Cornelia Parker: The artist's home is an industrial revelation
It was a run-down building, on a street where cars are still torched. But the artist Cornelia Parker spotted an opportunity to create a fabulous home
Wednesday 12 March 2008
The best thing about this house is that every bit of space is well-used. I spend a lot of time here and the main room is like the family hub – the dining table's forever littered with books and my daughter Lily's drawing materials. The living area is open-plan, so we often sit and work while Jeff cooks, if he's not in the studio.
Some people separate their work and home lives, but I love the idea of having my studio and house in the same space. I want to make work that reflects different times and processes. The idea of going off to an office every day and "putting on my art hat" doesn't appeal.
There's a really intriguing, dark history surrounding this part of the East End, which seems apt for me – I guess I have a sensibility for the macabre. Old Nichol Street, where I live, is said to be the root of the term "nicked", due to the number of criminals working around here. In 1880, it was deemed so run-down they bulldozed these streets. If you look at maps from that period, there's literally a blank space around here! Even now, if you keep an eye on an abandoned car, you'll see it will soon get stripped and then you know not to park near it, as it will be torched next.
That said, the area's changed even in the time that I've been here. There was a Nigerian shipping company a couple of doors away when we first came here. Now, the building has been converted into swanky loft apartments. Trendy bars and delis have sprung up all over and with all the skyscrapers being built, it's quite scary; it could soon be the new Canary Wharf.
Our building used to house a printing press. The front is Victorian, built in the late-19th century, with enormously high ceilings, and the back is also industrial, but was added in the 1920s. From the outside you wouldn't know there was anyone living here – it just looks like a factory.
It was in a pretty bad state when we found it, 10 years ago. The main living/kitchen area was where the printers laid out the type. There were bars on the windows, it had a pitched-roof, and there were pornographic images covering the walls. We dropped the windows to let in extra light, laid wooden floors and lined the walls with insulating material.
Having added a roof terrace, we've given ourselves a little vegetable patch within the heart of the city – it's so good to have outdoor space. We installed solar panels, too, so Jeff can grow tomatoes and all sorts up there. The only problem is that it's slightly exposed, so we put up bamboo walls for extra privacy.
Jeff and I share the studio on the bottom floor. Between us, we have so much stuff that we rotate the art. At the moment, there's a real mix. There are some violent images, like the original William Burroughs drawing, which reads: "No Morphine MD". I think he was off his head when he drew it.
Then there's a Jimmy Lee Sudduth portrait, drawn with mud and his fingers, next to a papier-mâché glove puppet, which I bought at Borough Market. Some of it is just bits made by children, picked up at car boot sales, and then there's a couple of my parents' inherited pieces, like my mum's family crest. She was really working-class, read the Daily Mail, and then has this!
The mounted piece of the Brooklyn Bridge points to the sinister element that seems to follow us. It was given to us by a friend when Jeff and I got married on the bridge in 1998. There's a photo of us standing there, with the Twin Towers looming behind us. We then took them as a symbol of our undying love. Three years later, they was gone.
Yoko Ono gave me the message in a bottle, which sits in one of two glass cabinets. We met in New York in 1999 and have been sending each other stuff ever since. A statue I made of Perdita from 101 Dalmatians, with her head cut off by the same guillotine used to behead Marie Antoinette, sits on the next shelf.
We added a corridor leading to our bedroom, so it divided the space. There used to be a hatch leading to the roof terrace, but Jeff later built outdoor stairs, which rise from the deck outside the living room. The pictures in the bedroom are prints by a Polish artist, drawn in 1973 when he was 90. They have a lovely, naïve quality.
At the moment this place suits us well, but as we are increasingly surrounded by towering apartment blocks, there's a worry that we'll soon get no sunlight. And then how would the solar panels on the roof work?
Cornelia Parker currently has two exhibitions in London, at the Frith Street Gallery, W1, to 24 April, and the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, to 31 March
Sculptor, installation artist and former Turner Prize nominee Cornelia Parker, 52, lives and works in a Shoreditch studio with her artist husband Jeff McMillan, 40, and their daughter Lily, six. Among her works are the Tate installation, The Shed, and The Maybe, which encased Tilda Swinton in a vitrine at the Serpentine Gallery.
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