Atrocious Americana: Cornelia Parker at the Royal Academy
You know the house shouldn’t really be here. Its wooden walls, although scuffed and sun-drenched, are an astonishing red. Much too red for the anodyne aristocracy of Mayfair limestone.
The windows might be darkened but you’re sure you catch a glimpse of life behind the drapes. You notice the front porch, provocatively tilted away from the bustle of the street. Quietly, the house refuses to participate in the careful order and symmetry of the square.
Walking around to the backyard, you expect, no doubt, to find collard greens bursting through the rough earth. Perhaps a soil-splintered fork leaning against the back porch. But something else sprouts here. A rigid utilitarian superstructure, revealing a void behind the red clapboards. No slowly bubbling stove-top or plump armchairs draped with antimacassars sit inside. There is only deliberate emptiness. The house is a sham, a rhetorical façade and a stage set.
Which is no surprise, given that Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) by British artist Cornelia Parker is modeled on the similarly spartan set of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. The Bates family motel, itself inspired by a bleak Edward Hopper landscape of 1925, is isolated and exaggerated in the central courtyard of Burlington House. PsychoBarn seems made for the Royal Academy - its proportions and styling in such compelling conversation with the neoclassical courtyard - yet the work was originally commissioned for the roof garden of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where it spent the summer of 2016.
Particularly striking is the way in which this modest house easily epitomises some of the biggest stars of Americana; romanticised red barns, wholesome small-town values, classic Hollywood cinema, and the reassuring domesticity of 20th century architecture (as painted by Hopper and Grant Wood). Yet, in the same breath, these cherished icons are exploded by Parker, who reassembles them with a new quality which makes the familiar strange.
That the house began as one of those fabled red barns is key to its uncanny reassembly. Parker’s work often finds its basis in found objects - a thousand crushed silver artefacts for Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89), or an entire shed for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). Here, a dilapidated rural barn provided the raw material for the clapboards and corrugated roof tiles, imbuing the reassembled house with all the wholesome connotations of the original. Not only is the artefact itself broken and reassembled; the same goes for the values which its aesthetics signify. In this remade house, iconoclasm and nostalgia balance on a knife-edge. This tension allows the artist to question the very foundations which sustain the rural rhetoric of the Rust Belt, so often seized by politicians and media outlets as the homeland of hard-working, honest Americans.
The house - ostensibly solid and historic yet structurally hollow - inevitably suggests a microcosm of the USA. Its sheer ordinariness is the perfect antithesis of the grand civic architecture which characterises supposedly liberal, metropolitan, elite Washington, D.C. - nothing could be further from the White House, Capitol or Washington Memorial. Yet behind this compelling and convincing façade, this appeal to traditional working-class values, there is nothing but fabrication. Unsophisticated scaffolding supports this particular vision of the American Dream, which, when seen from a different perspective, is as flimsy as cotton pulled across eyelids.
PsychoBarn arrived on the roof of the Met while Donald Trump was a Republican candidate - equal parts ominous and unlikely - and left (appropriately enough) on Halloween, thereby not witnessing his election to the presidency. Brexit was likewise a distant ridge on the horizon. Two years later, after inauguration, indecency and ignominy on both sides of the Atlantic, the house exists in a shattered socio-political sphere, proving the point that the interpretation of artworks can change like the wind (and, perhaps, that Cornelia Parker is a fortune teller).
A house, in many ways, is the ultimate representation of the state. It protects and shelters, witnessing the milestones of life. It has clear boundaries, open and closed, it has neighbours, loved and loathed, and its perpetual presence reassures its inhabitants.
In Manhattan, PsychoBarn sat deep in a corner of the Met’s roof garden. Visitors in London can circle the whole construction but New-Yorkers could catch only a glimpse of its rear. With its structural support facing Central Park, the house’s façade presented a convincing fallacy of solidity. Yet, in its secluded corner, this apparent solidity was tempered with a sense of isolation. The house was poised on a cliff-edge; a warning, an anachronistic relic set against the shimmering sky-scrapers. In 2018, it’s too late for warnings and everything now is on show. Although still isolated and set apart from its architectural neighbours, PsychoBarn exists in an age which seeks to reaffirm the values of transparency, honesty and accountability.
Set at the centre of the RA’s central courtyard, Parker’s house now invites comparisons to Britain as well as the United States. The architectural motifs of the work and its setting engage in compelling conversation: the simple porch and the classical balustrade; the shared symmetry; the verticality of one and the horizontality of the other; the house’s central triple window and the Palladian openings at either side of Burlington House. Are grand civic neoclassicism and modest parochial domesticity in fact easy bedfellows after all?
Here, then, is a place for questioning the state we’re in. As an imposter in a familiar setting, the success of Parker’s house lies in its command of physical space. Every visitor has to walk around the house to reach the entrance of the Royal Academy; like our politics it sits as a roadblock, familiar and strange at the same time.
Here is an artwork for a nation - indeed a world - in flux. Conceived for an American institution by a British artist. Inspired by an American film directed by a British icon. Bringing the aesthetics of Americana to the heart of the British establishment. PsychoBarn is the ultimate expression of the ‘special relationship’ and the symbiotic growth of two countries now stepping back from a globalist agenda to pursue isolationist futures. Architecture persists and reminds us of our past, stage sets do not. PsychoBarn asks the questions but doesn’t give us the answers. Let’s hope they aren’t to be found in a blood-soaked shower.