Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP

Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life

Modern Art Oxford

8 February - 10 May 2020 (temporarily closed)

Review by Alex White

Anthropologists have long believed that the use and development of tools has played a key role in the evolution of humankind. Tools and their mechanisation have contributed to the advancement of agriculture, industrialisation and modernisation. Over the last two decades, New York-based, Chilean-born artist Johanna Unzueta has explored the impact of these technological advancements on labour and the human condition, particularly in relation to nature. Her new exhibition ‘Tools for Life’, at Modern Art Oxford (temporarily closed), brings together a body of work composed of large-scale felt sculptures, wearable garments, a Super-8 film shot in a Chilean textile factory, a wall mural and a selection of free-standing geometric drawings.

Unzueta’s work is all handmade. Her tools are her hands. Material and process form a significant part of her practice – from sourcing upcycled denim from a factory in Guatemala to working with natural plant dyes, each detail within the work has a story. Throughout Modern Art Oxford’s galleries, Unzueta highlights the mechanisms of manufacturing processes, whilst paying respect to the invisible labour and craft that goes into the clothes we wear and the objects we consume.

In the first gallery, a large felt chain is suspended from the ceiling. Made up of 16 cogs, each one the size of Unzueta herself, the work titled ‘Related to Myself’ (2019-20), draws attention to the machinery that facilitates labour production. The chain, an important invention for the engineering of movement – explored by Leonardo da Vinci amongst others – is found in most industrial machines. For Unzueta, the chain is also a metaphor for collaboration. Made from felt manufactured by a family company, with whom Unzueta has worked for many years, the material has personal significance. Scattered throughout the gallery are pipe sculptures made from the same felt and dyed in natural indigo. Always collaborative and responsive, Unzueta’s works reflect the language of the space, as Modern Art Oxford was once the site of Hanley’s City Brewery. Exposed pipework and other industrial remains are spectres of the past in trendy post-industrial repurposed architecture.

A collection of hanging garments in Gallery 2 forms the piece ‘A Garment for the Day’ (2019-ongoing). These ‘wearable sculptures’ resemble factory workwear and have been tailored to fit Modern Art Oxford staff. In direct contrast to the ‘fast fashion’ industry, the garments give new life to the upcycled fabric and are complete with wooden buttons made by hand by a father/son team in Mexico. Like the felt, the material Unzueta chooses to incorporate is the result of long standing relationships the artist has built into her practice. These collaborations are deeply political, as Unzueta is committed to equating fine art, craft and manufacturing processes. This is once again exemplified in the third gallery. Projected onto a woven fabric, Unzueta’s latest film ‘La Fabrica’ (2016-19) is on loop. Shot in Super-8, it depicts a historic textile factory in central Chile. As the camera slowly moves throughout the space, the chains and gears of the industrial sewing machines remind us of the 8mm film medium itself passing through a film reel. According to the exhibition notes, this factory once produced 80% of Chile’s wool textiles, and though it operates at a much smaller scale post financial crisis, it continues as a functioning factory. The fabric on which the film is projected was produced there.

While the mechanisms of Unzueta’s ‘trade’ are revealed throughout the first three galleries, the result of her labour is really on show in the final gallery. Here, a collection of her large-scale abstract geometric drawings is on display as objects mounted between transparent glass and held together with recycled wood beams, an homage to the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. The intricate, geometric patterns of her drawings reference a long history of geometric abstraction in Latin American art and are inspired by the ‘golden ratio’ found in nature. Each drawing is incredibly labour-intensive. They are done by hand without the use of a ruler, but rather using dressmaking techniques such as embroidery hoops. The large format paper is hand-dyed with natural dyes like fustic or indigo and applied in a variation of layers, a technique the artist learned from the Mapuche people in Southern Chile as well as through spending time in Antigua, Guatemala. Working with natural indigo is particularly time-consuming and requires patience to achieve the intense blues and purples.

The time and dedication to labour is important. Unzueta makes visible the labour that is often ignored, encouraging her viewers to really look at these everyday tools. The combination of indigenous craft techniques, art historical references and processes adopted from textile manufacturing within her practice bring to light the implications of labour on human existence, breaking the barriers between fine art and craft.

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