Renstrom: archive of instinct
Swedish artist Mija Renström works with photography and the textile technique of crochet, a structure that repeatedly loops one single thread back onto itself, over and over again. With patience and dexterity, intricate shapes can be built out of crochet’s circling around a central starting point. In Renström’s practice, an impulse to circle, collect and document has created a type of archive – an archive that invites us back, as viewers, in a loop of interpretations.
Between 2004 and 2008 Renström installed Song of the Sirens in a number of iterations. The series combined pieces made of cotton crochet with ultraviolet light, but refused any fixed installation pattern. While the textile is certainly capable of offering comfort, Renström’s use of crochet is restless. Associations shift between comfort and feelings that are far more unsettling. In Song of the Sirens the changing intensities of projected light combined with ever changing patterns of installation to allude to Renström’s desire to avoid a static interpretation of the textile as a sculptural material used by a woman. If Greek mythology teaches us that the sirens’ song contains both seduction and danger, Renström seems to seek an equally ambivalent relationship with the textile.
Predating Song of the Sirens by a year, The Colours of Natural Habitat 1-160 (2003 – 2019) is a photographic archive of Renström’s individual crochet objects. Each entry is titled with the date and location that credit when the work was finished in what the art historian Yvonne Eriksson has described as “objects that function like diary notes”. Personal but systematic, Renström’s titling of the individual entries creates a constant reminder that we are viewing a part of a series rather than an isolated object. Optical contrast is created with jet black backgrounds for her crochet in grey thread and white backgrounds supporting the solid blocks of colour that make less frequent appearances in her work: primary colours of red and blue as well as pink and rust.
Over time, various subgroups have also become the basis for further explorations. For example, Reflecting on Patterns # 1-24 (2004 – 2016) took the first twenty-four crochet objects and subjected them to the digital eye of a flatbed scanner. As two-dimensional images, a physical distance is created which provides a new way to focus on the minute details of each crocheted object. This shift in medium moves our attention away from the rhythm of making by hand to the patterns our eyes are drawn to see when shown in startling sharp focus. Ironically, the textile feels more visible as itself in these images. Contrast sharpens our attention to detail; the stray ends of threads feel reassuringly intentional when fixed in the final photographic print.
Renström’s crochet and the images she builds from the textile suggest systems within the body, rather than cloth intended to rest upon body. And if parts of bodies seem visible throughout, they are bodies that my eye sees as specifically female. Pairs of organs such as breasts and nipples, fallopian tubes and ovaries in particular appear across Redefining Structures # 1-24 (2016), a series of photographs which mirror the textile in paired imagery. That the home of some of the works in this series is now the maternity clinic of Stockholm’s Södertälje Hospital can be understood as either a confirmation or influence of this reading.
Also in 2016, Renström produced a series of collage works titled On the Origins of Patterns. Made from the paper pages of a crochet instruction book with black and white instructional photographs, Renström appropriated the pages and overlaid them with abstract ink patterns reminiscent of the famous ink blot personality test invented by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921. The basic premise of the inkblot test – an interest in learning what an individual sees in abstraction as an indication of personality and the subconscious – is a strategy that may also be applied across Renström’s work. Visible to my eye in the inky mirrored symmetry are the female uterus and ovaries. Or do the suggestive shapes of Redefining Structures prepare the eye to find similarities in On the Origins of Patterns?
Renström explains, “I compare my method with what you do when you scribble, for instance while you’re talking to someone on the phone and unconsciously scribble patterns on a paper. My way of working reminds me of that state of mind: to draw a mental map with a needle instead of a pencil.” Across her work the core structure of crochet grows into versions that repeat, but also morph – subconscious “scribbles”. What drives Renström’s creative instincts is perhaps less important for the viewer to know than a reminder of the fact that the creative drive can emerge and depart in artistic practice without much possibility of external control. Consistent throughout this archive is the distinct feeling that Mija Renström’s creations feel alive – or at a minimum alive until very recently.
Professor of Crafts
HDK, University of Gothenburg
image from Reflecting on Patterns series courtesy of Mija Renström