In a world driven by growth, which uses nature’s bounty as if it were infinitesimal, many are asking whether there were times when we did things much better. Were there processes, skills and crafts which used resources sparingly and built things to last, which made us and our environment better off than we are today?
A return to the scythe and the plough would wipe out the last two hundred years of technological and social progress, much of which has been beneficial to mankind. But aren’t we beginning to realise that the human condition, as perpetual producer and consumer, has its limits? And that the connection between what we produce and what we consume has been lost?
These relationships between mankind, nature and industrial production are explored by New York-based Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta in Tools for Life, her new show at Modern Art Oxford. How labour affects the human condition, and how this impacts our relationship with our environment are brought to life in her works.
Unzueta looks to traditional production techniques to bring out the physicality of a craft, a daily practice or a trade. She draws on Chilean craft techniques, natural tinting processes and repetitive mechanised movement, and considers how materials and structures can be manipulated to represent such practices, forming humble labour-saving devices such as cogs and taps.
Tools for Life is Unzueta’s first UK solo exhibition, and four of the works are site-specific (and appropriate given the gallery is a former Victorian brewery). Dominating the main gallery, Related to Myself (2018-20) is a large-scale sculpture consisting of a chain of interlocking cogs in natural felt, which are based on the measurements of Unzueta’s own body. A site specific mural, reminiscent of flower petals, surrounds a presentation of simple handmade garments from fabric sourced from a factory in Guatemala that up-cycles jeans and natural cotton.
Her work brings out the movement and motion of labour, closely connecting daily toil with nature’s bounty. She reminds us that our resources are limited, and taking time to consider the hidden labour, and what nature has provided, within a garment, a smartphone or a car, would help us to reconnect with our environment and ourselves.
Tools for Life is at Modern Art Oxford, Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP until May 10 2020.