In light of increasingly commonplace violations of individual and civil liberties, it can feel wrong to support the Magna Carta’s status as a symbol of the preservation of fundamental freedoms.
But it's this continuing dialogue and debate that Cornelia Parker seeks to harness in her latest work, Magna Carta (An Embroidery), currently on display at the British Library in London. A major new artwork in the artist's storied catalogue, the finished piece is an intricate textile work that replicates the entire Wikipedia article on the Magna Carta – the historical dictum outlining England's constitutional practice – as it appeared on the document's anniversary.
Topping out at nearly 13 metres long, it was painstakingly stitched by over 200 pairs of hands, each with individual ties to the document’s themes of civil liberty (including almost 40 prisoners). In addition to a rich assortment of peers, campaigners and lawyers, diverse public figures – from Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and Baroness Doreen Lawrence to Brian Eno and Jarvis Cocker – also lent their needlework skills to the project. Incredibly, Parker arranged for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange to contribute words ('freedom' and 'liberty', respectively) from their exiles, lending the finished work an uncommon resonance and gravitas.
'I wanted the embroidery to raise questions about where we are with the principles laid down in the Magna Carta,' Parker says, 'and about the challenges to all kinds of freedoms that we face in the digital age.' Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that trains inmates in needlework skills, dispatched the lion’s share of the tapestry to various prisons, while the most intricate embroidery was reserved for elite institutions like Hand & Lock, the Embroiderers’ Guild and the Royal School of Needlework.
But why Wikipedia? 'Like a Wikipedia article,' Parker explains, 'this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices.' The process of reflection and review that the open source encyclopedia encourages is also a digital parallel to the continuous re-examination of the principal tenets of liberty that the Magna Carta demands.