Cornelia Parker

Artvehicle 31/Review

13th February 2008 — 30th March 2008

Noam Chomsky begins talking abruptly, somewhere in the middle. He's describing the gap between public policy and public opinion, instantiating the Kyoto agreement as something so conspicuously positive that the majority of the public thought that Bush supported it. He continues, describing the corporate butressing of the state; the U.S's Mafia-style approach to foreign affairs; his famous theory of 'apocalypse soon'; the myth of 'trade' (let alone 'free trade'), and so on.  He speaks very lucidly and very calmly (in fact, he tends towards peaceable monotony) about familiarly vital issues, all the while addressing Cornelia Parker off-camera. Her contribution to the interview, as is a standard convention within documentary journalism, has been withdrawn; save for Chomsky's gaze and address, and the less obvious, weirdly disquieting pauses that punctuate the film, Parker is invisible. Whereas perhaps a more conventional 'documentary' might have recourse to more images - demonstrative or recreative scenes, for example - Parker's film, in its purposeful asceticism, focuses solely on Chomsky: his face, glasses, shirt collar and woollen jersey; his voice, eyes, skin and lips. So, in order to conceal her questioning, she has made some rather convoluted editorial decisions: Chomsky is paused, alternately fades to black and back again, or mutely acknowledges Parker's questions, answering her silent questions subsequently. These devices tend to feel arbitrary in application, and the first time the screen paused, apparently mid-flow, I thought it was a technical mistake. These editorial decisions do, however, complicate and problematise what is essentially an extremely simple piece. Perhaps it was with reverence - both for the subject matter and for the man - that Parker decided to make such a straightforward work. Indeed, in the short article she has written to accompany this exhibition, she states that her intention was always to make an overtly polemical piece. However, given the (perceived) public awareness of the issues Chomsky speaks of - and those overtly espoused through the sponsorship of the show by Friends Of The Earth - there is perhaps a sense that this piece is plainly didactic, and in a rather reiterative way. This appears to be a deeply committed work, and one that is unarguably speaking about urgent matters; but this commitment, this invective, risks becoming aesthetically, artistically deferential to the size and universality of the content and the subject of the interview. 
The film, entitled 'Chomskian Abstract', in a similar fashion to her more forensic treatment of Freud, Einstein and Bronte, engenders a reading of the icon - the great thinker, Noam Chomsky - as index. The image of Chomsky - that is, his potency - is corrupted by a kind of direct, visual scrutiny, and a deliberate corruption of documentary propriety. His enshrinement in history is writ large on the screen - certainly not through his measured, rehearsed and extremely current (to March 9 2007) admonishments; rather it is through his frailty as a human - being marked and drawn by the weight of the thoughts he has intoned - and through the convergence of his increasing physical decrepitude with the echoing familiarity of his words, that Chomsky feels intractably old. Parker's choice to edit her presence out of the final film does not, as she claims, urge the audience to fill the gaps with their own questions; but it provides salient respite from Chomsky's life in words. When Parker pauses the action, or when Chomsky listens and nods over her silence, we are allowed access to the complexity of our perceptions of Chomsky, importantly here as an individual and as a human. His limitations are underscored - not necessarily intellectually; but in the face of an immobile state position, imperialistic foreign policy, corporate puppetry etc., Chomsky is prostrate before impending catastrophe, speaking in ever decreasing volume to the always already converted.  His tone - in equal parts known, felt; and diluted, tired - belies a heavy fatalism, and Parker's questions, familiar and outraged, must have sounded and felt like memorial recitations. 
Outside the screening room, there's a space for audience feedback: Friends Of The Earth postcards with the preface, 'My question is:' written at the top to invite participation. A pretty hackneyed idea. Generally speaking the questions posed are impotent and not a little rhetorical, in the vacantly philosophical vein ('Why can't we just consume less?'). One contributor asks 'What can we do?' and immediately answers themselves: 'HUMANISE!' I suspect they are referring to the state objectification of its citizenry, but it feels like it might be more complex than that. In the process of humanising Chomsky, Parker has indexed another icon - even as Chomsky answers Parker's unheard questions, we understand that he cannot answer our prayers; here he is demoted from the canon and rejoins us all. 


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Cornelia Parker — Chomskian Abstract, 2007, DVD, 41: 48, Filmed on 9 March 2007 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, courtesy the artist. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8 - 2007, UAE and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK.

Chomskian Abstract, 2007, DVD, 41: 48, Filmed on 9 March 2007 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, courtesy the artist. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8 - 2007, UAE and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK.