Jo Atherton, It’s Only a Game (2014)

At Watford Museum until 28 June, Jo Atherton is showing constructions made from objects found on the seashore, brightly coloured twine, netting, tags from lobster pots, plastic toys, hooks, labels, balloons, fish decoys and nameless, unidentifiable fragments. I spoke to Jo at the opening today.

I know Jo as a ceramist – we have exhibited together in Hertfordshire several times – but she has got interested in objects she came across when walking by the shore. “When you get your eye in, you see more and more of them,”  she told me. Gradually she built up a collection and began to weave them together.  Each woven piece told a story.

One of her large pieces is called Goodies and Baddies, (below) made with lots of little toy soldiers, which seem to proliferate at the edge of the sea. “With so many of these little plastic heroes washing ashore,” Jo says, “I am mesmerised by their global presence. Toy soldiers wash ashore in the UK, on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA, South Africa and Australia. These toys are in a varied state of erosion, yet remain a constant on many shorelines. There’s an army of toy soldiers, a global force amassing beneath the waves – but where are they all coming from? And who is their leader?”

She now collects flotsam from around the British Isles – Cornwall, Norfolk, Sussex, Pembrokeshire and Kerry – and objects sent to her by collaborators in Illawarra in Australia, Cape Town in South Africa and Maryland in the USA. Her boyfriend has had to get used to parcels of rubbish being sent to her in the post.

As she sorts the flotsam, themes suggest themselves.In Cornish Blue, she combines twine and objects in various shades of blue. The colours are striking when combined like this, although a single scrap of blue rope on a beach may not be so noticeable.

Her work is possible because rope, twine and netting are made of non-biodegradable fibres like polypropylene and nylon.  The jute and sisal ropes of an earlier generation had no colour to speak of and eventually rotted away.  Modern twine breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually ingested by fish, but it’s always there.

I was fascinated by another large tapestry, Plenty of Fish in the Sea, full of tags numbered and lettered in code. Jo discovered that they’re licence tags from lobster pots, many having drifted to Cornwall from the coast of North America.  She contacted the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to find out more.  Jo describes this work in the following way: “Fish shaped lures swim through tangles of line, against a colourful backdrop of twine and fishing line. Lobster pot tags from as far away as Newfoundland, Maine and Rhode Island are included in the weaving, demonstrating the extent to which tidal currents ignore nations, boundaries and cultures when delivering marine litter to new shores.”

Flotsam traces the movement of the seas over decades.  Some of the little plastic toys she’s found were current thirty years ago; she’s found things with their price marked in pre-decimal currency.

These tapestries of little figures are poignant, especially the dismembered and headless toys.  Jo has made something surprising and beautiful from them but behind it is a comment on the pollution of the sea. As Jo makes art from the flotsam, the pollution is reduced a bit.

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