By Cornelia Parker (British, born 1956)
Made in London
Silver-plated brass musical instruments suspended on stainless steel wire.
Breathless takes the form of a hypothetical brass band, a collection of defunct instruments acquired from the dusty back rooms of the British Legion, Salvation Army, collieries and other establishments. No longer played, these horns shared the fate of being squashed by the weight of one of our most famous historical monuments, Tower Bridge. The deed was done by one of the giant 22-ton accumulators, part of the bridge’s original hydraulic lifting mechanism. One Victorian institution literally knocked the wind out of another.
The brass band in Britain could be seen as the musical equivalent of the stiff upper lip. Many of the institutions in which they originated have become virtually extinct, but the bands play on.
In Breathless, the hushed ensemble has been resurrected to become a museum object suspended in limbo. It occupies a no man’s land between two floors, a new space formerly filled by ceiling and floor. A vibrant working class tradition has been brought into the British Galleries of the V&A in the guise of a heraldic ceiling rose. From above, the work appears as a silvery pool of polished silver-plated instruments sounding out from the floor. From below, the tarnished underbellies of the same instruments become black cartoons of their former selves, silhouetted against the white ceiling to echo the ornate ceiling preserved in the adjoining galleries.
The piece is an attempt to explore a number of contradictions.
I wanted to create something that would explore ideas of duality: light/dark, silence/noise, comedy/tragedy, consciousness/unconsciousness, upper class/lower class, North/South, inhaling/exhaling, death/resurrection, black cloud/silver lining. I see the work as a ghostly last gasp of the British Empire.
Instruments squashed by Tower Bridge machinery
with kind permission of the Corporation of London.