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Where Industry meets Humanity: Johanna Unzueta at Modern Art Oxford

Upon first entering the gallery I was struck by the sheer scale of Unzueta’s sculptural centrepiece – a huge felt chain, draping down from the roof like some sort of ancient industrial relic, dwarfing everything else around it. Upon moving closer, it became clear that this must have been a painstaking piece to create, as a hovering text-bubble pops into existence to inform me that it is no less than 9 meters long, constructed out of ethically sourced materials, and created entirely by hand. This exhibition of course, like so many right now, is exclusively presented in virtual reality.

Nevertheless, the exhibition experience was far from ruined. The initial room and sight of the chain was still awe-inspiring, and while rotating the camera at the base of the sculpture didn’t quite have the same feel to it, I still managed to get a good sense of perspective. The amount of physical labour I imagine it took to create this monolithic piece, on-site, was enough to make my lockdown-addled muscles cringe. This, I think, is the reaction Unzueta wanted.

From the felt sculptures of the first room to the huge site-specific murals scattered throughout the gallery space, Tools for Life has an emphasis on physicality and labour which shadows the exhibition from start to finish. Throughout, Unzueta actively invites us to recognise the physical nuances in her work which point to her labour-intensive process’. She sensitively considers the politics of production with her sustainably sourced materials, and unwavering physical reminders of the craft and human labour which goes into producing even the most mundane looking objects.

This is all supplemented by a stroke of conceptual genius. Unzueta created a series of outfits, inspired by the traditional clothes of industrial workers, and modelled them, in true artistic fashion, as ‘living sculptures.’ On the opening night of the exhibition, the gallery staff wore these specially tailored outfits while on their shift, bringing the ‘sculptures’ to life, animating all of the issues Unzueta deals with right before the visitor’s eyes. This was perhaps my favourite aspect of the exhibition. It at once highlights the gallery staff’s own labour, as well as the site of Modern art Oxford as a post-industrial space. The staff, for one night, had their efforts publicly recognised, all while becoming spectres of Modern art Oxford’s own industrial past as we are encouraged to see workers, not staff, wandering around on the night. Unzueta reminds us that Oxford, past and present was built on labouring bodies and working people.

However, moving through the exhibition, past the industrial sculptures, and the workers’ outfits, I couldn’t help but feel that this powerful reminder was starting to become… lost. The images of industry, of workers, and the poignant reminders of omnipresent labour gave way to a final room full of abstract drawings, which derived their aesthetics rather obviously from biological forms and repeating geometric shapes. A far cry from the focus on industry which drove the exhibition thus far.

While these drawings were certainly more beautiful than the industrial-looking works, bringing to mind such artists as Rennie Mackintosh and Hilma af Klint, for all their beauty they lacked the message, the political sentiments, which gave the exhibition vitality. The focus dramatically shifted from the labouring bodies of industry to that purely of the artist. However, what was lost in political engagement was made up for by pure beauty alone. This final room was filled with perfect pastel abstractions, floating above wooden blocks, and washed with natural colours. While seemingly having no aesthetic message aside from their own attractiveness, their unique names at least gave them some character. Each drawing’s title was constructed out of the months, years, and cities Unzueta created the drawings in – allowing us insight into just how time-intensive these pieces were. This alone, redeemed my interest a more than a little. Unzueta’s surrender to simplicity, time, and natural materials sets it apart from the mass-produced and increasingly complex commodities found on the likes of Amazon, Asos, or Tesco. Unzueta reinforces the value of simplicity. A valuable insight, although not quite as striking as her earlier sentiments.

While these works were certainly not as powerful as the rest of the exhibition, and (call me cynical) seemed to have commodification in mind, overall I am really glad they were included. If nothing else, they gave me something truly stunning to look at. It didn’t distract from the exhibition’s narrative on labour, so why criticise it? Artist’s labour should be rewarded too, and without ‘sellable’ artwork politically inclined artists such as Unzueta wouldn’t be able to survive. During a time when the country has recently ground to a halt, and some people are just now beginning to return to work, Unzueta’s art seems more relevant than ever. Whether intentional or not, it still manages to form an important commentary on recognising labour and the intrinsic human effort which goes into all forms of production, and on recognising the input of everyone working difficult and thankless jobs just to keep things running. I would certainly encourage everyone with a computer to ‘visit’ this exhibition, it really is quite eye-opening.

Photo credit to Instagram user @AmandaBjorn.

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