Until mid-July, 13 metres of crisp white cotton will lie stretched out in the British Library’s entrance hall. Stitched into it are sentences of text, marching in regimented lines from left to right. “Magna Carta", it begins, "From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia": it is an embroidered facsimile of the Wikipedia entry for the agreement signed 800 years ago by King John, enshrining the rights of the English people and forming the basis of the British constitution and the inspiration for America’s Bill of Rights. The occasional word—"freedom", say, or "democracy"—is picked out in blue, mimicking Wikipedia's hyperlinks. Further down you see the entry's table of contents and bold sub-headings. Punctuating the right-hand side are a series of embroidered illustrations, from the thumbnail of the original document, its tightly packed Latin text on beige parchment, to a beautifully illuminated 14th-century copy. At the bottom is a list of "External links".
“Magna Carta (An Embroidery)”, by the British artist Cornelia Parker, is physically stark and unwieldy. Its real power lies in the story of its construction, which was the work of many hands. More than 200 people helped with the embroidery, including 40 prisoners from Fine Cell Work, a charity that uses embroidery as a means of rehabilitation. They were given the task of sewing the bulk of the text. Choice words were then picked out by Parker, who assigned them to notable lawmakers, journalists, artists and politicians. She would send a piece of cloth for them to handstitch themselves. The fragments were then collected and bound in to the whole, resulting in a smattering of wobbly words among the prisoners' neat text.
The word “freedom” was embroidered by the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and by Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, in his self-imposed prison at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower holed up in Russia, sent his offering, “liberty”, only a week before the work went on display. Paddy Hill, who was wrongly imprisoned for 16 years for the 1974 Birmingham bombings, pointedly stitched “freeman”. Meanwhile, expert needlers at the Embroiderers' Guild worked on the illustrations. It took one woman 450 hours to recreate a portrait, the size of a sheet of A4 paper, of Pope Innocent III, using a painstaking stitch from the time of the Magna Carta.
Parker herself chose the word “democracy”, the central theme of the piece. She wanted to include what she calls the “fabric of society” so that the tapestry reflected the democratic and collaborative nature of the online encyclopaedia and embodied the ideas enshrined in Magna Carta. “Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices,” she says. “I realise now how under threat the document is. We live in one of the freest places in the world but we take it for granted that we will not be under new surveillance. It is current, and this is what this piece is about.”
That idea is most resonant in the prisoners' handiwork. Denied access to the internet, some have never seen a Wikipedia entry. Almost all, as one prisoner explains in the video accompanying the piece, “are used to being sidelined”. Not only is stitching a form of employment and therapy for these prisoners, Parker explains, it's a way of taking part in a discussion they are usually shut out of.
On the list of contributors that runs along the wall beside the tapestry, it isn't the names of the famous and influential that stand out, but those of the inmates—conspicuous for their lack of surnames, poignant for appearing there at all.
Magna Carta (An Embroidery) British Library, London, to July 24th