The Art Of Parethesia
Jo Blogg has brought together the trophies of her junk shopping, charity store trawling, and auction house clearance sale bidding in an exhibition true to its name and all that it connotes. Pins and Needles: tools, toys and tasks – some of them ancient – brought to life through the repeated movements and sustained postures of the human body. Pins and Needles: the uncomfortable tingling that follows numbness after a nerve has been compressed, often brought on when a position is held for too long. Here are objects we use to fashion things; here are objects that fashion us.
Everything here has been repurposed, refashioned or repackaged from things once devalued or discarded, inviting a closer look at our relationships with the things, people, actions and activities we may take for granted. Consider a set of heavy wooden pins that had been bludgeoned to the point of near destruction in their previous incarnation as skittles; their timbers split and ruined under many layers of paint. With their uniform white sheaths eased off and their shattered surfaces treated to the tender ministrations of bog, sandpaper and fresh lacquer they become a family of Knitting Nancies. A modern derivative of the medieval lucet used to make unlimited lengths of cord, knitting nancies were particularly popular toys for girls during the 1970s. Jo had a nancy made from an old cotton spool, replaced at Christmas by a coveted purpose-made version; she recalls many hours spent looping wool over its pegs to create yards of woven cylindrical cable that, despite their potential, were never made into anything truly useful. The stuff made with knitting nancies is tangible time; never less, seldom more.
Linked together with red cord Jo’s Knitting Nancies are more precisely purposeful than their namesakes. They resemble a small army, chess pieces perhaps, their associations delineated in wool like a never-ending umbilicus. They draw upon an ancient Chinese proverb to remind us that ‘an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet regardless of time, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break.’ It’s a philosophy Jo subscribes to, seeking value in the people destiny brings her way yet wryly mindful that our relationships are not always mutually beneficial; some days we might get knocked sideways, on others – like the skittles – we get bowled off our feet. These nancies urge us to take seriously the meshwork of relatedness and responsibility we knit with all we meet, touch, know and do, and those yet to be encountered.
Big ideas like these require chronic contemplation, the kind of meditative cogitation that often goes hand in hand with ‘mindless’ work. Jo’s oeuvre is built upon seemingly relentless repetitive practice. She chooses to present works in multiples because looking at them ‘makes people happy’. There is an inherent metric order in her preference for objects produced in tens or hundreds, and visual persuasion in the perfect symmetry of a ten by ten grid. To presume she is inexhaustibly patient – with all the placidity that this virtue denotes – would be a mistake; she is quick-minded, wilful, and distractible. Jo’s practice seems intentionally designed to encourage the unbridled roaming of her thoughts and passions. Perseverance is key to her success, certainly, but it's a perseverance that affords many hours of solitude in her studio, and the luxury of an unfettered mind. It is not hard to see the beginnings of her practice in the small girl, lost in thought, churning out yard after yard of knitted nancy cord.
This methodical work and its accompanying concept of threads stitching people together as they instantiate relationships and time finds further resonance in the pin tins, knitting needles and tapestries Jo has collected from charity shops. These relics of past-times and times passed tell stories of industriousness, fashion, fashioning and obsolescence, and appeal to our fascination with collecting and categorising things. Pin-Tins presents ten ‘Dorcas Pins’ tins filled with hundreds of dressmaking pins, painstakingly arranged, giving these simplest of tools their own raison d’etre. Pins have been used for four thousand years, and have at times been important symbols of financial relationships between men and women. During the middle ages, when pins were expensive and clothes often pinned to the body, ‘pin money’ was given to wives by their husbands; later the term referred to the money given over for general expenses or alimony. The Dorcas dressmaker’s pins Jo has used are now sought after more for their vintage receptacles than their contents, and are becoming hard to source. The irony here is in Jo’s pushing the pins to the fore, the tin merely a frame for their uniformity and pointalist precision.
Like the Dorcas tins, Jo jokes that there may not be a single plastic knitting needle left in the Hawke’s Bay area, so avid has her collecting been. Diverging from her usual installations of actual multiplicity The Knitting Circle utilises the visual trickery of the mirror to produce a circle of carefully staged colour and form. Mirrors are powerful things. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan proposed that they are tools through which we first recognise ourselves as individuals and perceive our dependence upon external objects and others. Later, we learn to elaborate ‘others’ through language and social relationships, nurturing and reflecting back on ourselves our own particular set of characteristics. Jo’s mirrors play cleverly with this fundamental proposition, causing the individual to be subsumed within the whole that she has created. Reminiscent of star burst clocks of the 1960s, the knitting needles point towards an empty centre where time, like yarn, might flow from their tips.
Most poignant of all Jo’s junk shop finds, Patience is a Virtue comprises 100 rescued tapestries. Installed in charity shop frames, they represent years of women’s work, meticulously wrought yet so easily discarded. Jo has made a number of tapestries herself, drawn to the duteous repetition of Gobelin stitching, the precision of their gridded designs, and the careful calculations required to work on an otherwise bare canvas. She is fascinated by these textiles, by the hours they give substance to and the efforts they encode and realise. Tapestries are an oddly egalitarian artform, favouring those with time and a steady hand over those with creativity. If they were valued for the time they contain, – if the virtue of patience could be measured in monetary terms – these would be expensive artworks. More often, as their patterns and colours date quickly, they are the victims of fashion and its whims. Individually, some of these tapestries are impressive, others are ghastly, all could be easily overlooked. En masse they are an army of effort, containers of apparently endless and tightly focused energy.
Jo’s second installation of one hundred objects, In Your Opinion, puts the spotlight on the humble recycled glass rolling pin, reverse painted to devastating effect. These were purchased in bulk from a clearance auction; of all the pins and needles here, these implements alone had never been used. Perhaps destined to roll cookie dough or pastry, in Jo’s
hands their artfulness has been realised instead in meticulously applied sugar-candy coloured words conjuring glass rod beads, boiled lollies, Brighton rock. No terms of sweet endearment, these are words used to critique the looks and behaviour of women. HANGI PANTS, SWAMP DONKEY, HOOCHI MOMMA, HOME WRECKER, STRUMPET, SCRUBBER, LUST BUCKET, HOT PANTS, SLAPPER, SHEILA, SAUCEPOT, ICE MAIDEN, HUCKERY MOLE… Jo was shocked to find so many words used to denigrate women. This was not a difficult search, nor did she exhaust all possible words, rather she curated the ‘best’ and left the rest to fester. She suspects that a similar project based on derogatory, gender-specific words for men might not furnish enough for the perfect 100 shown here.
In another life, in another’s hands, these rolling pins might have created sweet nothings. In Jo’s they are reminders of her favourite quote from William Burroughs: ‘Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.’ Witness the weapon of the housewife, emblazoned with the verbal missiles of society. Is it too literal to suggest that these rolling pins with their candy-coloured words are linked conceptually to the battered skittles so lovingly restored by Jo? Too optimistic to hope that these hurtful words are now imprisoned within the very fabric of their own demise? Perhaps, given the past’s propensity for words such as these to be undermined through reclamation by their victims, it is naive to expect that their public outing will diminish their use. But In Your Opinion seems less about the subversion of these words into terms of female tête-à-tête than about their containment within an apparently fragile but deadly weapon: each glass pin might bludgeon an unsuspecting utterer with the very term they choose to needle and oppress…
Pins and needles are known in the medical world as paresthesia, from the Greek para or ‘beside’ and aesthesia or ‘sensation’. Paresthesia is somatic, ‘of the body’, its causes and symptoms manifested internally through our own activity or lack thereof. Their literal embodiment is clearly evident in the prolonged sitting required to knit with needles or a nancy; the actions required to form thousands of meticulous Gobelin stitches, to roll pastry, to pin and sew clothes. It is evident in the painstaking and repetitive work Jo has undertaken to transform the utilitarian and subservient into the subversive and the sublime. But
there is a subtlety at play here too, calling into consideration those things to which we have inadvertently become numb: the rut we may be stuck in, the well-trodden path, the automatic response, the words we shrug off, the thick skin we are reluctant to shed, our own unbearable numbness of being. Here is a warning to observe particularly closely those things to which we are drawn precisely for their body- and mind-numbing effects.
William Burroughs might as well have been talking about Jo Blogg when he proffered the following:
‘Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And [her] hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it 'creative observation.' Creative viewing.’
— Robert Sobieszek, Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts (Los Angels: Thames and Hudson, 1996)
Jo’s tools, toys, terms and tasks all existed before this exhibition, but it is doubtful we ever looked at them in quite the way we do now, nor will we ever experience them in quite the same way again. Pins and Needles brings the routine and the mundane into sharper focus then pulls back to offer us a more creative wide shot of our entangled existence, with all its accompanying prickling and tingling.
Feels good, doesn’t it?
- Dr. Billie Lythberg, September 2013
Billie is an art historian, anthropologist and curator who writes regularly for academic journals and art periodicals. Her editorial debut, The Tulip Anthology, won the PJ Redoubté Prize in 2011. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UK), and is a Mira Szászy Research Fellow at the University of Auckland.