the gallery space, as well as the context within which it appears, changes how the work is seen and interpreted

Cornelia Parker did not create any plans, preliminary sketches or detailed installation instructions for Cold Dark Matter, preferring to work in a more intuitive way. Apart from basic instructions relating to the arrangement of objects (smaller objects towards the centre, larger objects around the edge, and wooden shed fragments forming an outer surround) the installation relies on the sensibility and aesthetic sense of the person overseeing it. As long as the integrity of the work is maintained, the artist is happy for it to change every time it is hung. In fact, the artist likes the idea that the work may be different each time it is installed.

The reason I like suspending things is that things aren’t fixed. It will never be the same again, and I like that, because I think that is the way life is.

The Chisenhale Gallery

Parker created Cold Dark Matter for the Chisenhale Gallery in London’s East End, where it was first exhibited in October 1991.

She initially assembled the intact shed in the gallery for just one day. It was filled with objects that the artist had gleaned from her own and friends’ garden sheds, and (the universal depository for unwanted things) car boot sales. She then photographed the shed in the gallery, before taking it away to be blown up.

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter – An Unexploded View at Chisenhale Gallery
Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter – An Unexploded View at Chisenhale Gallery

The visitor arriving at the Chisenhale exhibition initially saw the photograph of the intact shed. They then turned a corner to the main gallery space and encountered the installation. For this initial installation it was important to Parker that the photograph was displayed alongside the explosion installation, as the intact shed had been installed in that space. But Parker does not feel that that the photograph always has to be shown alongside the explosion.

Installation view of Cold Dark Matter at the Chisenhale Gallery, London
Installation view of Cold Dark Matter at the Chisenhale Gallery, London

The Chisenhale Gallery  has no natural light. Light therefore had to be an important consideration in the installation of the work. Parker made use of the darkness of the space by using the single 200 watt lightbulb that hung in the original shed as the only light source for the installation. Placing it in the centre of the suspended objects caused dramatic shadows to be cast on the walls and floor of the gallery. The dramatic light and shadows became an important aspect of the work from then on.

São Paulo Biennial

In 1994 Cold Dark Matter was shown at the São Paulo Biennial. Because there was some concern that the international audience may not be able to understand the title, and therefore miss out on its meaning, it was decided that she include photographs documenting the explosion alongside the installation. She displayed the photograph of the shed; then photographs of the explosion; then the installation itself. But she discovered that the audience did not need the photographs in order to ‘get’ it.

Although the artwork takes as its subject something that Parker describes as ‘a very British institution’ – the garden shed – she discovered in Brazil how universal the objects included in the work, in fact are: ‘everybody knows what door keys are, everybody knows what a suitcase is, everybody knows what a bike is…’. Over seventy different nationalities visited the Biennial. Not only did they understand what the work was about, they took different things from it depending on their experiences and what their associations of an explosion are – whether they saw it as a political piece or recognised its cartoon-like qualities. Some of the visitors who had experienced war at close hand, found the work extremely emotional and moving, as the effect of an explosion on ordinary everyday objects was particularly relevant and disturbing to them.

The gallery space within which Cold Dark Matter was hung in Brazil was much smaller than the Chisenhale Gallery where the work was first installed. Although the smaller space made for a more dramatic impact – with bigger, stronger, darker shadows, Parker prefers seeing the work in a larger space:

People loved it for its drama but I preferred it in the Chisenhale because I think it is dramatic enough. I think it needs a big enough space to observe it.