artwords – Plot: Summary – Jeannette Unite’s geo-seam bar-code mineral paintings

  • 0

“Plot” is the main title of three of Jeannette Unite’s* art works currently on view at artwords, a group exhibition on text and image at Gallery @ Glen Carlou until 5 November. The works are subtitled Geological deep time, Carbon measures, and Admission of guilt legislation. “Plot” is also the title of her recent major show at the Iziko National Museum in Cape Town.

We have a noxious taste for summary, abbreviation, anything that supposedly explains, and explains away, meaning. But language, the tool and means that we seek to refine into oblivion, will have none of it. “Plot” embraces the twists and turns of meaning, its intrinsic arbitrariness. Tellingly, a plot is a conspiracy, potentially harmful, certainly illegal. It is also a boiled-down account of a novel, comparatively easy to do, with scare quotes for “spoilers”, if it is a whodunnit. But of course all plots are intrinsically mysterious, especially those, like Jane Austen’s, that appear to acquit themselves with a marriage and a pretty bow.  

There is a third meaning for “plot”: a parcel of land – which especially exercises the artist, Jeannette Unite. This is because her core focus is mining – extractive, exploitative – built on the chimerical system and economy of, say, gold, diamonds or platinum, the greatest resource for which, since the mid-19th century, has been her home country, South Africa. The legalese involved in ownership is deliberately cryptic, says Unite. Geological stratum finds its perverse mockery in the social pecking order – the land barons, mining companies and banks on the one hand, and the indentured, enslaved labour on the other, because mining is, literally, a dirty business. In the case of South Africa, a country which would have a radically different history were it not for mining, extraction, the burglary of the earth, proves the definitional core of a colonial history, now neo-colonial present, in which the globally touted liberation struggle and bloodless democracy emerges as nothing more than a phantom.

Unite’s point, if art can be said to have a point, is a vast human culpability. To narrow the problem to geological extraction is to fail to admit that greed, when shape-shifted through desire, becomes a consumerist grail. Therein lies the insidiousness of the artist’s “Plot”. That we are all complicit in a resource-based extractive economy, and prefer the horrors perpetrated in the name of our greed to be kept at a remove – the basis of Karl Marx’s theory of “alienated labour” – further underscores economic exchange as a transferential and denialistic enterprise.

Needless to add, there is also the spectre of the Anthropocene to contend with. However, Unite’s intervention is neither reproachful nor accusatory. This is because she grasps a deeper perversity which moralising cannot absorb – the perversity that is desire, and the lack-in-being which leaves desire forever unslaked and unfulfilled. This view is Lacanian, but more broadly it is the foundation of capitalism, which, to prevail, must ensure that obsolescence is built not only into things, but into need itself. Thus, “instant gratification”, the fetish of the moment, merely conceals a fathomless vacuum. If, after TS Eliot, we are distracted by distraction, it is because our dissembling lives are perpetually emptied, rendered plotless. And yet, in this abyssal moment – this mise en abyme – we have also become shrill and excessively demanding. These are the hysterical drives and symptoms of a crisis.

We have exhausted the earth, exhausted ourselves. Driven by unreason, the assumption that reason has failed us, we now fail to speak each to each, fail to listen and qualify our thoughts and feelings accordingly. That is why we cling to summaries that account for little if not nothing. And that is why Unite has chosen, in “Plot”, to reveal the catastrophe built into a conspiracy. Land, literally, is up for grabs. The Latin maxim cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to the skies and down to the depths) is the narcissistic basis of imperialism, and the root of a country, South Africa, which, to this day, finds its black majority disenfranchised, unhomed, landless.

This crisis is one which Unite is unable to ignore, but for which she also cannot answer. If she seems mute, she nevertheless implicates us in a greater conspiracy, one which involves systemic racism, relocation, indenture, and migrant labour. As such, her exhibition emerges as a complicitous psycho-geography, a focus on the deeper darker dimensions of a gutted and despoiled Earth. It is unsurprising that Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan, should see the unconscious as a complex yet stratified Black Hole, for which the largest human-hewn hole in Kimberley, South Africa, serves as an objective correlative. It is the unconscious, the somatic or felt life that emerges in and through extraction, that is Unite’s more lingering focus. In scavenging the trace remainders of precious minerals, then working them into her self-made paints, she is producing her own psychic and somatic archaeology. Indeed, there is a particular word for Unite’s creative engagement – solastalgia – which is the negative psychic impact produced when natural resources are exploited and one’s home territory is left in a desolate state.

This is the damaging consequence of all war, all greed. If this is Unite’s primary concern, it is because it is the most difficult to fix, or understand, especially given its more horrific outcome – an untenanted and immoral world, such as our own. In this regard it is unsurprising that the great late art critic Robert Hughes – doubtless being readied for the chopping block – should note that “What strip mining has become to nature the art market has become to culture.” Senseless, irrational, extortionate, mad, the art market, like mining, has propelled us into this radically relativised and amoral world in which, psychically, physically, epistemically and ethically – we have lost the plot.            

Gallery view of Geological deep time (8 panels), Carbon measures (3 panels), Admission of guilt legislation

Detail of Geological deep time (8 panels), 2015

Carbon measures (3-panel triptych), 2015

Detail of Admission of guilt legislation, 2016

Jeannette Unite

*Jeannette Unite has focussed on Africa's rich and contentious mining histories, and the ways humans exploit the earth, since living on alluvial diamond mines on Africa’s West Coast in the 1990s.

She has developed a highly personalised body of work that includes geo-seam bar-code paintings and series that incorporate legislation that regulate wealth derived from the earth under titles such as TERRA, Paradox of Plenty and PLOT and Complicit Geographies.

The material qualities of the works are themselves extraordinary: The artist recycles detritus leftover from industrial sites as pigments ground into her drawings and paintings. She also collaborates with geo-chemists and paint chemists to develop her own paint and pastel recipes.

Her palette consists of jars filled with mining matter and detritus collected during travels to remote extraction areas on four continents.

Her artistic focus dwells on the ongoing role of mining in (re)producing colonial power relations. 

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.