Exhibition Review: Tools for Life – Johanna Unzueta

‘I grew up working with my hands’, recalls Johanna Unzueta. ‘My mum always said I learned to weave and knit before I learned to read and write. Hands are tools for me and I can’t disconnect that.’

Unzueta’s work is the product of the artist’s lifelong commitment to that connection between the body and processes of making. Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile, lives and works in New York) explores the impact of labour on the human condition. Tools for Life, a new exhibition of her work at Modern Art Oxford, is the result and embodiment of this research.

Suspended from the ceiling of the first gallery is a nine-metre-long interlocking chain, a magnified piece of industrial machinery, recreated in natural felt. Each part is based on the measurements of Unzueta’s body. Surrounding it are sculptures of piping and taps, also in felt, hand-dyed with indigo. In a culture of excess, where human labour and natural resources continue to be exploited to further an unsustainable future, Unzueta encourages us to consider processes of production and the people that participate in them.

Johanna Unzueta, Related to Myself, 2019-20. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.

Calling her art practice her ‘trade’, Unzueta offers her work as a process of manufacturing. She continually re-adapts works, such as Related to Myself which, in a first iteration, she scaled on the measurements of her hands. Curiously and respectfully re-manufacturing, she physically enacts on a small scale the wider-scale labour-reliant processes she is exploring. She says of the often-natural materials she uses: ‘how I manipulate these materials is as important to me as what is being represented. In this sense the notion of labour does not only exist in a social and historical context, it is present in the fabrication of each artwork.’ Her hands the tools of her labour, she ‘crafts’ her own body into each work, an embodiment she suggests occurs in all labour processes. The humanity – the organic integrity of the maker – is absorbed into the product.

Johanna Unzueta, My Tears Started a Rain / The Darkness of the Sea Open My Eyes (detail), 2020. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby 

Johanna Unzueta, Related to Myself, 2019-20. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.

Taking apart hardware and machinery to study their structures, Unzueta recreates them precisely using organic materials. Hand-cut and hand-sewn by the artist, the felt is sourced from a 200-year-old family company. Unzueta shapes the links and hinges of industrial components with her hands, using pattern-cutting techniques leaned from the women in her family, and the natural dyeing processes of craftspeople in Chile and Guatemala. Her sensitivity to raw materials in the context of examining machinery draws attention to the humanity in the industrial, the products of her hands alluding by extension to the hands of unacknowledged producers generally. Far from simply critiquing mechanisation, Unzueta suggests that people, incorporated into the machinery she recreates, make an active and permanent human mark on the products of their labour. 

Using natural materials and craft techniques, she challenges our expectations of the structure, texture, and weight of mechanical objects. She destabilises distinctions between human and machine, function and aesthetic. Distinctive to Unzueta’s work is her emphasis on the co-existence of function and vitality. The chain, like the once-mobile skeleton of a prehistoric creature, or the pipes which promise the possibility of running water, pulsate with the potential for life. Unzueta’s works are dynamic, emanating the life incorporated into them by the process of their production. Her own vitality is absorbed particularly by her freestanding drawings – a colourful forest of abstract geometries – which constitute the marks made by the movements of her body.

Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.
Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby
Johanna Unzueta, April, May 2016 NY, 2016. Courtesy the Artist and Proyectos Ultravioleta. Tate: Purchased using funds provided by the 2018 Frieze Tate Fund supported by Endeavor to benefit the Tate collection 2019

Having danced as a child, Unzueta notes her awareness of the shapes created by her gestures. Without the use of a ruler, she uses embroidery hoops for the composition of her drawings, and her forearms, hands and fingers to measure distances. The drawings’ titles specify the time incorporated in their production. Spending months completing just one drawing, waiting for multiple washes of dye to dry, Unzueta humbly and happily surrenders to the natural pace of her materials. Held between sheets of perspex fixed into bases of recycled wood, her drawings are encountered three-dimensionally. Visitors discover a manufactured object, to be walked around and looked through, the beautiful and intricate product of simple (organic) processes of dyeing, carving, and intuitive drawing. 

Again, the literal incorporation of her body into each work suggests that the embodied experience of any maker, even working on an industrial scale, might also be incorporated into every item that passes through their hands, even for a moment. A Garment for the Day is Unzueta’s tribute to the child labourers, the often unacknowledged shame of low-cost global manufacturing. It is Dedicated to Ellen Hotton and to so many more children in the  world that we will never know their names, where they spent and spend their days in the shadows of a factory, plantation, captivity… desolation.

A series of garments, reminiscent of factory uniforms, hang on a simple clothes-rail. Dutifully in line, they are handmade using up-cycled denim sourced from a factory in Guatemala. Hanging empty – disembodied – they suggest a haunting sense of what is missing. The gallery context challenges us: we are drawn to touch the clothes, we imagine trying them on, but cannot, because of a distinction conveniently created between process and artwork. We have become removed from the human labour required in production, while continuing to rely on it.

Modern Art Oxford staff wearing A Garment for the Day, 2020.
Photo by Helen Messenger.

But through a process of ‘activation’, Unzueta closes this distinction. Designed to fit gallery staff, these garments were worn on opening-night. The warmth and movements of human bodies remain present in the stretched fibres and loosened button-holes of the clothes as they now hang, signalling a process of re-embodiment, perhaps a metaphorical re-humanising of the anonymous workers they represent. The wearers in this process became secondary makers, symbolically marking the works with their own humanity. We are drawn to consider if this kind of ‘activation’ leaves its lasting mark within all that is manufactured, from an ‘artwork’ to a metal tap. Celebrated or criticised, through Unzueta’s work the human experience of labour is acknowledged, and given concrete presence.

Unzueta’s ‘trade’ was revealed in the making of this exhibition. Watching her surrounded by natural materials in this ex-industrial space (the gallery was formerly a brewery), sewing-machine clicking, oil pastels in hand, was to witness artistic production as physical performance. These subtle, often ephemeral works, leave their mark on Modern Art Oxford as they carry the traces of her hands, gestures, physical presence.

Johanna Unzueta at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Helen Messenger.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Tools for Life, Johanna Unzueta at Modern Art Oxford is temporarily closed, however you can take a virtual tour of the exhibition here.

Words: Cecilia Rosser