Creating art in the lab: materials transformation questions objects’ meanings


Cornelia Parker sets up a silver teapot for flattening between the plates of the Instron universal testing machine, Imperial College London.

Cornelia Parker preparing a teapot for flattening in the Instron, Imperial College London.

Artist Cornelia Parker works with Imperial’s Mechanical Engineering department to create artwork.

On 7 September, artist Cornelia Parker visited the Mechanical Engineering Department of Imperial College London in South Kensington to flatten some silver tea and coffee pots.

Cornelia Parker is one of Britain’s best known and most admired sculptors and installation artists. One of her most well-known pieces is Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) – often referred to as ‘The Exploded Shed’. She has a history of partnering with non-artists, including scientists such as Konstantin Novoselov, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of graphene. Her artworks ask questions about our world by transforming everyday objects into something new.

The silver coffeepots are part of a future artwork called Endless Coffee, a follow-up to Endless Sugar.

Cornelia Parker’s first forays into squashing silverware were undertaken using a steamroller. However, she wanted to achieve a more sophisticated squash for this new piece, and hence reached out to Imperial.

She got in touch with Professor Ambrose Taylor, head of the network for Science and Engineering Research in Cultural Heritage, to collaborate on flattening silverware using the equipment in the Dynamic Fracture and Forming Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Mr Suresh Viswanathan Chettiar assisted the artist to use the Instron universal testing machine to crush a selection of silverware with precision. This instrument can deliver 2500 kN of force (250 tonnes) to an object.

The teapots could be heard to crack as they were gradually deformed by the applied pressure. They were protected by plastic sheets to reduce scuff damage during the procedure. The final flattened teapots were about 3mm thick. The works will be presented as a floating column – suspended from the gallery floor at a precise height of 110 mm.

Cornelia Parker’s latest exhibition is at Tate Britain until 16 October 2022. Book your ticket to hear her speak at Imperial about her work on Wednesday 5 October 2022 at 16.00.

Equipment and facilities across Imperial, like those used in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for Cornelia’s installation, can be accessed by external organisations through Imperial Consultants.



Dr Isabella von Holstein

Dr Isabella von Holstein
Faculty of Engineering

Click to expand or contract

Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6757

Show all stories by this author