Not content with wowing us with an astonishing reworking of its galleries and a new glass and brick extension, thanks to a masterclass in understated building design from London-based architects MUMA, the curating team at the Whitworth has undoubtedly achieved a coup de grace by securing one of Britain’s most thought-provoking conceptual artists to mark its much-anticipated reopening.

‘Thought provoking’ doesn’t really do justice to the forensic rigour that provides the unsettling foundations on which much of Cornelia Parker’s work is based, but it goes some way to explaining the reaction she probably wants to evoke from her audience. Unlike the more widely known godfather of British art, Damien Hirst, whose art has created a now all-too-familiar populist sense of shock, there is something more studious and stealthy in the way Parker’s work stirs a seismic response to what we see before us.

What is also particularly powerful about this opening exhibition is the generosity of space afforded to her, enabling both old and new pieces to deliver their velvet-gloved punch in what amounts to three dedicated gallery rooms.

Take, for instance, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), a work now housed solely and uniquely in a dedicated windowless space. Freezing in mid-air suspension the entire contents of her garden shed, which she commissioned the British Army to decimate in a controlled explosion using Semtex, this softly unsettling work achieves the improbable extremes of deathly stillness and animation at the same time. From old books and petrol cans to suitcases and an old bike, hundreds of personal fragments hang to create an elegiac infantry of a private space, now made public through the brutal act of destruction. Lit by a solitary, bare light bulb, the power of this work comes from the sense of animation created by shrapnel-like shadows cast around the walls. In her own words, “The two parts of the title together sounds like an emotional state or a murder. An attempt to formalise something you can’t measure, or to formalise an explosion.”

Jerusalem (2015), a patinated bronze cast painted black, is a quiet yet powerful polemical piece that re-examines the bravado and chivalrous emotions stirred by William Blake’s poetry and his idealisation of a city which is the focus for intense political battles over territories. Working at night, away from Israeli guards, Parker made a furtive cold cure rubber casting of the lines of pavement in occupied East Jerusalem and wrapped them in her suitcase to bring back home. Seeing this ancient pavement pared down to the lines that define its shapes and slabs – in essence an exercise in filling in the cracks – creates a pertinent comment on the political borders that control and constrict everyday life in the occupied territories.

A counterpoint to this is Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013), another cast of cracks in paving, this time between the stones of the non-conformist cemetery of Bunhill Fields where poet William Blake was laid to rest. The piece, Parker says, reflects an obsession she had at the time with pavement cracks and evokes her memories of playing hopscotch and ‘don’t tread on the cracks’ with her daughter when she walked through this graveyard. Together they reveal a telling topography of two very different pavements.

War and violence, both monumental and miniscule, resonate through much of the work here and a piece which captured my attention – after initially passing it by – was 12 Nails and a Bullet (2015). Here the lead bullet wire is wound around 12 nails mapping out a large square. On first inspection the piece is an unremarkable square defined on a white gallery wall, almost a rudimentary DIY assemblage of wire and nails. It is only when you understand the provenance of the materials that define this section of wall that the work delivers its killer punch. This is no ordinary square, it is one defined by an uncompromising instrument of conflict.

Finally, this review would not be complete without referencing the stunning, stultifying blood red impact of War Room (2015), a womblike space of red created by punched out negatives taken from sheets of paper used to make Remembrance Day poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond. Designed to reflect the unrelenting symmetry of war graves, this unsettling space is lit by four solitary light bulbs – a throbbing, unspiritual light in a room which with its draped ceiling is reminiscent of a field hospital. The power from this moving, numbing work is the way in which its simplicity provokes an endless stream of symbolic possibilities.

With MUMA’s inspiring new extension, which allows hitherto unseen levels of natural light to make their way into a crisp, Nordic-feeling gallery space, the Whitworth has made a powerful statement about its new purpose and position on the international art map. Bagging Cornelia Parker for its opening show makes an even bolder statement about the artists it wants to take on its journey.

The Cornelia Parker exhibition runs until 31 May.

Background photos of Cold Dark Matter and War Room by Tom Warman.

Tom Warman