Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life

by Modern Art Oxford | Oxford
Date of event: 08/02/20 - 10/05/20

Tools for Life is a compelling overview of the work of Johanna Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile, lives and works in New York, United States) and the first solo exhibition of Unzueta’s work to take place in the UK. Focusing on the human body’s relationship to forms of labour and the history of industrial production, the exhibition showcases Unzueta’s large-scale felt sculptures, wearable garments and a new work filmed at a textiles factory in Chile. A site-specific wall mural and captivating abstract drawings exploring the geometry of nature are also on display.

In developing her new works for this exhibition, the artist has responded to the post-industrial character of Modern Art Oxford’s galleries, which were constructed in the 1890s as the fermenting room and copper house for a local brewery. The exhibition opens with a large-scale felt installation that explores the human dimension of industrial manufacturing processes. The installation’s main sculpture is based on a chain of interlocking cogs common to industrial machinery, enlarged to a scale that relates each component to the measurements of the artist’s own body. By utilising a material that is both natural in origin and commonly manufactured in a factory, Unzueta links the sculpture back to the method of its creation.

Moving through the exhibition, visitors encounter a new site-specific wall mural alongside simple handmade garments reminiscent of factory worker uniforms. The fabric used to make these garments is sourced from an ethical factory enterprise in Guatemala that upcycles old jeans and natural cotton. Modern Art Oxford staff members will wear these uniforms on the opening night; they will then return to clothing rails in the gallery for the exhibition’s duration. This form of participation in which the human body ‘activates’ her work is a longstanding feature of Unzueta’s practice. This reflects her interest in how textiles can allude to shared histories of community, geography, nature and labour practices.

The final gallery assembles a group of Unzueta’s elegant freestanding works on paper, hand-coloured with natural dyes and drawn with the aid of embroidery hoops. Their abstract geometric patterns are inspired by nature’s ‘golden ratio’ – a naturally occurring symmetry that can be seen in designs like the wing structure of insects or the petal formation of flowers. These abstract works, pulsing with the potential for organic growth and renewal, take many months for the artist to create. The duration of her labour is indicated by the drawings’ titles, which list the place(s) and date(s) of their production.

The artist explains that her interests lie primarily in labour’s ‘technological, historical and social impact on the human condition and its relationship to nature.’ This exhibition prompts us to consider the unseen human actions and efforts required to produce the objects and technologies we so unthinkingly rely on in our everyday lives.