17 Aug 2018

August 2018 artwork of the month

Artwork: Jeannette Unite, Residual Geology I & II Hot fused and molten glass panels with gold mine dust and silver, platinum and copper metal foils, lustres and diamond gravel ore particles, 350 x 350mm 2006, COLLECTION PEZULA, KNYSNA

Jeannette Unite began experimenting with glassmaking in 1999 at the suggestion of onetime collaborator Joe Faragher. Since then her works in glass have become an important adjunct to her deep and penetrating exploration of the legacy of industrial, and especially mining, activities on the South African landscape. Glass, with its simultaneous fragility and strength, its ability to reflect and refract colour in exquisite and unique ways and in order to work with it, and the demand for a profound technical and physico-chemical knowledge to use it clearly makes for a fascinating medium for Unite. All her work articulates the convoluted and frequently obscured interconnectedness of power and fragility, of legacy and what is seen as expedient and temporary, of that which is transparent and that which is occluded. These seeming contradictory stances are all interrogated and made glaringly present in her glass works.

Approximately 90% of the glass industrially manufactured today is soda-lime glass. Like almost all glass (and most glass manufactured in the past) its core component is silica (derived from sand) with the addition of sodium carbonate (soda) to lower its melting point and calcium oxide (lime) for durability. The resultant product comprises approximately 70–74% silica in its make-up. This is the glass one typically encounters in everyday life, in windows, bottles and other practical applications, and this is the glass that Jeannette Unite uses as the basis for her works. While naturally occurring glass, such as obsidian, has been known and worked since prehistoric times, the oldest known glass products produced by human agency are believed to be mid-third millennium BC glass beads from Mesopotamia and Egypt, possibly created as a by-product of ancient metalworking. In the context of Unite’s fascination with mining, this is a very suggestive theory to consider. The origins of glass may well be tied to the accidents of ancient mining processes. From this time, glass manufacture developed rapidly in the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean world, although it remained a luxury material until early modern times. Many different techniques and types of glass manufacture were discovered including the production of transparent glass and ‘stained’ glass (i.e. glass to which metallic or other impurities were deliberately added in order to change its colour).

In the most simple terms Jeannette Unite’s glass works are typically produced by using a sheet of plate glass as a base and then arranging shards of discarded glass, metal fragments and mineral dust, diamondiferous sands and the other detritus from industrial mining processes and composing an image, upon which a top layer of plate glass is then placed. This ‘sandwich’ is then heated in a kiln at high temperatures where the layers fuse and colour and material changes take place in the minerals, producing (after lengthy cooling and annealing) a glass panel (Unite 2010). In actual fact the process is far more complex than this, utilising carefully controlled changes in temperature of the kiln, and the addition of different materials at various stages of the process in order to achieve the exact colours or characteristics that the artist desires. Several ‘firings’ over a number of days may be required to achieve the particular effects sought. The finished works have a visual language that echoes Unite’s paintings and drawings, but with a tactile quality and three-dimensionality all of their own, with their crusty surfaces variations in transparency and evidence of bubbles of molten material having burst. Discovering this process did not come overnight and involved years of experimentation and research. In addition, the decision to work in glass and as part of her mining project came about from strands of knowledge that were at first unrelated.


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