English artist Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (PsychoBarn), currently installed on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a genre-busting showstopper. Parker has modestly called her 28-foot-tall sculpture, which is visible from pathways in Central Park, “an incongruous object.” A site-specific work, it’s based on the house occupied by the proprietors of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho—a house that was itself inspired by Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (at the Museum of Modern of Art), painted in 1925. With an impressive sleight-of-hand, Parker had a team of industrial fabricators construct her faux residence with materials from a barn dismantled in rural upstate New York.
Simply put, Transitional Object, whose title borrows a psychological term for things like stuffed animals, security blankets, and such, is based on a two-sided structure from a movie set that was based on a mansion in a painting. But that’s a somewhat deceptive description. When you walk to the rear of Parker’s makeshift building, you discover a profusion of pipes forming scaffolding, large metal drums filled with water for ballast, and other elements that anchor her work so that it can withstand 100-miles-per-hour winds, a code requirement. Visually, this makes Transitional Object an engaging abstract sculpture. Speaking with the press, Parker has emphasized that the back of her work is as important as its front.
For Parker, this mélange of sources and inspirations could not be situated in a better place. After all, as she pointed out to me, as we sat and talked on a bench on the roof on an exceptionally sunny, warm morning last week, “the Met is filled with all this culture from around the world.”
Cornelia Parker started out as a provincial farm girl. Born in 1956 in rural Cheshire, England, she grew up more familiar with barns than museums. Accustomed to “manual labor,” she milked the family’s cows by hand, baled hay, and had little time left over for anything else. However, when Parker was 15, her art teachers, a married couple, brought her class to London for a week to look at great art. “I had never been in a museum,” she said the other day. At the National Gallery, she was bowled over by the Old Masters and, in her words, “a cacophony of different styles of work: Italianate paintings, Rubens, Murillo.” Back then, the strapping teenager found that “all sculpture seemed to be on plinths and made of marble.”
Parker became the first girl from her school to study art. After attending the Gloucestershire College of Art and Design in 1974, she enrolled at Wolverhampton Polytechnic “because,” she admitted a while ago, “I couldn’t get into any of the better schools.” Since then, she’s taught at the places that turned her down.
Living in East London during the early 1980s, Parker was astonished, she told me, “to move into an area that was full of creative, like-minded people, composers and theater people as well as artists. It was a quantum leap for me.” Shortly after that, in 1984, she spent a stimulating few months in a place on Avenue A, near Tompkins Square Park in New York. She remembers the East Village as being “electric and vibrant.” Parker continues to make extended visits to Manhattan. She was married on the Brooklyn Bridge, and her wedding photograph shows her and her husband, Jeff McMillan, an artist from Texas, getting hitched with the World Trade Center in the background. The mayor should make her an honorary New Yorker.
Now 60 years old, Parker, who is tall, has brown eyes, and wears her auburn hair cut in a modified Lulu bob, noted that she was caught between two generations of English sculptors. She’s slightly younger than Richard Deacon, Richard Wentworth, and Tony Cragg, and slightly older than the YBAs, who met one another at Goldsmiths. Said Parker, “I’m a bit more of a maverick.” As a deconstructionist, she’s taken cues from Wentworth, who is even less well known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., the flotsam-and-jetsam period of Tony Cragg, and Arte Povera. She’s made installations from garden sheds she’s blown up, silver-plated serving pieces she’s steamrolled, and house bricks she beachcombed beneath the White Cliffs of Dover.
When Parker was pregnant with her daughter and about to show work in Turin, she discovered she could purchase, at a benefit auction, Mia Farrow’s blue nightgown from Rosemary’s Baby. “Because I was pregnant at the time,” she said to me, “I realized everything could have been in Mia Farrow’s character’s head. That meant it was a psychological story, not something scary.” In Turin, she displayed her newly acquired nightgown in a case as if it were Veronica’s Veil, a local relic.
Parker is a huge movie fan. “We,” she said, referring to Europeans and her fellow countrymen, “know America from the movies.” Mentioning films made in New York, from Duck Soup to Ghostbusters, she explained that’s how she learned to love water towers, steam rising from the street, and the billboards of Times Square.
She is also deeply knowledgeable about the golden ages of black-and-white British movies, and we talked about Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner—which returns us to Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) and Alfred Hitchcock.
For ten years, Parker lived in an area of London that Hitchcock, one of her favorite directors, once called home. She’s watched his movies over and over again. “Because he cut his teeth on silent films,” she said, “he could project all sorts of things without resorting to dialogue.” She admires the way that his “great visual eye” lets “you feel every moment of a scene.” Is it any wonder Parker was inspired by the house in Psycho?
Parker outlined how Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) “encapsulates” many of the themes and interests she has addressed during her three-and-a-half-decade career, referring to oppositions such as a work having a front and a back, being concerned with good and evil, and being deconstructed and then re-constructed. She also mentioned her use of found color.
These days, however, Parker’s attitude regarding site-specific sculpture has changed. She now feels the specificity resides in her work regardless of where it is located. For Parker, both Psycho and the barn are “inside” Transitional Object (PsychoBarn), and its meaning is the same “if you put the work at Balmoral Palace in Scotland or somewhere in Australia. Wherever you put it, the site goes with it.”
I, for one, can’t wait to see where the work goes next, but I will miss it when it leaves the roof of the Met after Halloween. It has become a welcome addition to the New York skyline.