Tools for Life is a compelling overview of the work of Johanna Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile, lives and works in New York, USA) 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.
Johanna Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile) studied art at the Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. She has lived and worked in New York City since 2000. Unzueta has exhibited widely through Europe, North America and South America, with solo exhibitions and projects at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University (2019); Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, Mexico City (2017); Jewett Art Gallery, Wellesley College, Wellesley (2017); Galería Gabriela Mistral, Santiago de Chile (2016); Galeria Die Ecke, Santiago de Chile (2010); Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City (2013); Queens Museum of Art, New York (2009); and Or Gallery, Vancouver (2008). She has participated in group exhibitions at SculptureCenter, New York; the Bronx Museum, New York; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University; CRAC Alsace, Altkirch; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Universidad de Chile, Santiago; David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University; Museu de Arte Contemporãnea da Universidade de São Paulo; and A Gentil Carioca, Rio de Janeiro.
Johanna Unzueta was featured in We Don’t Need Another Hero, the 10th Berlin Biennale curated by Gabi Ngcobo (2018), and is a selected artist for the 2018–20 Open Sessions programme at The Drawing Center, New York. Unzueta’s residencies include La Tallera, Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Mexico (2015), Beta Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico (2013), DIVA, The Danish Arts Council Committee for International Visual Arts (2012), Capacete, Rio de Janeiro (2007) and Art Omi, Gent, New York (2001). She has co-edited and published artists’ books with Felipe Mujica since 2008. Unzueta is a recipient of the FONDART grant, from the Chilean Board of Arts and Culture (1999, 2004 and 2010) and the DIRAC prize from the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2004 and 2008).