All the materials used in Jo Atherton’s work have been found on the tideline. In her weaving and printing, she is inspired by the stories these orphaned objects have to tell. Her work highlights the diversity of plastic items washing ashore and how the ubiquity of this material characterises the geological age of human influence – the Anthropocene. Jo has exhibited her work at a number of national and international venues including the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, London Luton Airport and the Fringe Arts Bath Festival. She frequently speaks about her work with found objects as a way of exploring the zeitgeist and has recently been invited to speak at the University of Cambridge as part of their Curious Objects exhibition. She has spoken at PechaKucha and TED events, and enjoys running creative workshops for both adults and schoolchildren. Jo has written for Elementum Journal, The Journal of Weavers Spinners & Dyers and the Plastic Pollution Coalition. She is currently writing 50 Things, an anthology of objects collected on the UK coastline, exploring storytelling through material culture. She returned to Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall, for a second time in December 2016 as Artist in Residence.
A Beguiling Arrangement
“In both weave and print, my work includes a strong element of curation and the bringing together of disparate items. The closest comparison would perhaps be bricolage, where, similar to collage, a new art object is created from a diverse range of things.”
Our Discarded Fragments
“For as long as I can remember I have felt a compulsion to collect orphaned objects, always searching for something lost or forgotten I could make a connection with.
“Growing up in rural Hertfordshire I was surrounded by Roman history, and as a child visits to the Verulamium Museum fired my imagination. I was fascinated by the many relics that had been found locally and loved to imagine who owned them, and what they meant to people living in another time. It was this formative experience that led me to ponder how we would be represented to future generations by the everyday objects we leave behind, and how they might tell our story of life in the twenty first century.
“Much like the Roman stone tools, pottery and metals I had so enjoyed seeing in the Museum, I believe a layer of plastic will one day signify our own throwaway society, given the longevity of this pervasive material. We are leaving a trail of plastic in our wake, and through my work I aim to prompt discussion around our discarded fragments, the memories they invoke and the stories they signify.”
The material vocabulary of the shore
“As I started to express my fascination with the stories of found objects, it became apparent how commonplace the language of weaving is used within the everyday lexicon – strands of a story are woven together; we lose the thread or talk of spinning a yarn. Using lengths of fishing line and rope to bring together the many signifiers I had collected from the tideline seemed the natural medium to tell the stories of the shore. Indeed, text and textile both share the same Latin root texere, ‘to weave’.
“My tapestries are curated textiles, comprising objects that were once useful, or of great importance, until the sea washed them clean of their intended function and they came to rest on the high water mark. The interlaced and knotted strands of fishing line, twine and rope represent the many stories and lives which are woven together alongside our own; each a thread of history, telling stories, not of national events but what it means to be living in 2017.
“As my exploration into working with these tideline relics has deepened, I have become increasingly interested in the material vocabulary of the shore. The tideline has become a beguiling arrangement, to be read like any other narrative. To harvest these resting relics is to puzzle over an anagram where the letters are familiar but the arrangement is baffling. When walking on the sand, one is confronted with curious objects that are familiar but presented far from their intended function – they are almost recognisable but altogether strange. My prints mimic this reading of the tideline, and invite the viewer into my own creative process, where they are challenged to take a closer look and recognise orphaned objects presented in a new context.”
An Invitation to Interpret
“My own memories bump up against more general signifiers of our time – a popular cartoon character figurine from the 1980s represents a childhood game I played with my sisters; a plastic toy plane on the tideline prompts me to remember the doomed MH370 flight, which disappeared in 2014. I see each object as a conduit for us to share our stories, memories and experiences – each of which is open to multiple interpretations.
“That which was once commonplace is presented in a new context – a syntax which speaks of anecdotes bound up in the objects that once filled our homes, destined to enter the geological record as nothing more than a marker to identify our fleeting place in ‘deep time’.
“I see the random grouping of relics on the shore as a form of poetry; everyday objects in aesthetic arrangements that belie the darker reality of our coastlines. They are very much signifiers which I invite the viewer to interpret, exploring the idea that the tideline is a language of objects which we can intercept to explore memory, fashion, class, taste and status. What these signifiers mean could be read quite differently by someone else, depending on how they make their way through the world, and what their experiences, hopes and dreams may be.”
Stories in Time
“The day to day objects I find washing ashore speak of domestic life – plastic novelty toys from cereal packets remind us of playground games; household cleaning products speak of supermarket aisles and familiar brands; a plastic buoy from the USA reminds me of the American pen-pal I had as a teenager and prompts memories of friends I am no longer in touch with. All of these stories are not so different to any that would have been told over the centuries. These domestic, everyday anecdotes become interesting when set against the backdrop of larger historical events.
“The migrant crisis in Europe has been a devastating chain of events that has dominated the news for months. Images of people struggling to stay afloat on inadequate boats destined for Europe will be one of the lingering images of this humanitarian crisis. I feel it naive not to consider this devastating situation when blithely beachcombing from the safety of the UK shoreline. Not so far away, others are also walking along the high water mark where it is not plastic toy figures washing ashore, but real people.
“Set in a much longer timeframe, my work highlights the diversity of plastic items washing ashore and how the ubiquity of this material characterises the geological age of human influence – the Anthropocene. As we grapple with defining and understanding this new epoch, I have found myself wondering about which stories will endure into the future, far beyond our reach. Will these plastic objects become future fossils, via landfill, or trapped beneath the sand? How will toys, circuit board, fishing gear and bottle tops be interpreted in another age? And will the people interpreting them be so different from us today?
“Millions of years ago, fuelled by sunlight, marine plankton flourished and then settled on the ocean floor, slowly transforming into oil. This same oil is used to produce the endless plastic objects that dominate the everyday. My Anthropocene prints have been created using found plastic objects gathered on the UK coastline. The circular composition of the print mimics the microscopic marine world seen by those researching the effects of microplastics in our fragile oceans. When inked and printed, plastic flotsam fragments bear a stark resemblance to the rich diversity of microscopic marine life – a worrying and ironic connection to a beautiful and natural process.”
The Role of Objects
“Watching children engaged in role-play games with toys, it is easy to see these whimsical objects as extensions of ourselves, and as we grow into adults, I tend to think that this doesn’t change. The toy soldier or cute plastic cow is replaced with the latest mobile phone or fancy watch. The role of objects during these formative years is an important one, but as we grow up and leave these trivialities behind, the system of value shifts around these playthings. No longer required, they are forgotten, discarded or lost.
“Finding a plastic toy on the beach never fails to stir up feelings of nostalgia as memories rush into my brain like the waves across the sand. The intended use of the object as a plaything has passed, and now, washed clean of this previous life; to me it is an artefact. Characters and popular brands of toys return my thoughts in part to my own youth but to a host of other things too – the Disney Minions characters are a reminder of a dear beachcombing friend who sadly died; when I find Lego, it makes me to think of the container spill off Land’s End in 1997 – millions of pieces spilled into the sea; plastic toy soldiers remind me of my brush with military life as a teenage Air Cadet. The list goes on, until perhaps time will elevate these plastic toys to the museum cabinet. This is the context I bring to discovering these toys, the adventures of which do continue beneath the waves, but come to rest on very different, unintended shores.”
“My recent printing with flotsam has been described as ‘visual poetry of the shore’, which I feel is an accurate way of explaining my practice. There is much more to the compositions than simply stamping imprints on paper. It is considered, like the words in a poem. The placement of a particular object is in relation to the other prints on the paper, and chosen to suggest an organic arrangement, written by a wave on the sand. Writing compositions with objects is imbued with meaning as if it were a language. The semiotic dance on the page is just as meaningful as if it were with words. We puzzle over meanings and try to recall what these orphaned objects mean to us. Like the lines of a poem, the high water mark is telling us something not just about flotsam, but also ourselves.”
Reading and Writers
“To a degree, I think that language becomes a lowest common denominator for us to all understand one another, and where we have slippage in interpretations and difference in reading, things become interesting! At times, I feel that reading and telling stories with objects can offer more freedom. With each object washed ashore acting as a signifier, we are able to glean much richer memories, emotional responses and anecdotes than perhaps a single word ever can provide.
“My favourite fiction writer is Virginia Woolf whom I first began reading during a Modernist module for my English Literature degree. Reading her stream of consciousness style I was captivated by this interesting and expansive way of moving through the world. To this day, I can see this same fascination with semiotics reflected in my artistic practice as I welcome as many interpretations as possible from the found objects I work with.
“I must also mention the work of Rebecca Solnit, in particular The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which have been illuminating reads. I enjoy her interdisciplinary approach, which cuts across psychology, art, literature, history, politics and language. Her work refuses to sit within one genre – again, my interest in things being open to interpretation and a multiplicity of meaning re-emerges.
“Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity by Marc Augé was one of the first books I read that gave me a theoretical vocabulary to talk about my fascination with the coastal environment. The beach is undoubtedly a non-place, and also liminal space, being both land and sea twice a day. I recognise many of the feelings of transience Auge describes in similar in-between environments, such as airports. I often return to this text to explore his theories of environments that are not permanent enough to be considered spaces in their own right.”
“One word I continually find myself returning to is zeitgeist, a German word meaning spirit of the age. I think this is such an elegant way of expressing so many ideas, encompassed in two syllables. It sits nicely alongside my practice where I am attempting to capture the zeitgeist by intercepting the tideline.”
Literally, ‘time-spirit’, from zeit, ‘time’ and geist, ‘spirit’. The words for time and tide are from the same PIE source.
Image: Flotsam Collection, courtesy of Jo Atherton
(Interview first published on Pieced Work – February 10th 2017)