Cornelia Parker, one of the four nominees for this year's Turner Prize, collects objects such as the crown from a poet's tooth, people's navel fluff and a dead spider from Mark Twain's house. Her past works of art include an installation composed of fragments from a garden shed which had been blown up by the British Army, and clusters of silver plate that have been squashed by a steamroller. Most (in)famously, she placed the sleeping actress Tilda Swinton in a perspex case and called it art. She is the sort of modern artist who makes tabloids foam at the mouth.
Which Parker herself finds rather disappointing. "The media don't want to know what the potential of a work can be," she sighs. "They want a soundbite and no more. Artists are scapegoats. Art is unpopular because of the way the popular press choose to mediate it. They just want to have a debate about contemporary art - the bricks in the Tate or Damien Hirst's shark. Nobody wants to know about the project in hand; they just want to find some way of sensationalising it."
Parker is now at the point where she feels like that archetypal figure: the misunderstood artist. "The tabloids get angry because they think they're being had," she reflects. "But artists don't give up their lives for very little money for something they don't believe in. There are more easy ways to make money," she adds with a laugh.
This din of tabloid indignation reaches a crescendo during that annual festival of artist-bashing otherwise known as the Turner Prize. "If art is a whipping-boy, then the Turner Prize is the biggest whipping-boy of all," Parker reckons. "Every year there is another weird thing for the media to deride. The Turner Prize nominees are human sacrifices for the sake of art; we're the people who take the brunt of it.
"Like the Booker Prize, the Turner Prize has become highly controversial," she continues. "This year people are complaining that there's no painting, but in all other artforms it would be ridiculous to follow what's gone on before. There's been a huge revolution in the last century - we now have aeroplanes and computers - yet the media expect art to be stuck in the Dark Ages."
Parker hopes these misconceptions might be slightly altered by A Date with an Artist, a new six-part BBC2 series that invites well-known artists to create customised works of art for celebrities. In the first episode on Monday, Parker makes two beautiful photograms for Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to scale Everest.
"The series takes a popular angle," Parker explains, "but at least it gives 15 minutes for each artist to show the way they work. That's what's missing from most of today's coverage. There are as many different artists as musicians, but artists are all lumped together in one pigeon-hole."
Reflecting Stephens' passion for climbing, the photograms depict a feather from the down jacket she wore during the ascent of Everest and some particles of dust Parker collected during a climb with Stephens up to the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's Cathedral. To avoid accusations that she is doing anything too conventional, however, Parker also fashions a pair of earplugs for Stephens out of the remnants of the St Paul's dust. These works formed part of Parker's Turner Prize entry.
Parker and Stephens are obviously from opposing moulds - at one point in the documentary, the latter affectionately tells the former: "You're completely mad." For the artist, though, that sense of difference is a source of creativity. "Rebecca is the sort of person who'd say, `why, why, why?' I'm the opposite. I very rarely ask why. I'm not into facts. We have very different ways of looking at the world, and I was trying to bridge that gap. Her attitude to life informed me. It was cross-pollination. The art is the residue of that interaction. I get inspired in conversation with people who look at the world in a very different way from me."
In the end, however, they both found the experience rewarding. "The value of the programme is that it informs the way you look at the world - in the same way that reading a novel does," Parker asserts. "People look at sunrises in a different way because [the artist] Turner existed. After this, people might look at dust in their bedroom in a different way."
Stephens certainly will. "This project has made me appreciate the exquisite beauty of things you usually take for granted," she concludes. "Cornelia picked up everything and looked at it at a tangent that I really hadn't thought of before. Whether it was a feather or a bit of dust or a toenail, suddenly it was a work of art."
Now there's something for the tabloids to mull over.
`A Date with an Artist' starts on Monday on BBC2 at 7.30pm
See p7 for Turner Prize oddsReuse content