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Cornelia Parker: “I try to see the best in situations, even violence and war”

British artist and sculptor Cornelia Parker reflects on the influence of her "garrulous" father, sorting out her demons, and the moment she'd like to relive

Sixteen was a tough time for me. My mum had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia so things at home were very unstable. I knew I wanted to do something to do with art. I’d just spent a week in London with my art class and for the first time in my life I was exposed to museums like the ICA and The Tate. I was a rural, Cheshire child who never went to museums. So that was extraordinary for me, realising what a big world there was out there.

I was a very shy 16-year-old. I didn’t think I was loveable. I was quite moody, angsty, introspective. A quiet rebel. I wore lots of dark make-up and crepe dresses, second-hand stuff and Biba. And I got into David Bowie and saw him on his Ziggy Stardust tour in ’72. For me, he was the best. I was a bit of a loner at school, I didn’t see friends in the evenings. I think I was already in art school mode, quite individualist. My mum complained that I always had to be different, and I thought yeah, I do. Because I felt different.

I’d had a few boyfriends like my father – charismatic, manipulative. Jeff was not like my father

My father verbally dominated the house so I don’t think I came out of my shell until I’d been away from home for a few years. And then I probably did channel my father. He was a garrulous, flamboyant, rebellious character, very articulate and funny, though he was just a peasant farmer. He also had a dark side. My mum became mentally ill so she was not available. She was German and had been a nurse in the war. I think she was quite traumatised and became an introvert. She was a good person I think; my father was more Machiavellian and a bully really. He could swing on a sixpence. He was charismatic, but he could suddenly be quite vicious with us. You had to watch out.

My mother was German and was a nurse in the war. I think she was quite traumatised and became an introvert

Neither of my parents wanted me to be an artist. They’d have been much more comfortable with a proper job, like a doctor. Even when I had some real success they couldn’t quite get it. But I think anything I’d chosen, there would have been some issues with it. They did come to see some of my work. When I was nominated for the Turner Prize I invited them to London and put them up in a nice hotel. My father just spent his time standing in front of my exhibit, Church Struck by Lightning, asking people what they thought of it. I think he was trying to provoke a reaction. I don’t know.

Cornelia Parker is awarded a CBE for Services to Art in January 2011.

I still have all the self-doubt I had when I was 16. I think it’s just part of my make-up. The foundations I had weren’t that secure so I always had the harpies on the shoulder saying you’re not good enough, which was what my father said. You’re a bit of a waster. You’re not working hard enough. I’ve always worked really hard. In a way I wish I could take my foot off the pedal and relax but I have this need to keep reinventing the wheel. I’m never satisfied with anything I’ve done. I have suffered with depression throughout my life. It’s the beast at the back of the cupboard. The work is important for that – it unleashes the beast and lets it rampage out in the world.

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I think my creativity came from my father. But I can see something of my mother there too. She was an interior person, and much of my work is small and interior. The other side of my work, like The Exploding Shed, is big and explosive, perhaps dealing with the anger or violence that came from my father. I’m always trying to repair something, or bring things back together or resurrect things physically, by suspension, so they’re not lost. Trying to find something new that comes after the carnage.

The foundations I had weren’t that secure so I always had the harpies on the shoulder saying you’re not good enough

Much of my work is about seeing potential and I think – I hope – I’m that kind of person in real life too. I try to see the best in situations, even in violence and war. I use a lot of guns and bullets, but they’ve been disarmed by being chopped up or ground to dust. When I went to the factory where they make poppies I saw these discarded yards of red paper with poppy-shaped holes in it. That for me is much more evocative than the poppies themselves. So I made a giant red tent out of the material. It was based on this famous gorgeous, sumptuous golden red tent which Henry VIII put up for his Field of the Cloth of Gold peace summit with the French. And the thing I liked best about that work is that veterans actually used that tent; they had a choir in there, they used it in photos for their calendar.

I’d like to tell my teenage self, don’t worry, things get easier. I’d tell her it’s never too late. I didn’t meet my husband till I was 40. I didn’t have my child till I was 45. It wasn’t planned but it was great. I got nominated for the Turner when I was 40. I still wasn’t represented by a gallery at that point. I think I sabotaged a lot of things early on, but though I didn’t have a great path, it ended up being the right path. If I’d had a child at 25, before I sorted my demons out, I’d have been a very fucked-up mother.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991. © Cornelia Parker / Tate London

I’ve enjoyed being a mother, it’s fantastic. Much more complex, much more of a creative thing than I’d thought. And a lot of fun. I think there’s a whole chunk of your brain that’s dormant, waiting for you to be a parent. You feel new things, in a different way than before. You feel more vulnerable. I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out on motherhood. And it’s been good for my own childhood crap. I can sort of go back and repair it and that has really been fantastic. Lily’s childhood is the one I’d have liked for myself.

If I’d had a child at 25, before I sorted my demons out, I’d have been a very fucked-up mother

If I could go back and relive any time, it would be in 1997 when I met my husband (artist Jeff McMillan) in Texas. He helped me pick up the pieces of wood for my Church Struck by Lightning piece. He was a gentle giant, a calm, nice person, a few years younger than me. He was not fazed by being with an older woman who was more successful. We had the same values, about doing what we want to do, being free, making art. I’d had a few boyfriends like my father – charismatic, manipulative. Jeff was not like my father. He is a much-loved individual. Around the same time as I met him I had a phone call saying I’d been nominated for the Turner Prize. And the Frith Street Gallery called and said they’d like to represent me. So a lot of the problems I’d been having in my life – not having a life partner, not making money out of my work – were all resolved in just a few months in Texas.