Pinch wood, Fontanelle Gallery

Photographs by James Field

Pinch wood / Milk blood

Essay by Zoe Freney, Lecturer, Adelaide Central School of Art.

“On this let us grow, by this milk let us be nourished.”

Saint Augustine[i]

In a frozen volcanic landscape, jutting from a hostile ocean, where the darkness lasts for half a year, superstition snakes its roots between the barren rock. It palely seeks out crevices and caves, secret private places, in which to take hold. It undermines the footings of the little houses people build to keep the cold at bay. The roots swell and begin to lift the flagstones, silent ruptures. When physical defences finally crumble, people turn to religion and magic. Stories are woven intricately into the fabric of life, told and retold in elaborate rituals to ward off the frightful unknown.

Julia Robinson’s Pinch wood focuses attention on the complicated defences we build against an abstract evil. Her disconcerting arrangements trip us up, so we stumble upon strange discoveries. Milk trees and wooden nipples sprout in disordered logic. Pinch wood examines the archetypal stories, tales we thought we had forgotten. The work touches a primal memory, from a time when humans made meaning from nothingness, from the darkness beyond the candle. In a land where ghosts and monsters permeate the dreams of babies, planted there by loving mothers singing sweetly, the warmth of a maternal breast may not be protection enough.

Saint Augustine wrote of the ambiguities of the breast in the fifth century. Psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, also believed the breast could be both “extremely perfect” and “extremely bad.” [ii] The Virgin Mary personifies the immaculate breast, epitomising the virtue of the lactating mother. Her mild orb emerges neatly from her robe; her nipples are pink and pert. But milk and lactation can also be construed as evil and aberrant. A witch’s breast is the dreaded breast, by turns engorged and sexualised, or flaccid and mean, a shrivelled appendage that no amount of suckling will stimulate. Robinson uses the nipple as a visual prompt in this body of work, sensuous and seductive yet also wanton and rude. Gratuitous nipples.

Everything in Pinch wood is met with its evil other. In Nursery, vessels of simple, unfired ceramic hold Gothic horrors quietly clotting beneath lead-beaded milk jug covers. Dark fairytales are hinted at in deathly pale skin and flowering red blood. Nipple post stands erect, a giant talisman, something you might touch for good luck, and your hand might linger. It is a tree stripped of its limbs, its trunk unsheathed, revealing its secret, surprising bumps and whorls. Nipples peak in the grain. The elemental, homespun materiality of Robinson’s work is a seduction, luring us to complicity in the tale telling. Wool is soft as the innocence of the lamb; lead is lightless and as heavy as the night; wood is like a warm body.

A woman is warm, milk is warm, blood is also warm. These things are important in a land where life is a fight against the cold. But where there is comfort, there is also fear, as the opposite of truth is not a lie but an evil truth. A woman is warm but inside she is a blood red cavern, and superstition dwells in dark deep holes. The good woman is like a cow, placid bovine, nourishing her child with her own body, while the bad woman steals the milk of the cow to feed her own insatiable hunger. In Iceland, the only magic available to women is the bad magic of the Milk Carriers, creatures sent to do the witch’s bidding, to steal the milk of the cow and the ewe.

Once upon a time, an old woman, her own body as hard as dead wood, called upon the living trees to suck milk for her from her neighbour’s cows. She made the trees sly, they crept about the landscape, their long greedy roots stealing the nourishment so honestly given by the cow to its master. They drank until milk ran like sap in their veins and then, replete, they stalked back to the witch who drained them of their illicit cream. She churned it in a butter churn, round and round and round, until it was thick and golden. Robinson conjures this story in Thief, wherea spellbound tree is thwarted as it tries to steal milk to feed the witch. Denied, it droops limply, while the carefully stitched symbol of protection ensures that the good woman can feed her family.

We might believe we have outgrown the cautionary lullabies, superstition and old wives’ tales that once filled the gaping holes in our knowledge. Yet in her exploration of these ancient belief systems, Robinson reaches into a long forgotten corner of memory. Something still lives there, in its little dark house, unshaken by ages of reason. Something that whispers, “Touch wood.” Something as throbbing and vital as milk, as blood.

[i] Augustine, in Pryzwara, E (ed.), An Augustine Synthesis, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York , 1958, p.283

[ii] Miles, M.R, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750, University of California Press, 2008 p.2