Frame by Frame

From chaos, a suspended beauty

Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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In the three-plus years since its painstaking installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)’’ has become one of the most popular pieces of contemporary art on view in this city.

Parker, an English artist in her 50s, salvaged these charred and desiccated pieces of wood from the scene of a suspicious fire at a woodshop on the outskirts of London. Burnt and brittle, they’re evidence of disaster, wrong-doing, undoing. In the natural order of things we’d be seeing them collapsed in an abject pile on the ground, surrounded by rubble, awaiting the final chapter of their fate: dust, decay, dissolution.

But Parker proposes a different fate. From chaos, she creates order. From collapse, she creates effortless ascension. And from confusion (who did it, and how?), she creates transparency (I did it, and you can easily see how).

Cunningly, the work floats a few inches off the floor, echoing the beloved “reveal’’ of contemporary architects like Renzo Piano — a slight gap where walls and pedestals do not meet the floor, creating an illusion of zero gravity.

In defiance of another fundamental law, the piece seems to reverse time’s arrow. Almost insouciantly, it restores the rectilinear elevation of the building that burned down. There’s something cinematic about the result, like the frozen frame of a film played in reverse.

But the work’s air of brainy calculation is really a cloak behind which primal urges pulse: the desire to be salvaged, to be weightless, to be restored to order.

Beauty from ugliness. Hope from defeat. Order from chaos: These are the things, when all is said and done, we yearn for, we’re on our knees for. And yet, stubbornly, they elude us.

If religions are good at promising us what we’ll never get, art performs the more modest task of reminding us what we don’t have. And indeed, the irony of this particular work of art is that, even as it seems to defy gravity, it relies on it. And even as it suggests a phoenix rising from the ashes, there’s really nothing supernatural in sight: just another dumb smattering of detritus rearranged into the form of a box.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


By Cornelia Parker

At: Institute of Contemporary Art. 617-478-3100,