I recently visited the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester again. On my first visit since it reopened I was really impressed by various pieces by Cornelia Parker. Part of my reason for this visit was to see Magna Carta (an embroidery).
This work is an exact copy in embroidery of the Wikipedia page on Magna Carta as it appeared on the 799th anniversary of its signing. Originally in the the entrance hall of the British Library as part of the celebrations for Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, it was on display at the Whitworth Art Gallery until 1/11/2015. At nearly 13 metres long and 1.5 metres wide it is an impressive piece physically, and the physical point is the first one I want to make.
At the physical level the contrasts brought to mind are very thought provoking. This is a copy of a page from the internet with no real physical existence copied out using a medieval craft to create an imposing artifact. The page itself is discussing an 800 year old document of which very few copies remain in existence but might be said to ‘virtually’ underpin much modern legal thinking. So we have a modern but virtual document made physical using a centuries old technique discussing a medieval document whose modern existence is virtual. Quite deep!
But the real magic is in hidden in the detail of the process of creation. The collaborative nature of Wikipedia is mirrored in the collaborative approach taken to the embroidery. Much of the embroidery was done by prisoners working with Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise which “trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework”. Here is one layer, the text is about a legal document defining basic freedoms but which has been created by those who are by definition not free. At the basic level of it’s creation the work highlights how Magna Carta doesn’t speak for the rights of many of us.
Although the bulk of the work was done by prisoners, a number of individual words were embroidered by specific people. Each one challenges the viewer to think about the sorts of freedom protected by law, who is protected, and what the limits of that freedom might be. The full list is given on the Wikipedia page. So Julian Assange embroidered the words “freedom” and “ancient liberties”; Moazzam Begg (until recently a detainee at Guatanamo Bay) embroidered “held without charge”; Edward Snowden embroidered “liberty”; Shami Chakrabarti embroidered “Charter of Liberties”. There are many other examples, and each one prompts a train of thought around what freedom means in modern society, what freedoms are protected by law and in whose interests does that law work.
This is the most thought provoking piece of art I have seen in a very long term, and well worth the visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery on it’s own.