• ON THE MINES: David Goldblatt's ‘Lashing’ shows shovels retrieved from underground at Randfontein Estates in 1966.

  • Gold in the Morning, Brazil, 1985. Picture: ALFREDO JAAR

  • Terra, Jeannette Unite’s new book.

  • Gold in the Morning, 1985. Picture: ALFREDO JAAR

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THE first time I encountered the work of Jeannette Unite, I felt highly uncomfortable. Here was an artist asking me to see beauty in the heavy machinery of industry, to revel in a "mining aesthetic" despite the contentious place of mining in South African history.

That was two years ago. My knee-jerk reaction was to question the association of art and capital, to assume some kind of artistic compromise in the apparent celebration of industrial landscapes and the curious nostalgia for engineering feats of the past.

Yet I had to admit there was something remarkable about the animal energy Unite had given to (or discerned in) the headgear towers, making them at once powerful and vulnerable, imposing and decrepit. According to Ivor Powell, "the machine as metonym of masculinised force and enterprise" is "placed in a position of some jeopardy" through Unite’s rendering: "The hard, inflexible and metallic" is "rendered in feathery scratches".

This is one of many eloquent observations made in Jeannette Unite: Terra (SoSo Press), a new book that doubles as a portfolio of Unite’s oeuvre and a collection of critical reflections by Powell, co-editor Andrew Lamprecht and various others. It explores Unite’s fascination with the complicated relationship between "above" and "below" — the processes of extraction at the points where the subterranean meets the surface.

Unite is by no means the visual arts equivalent of a mining industry praise-singer. Her first exhibition on the subject, Earthscars (2004), was a "shock response" to the permanent "wounds" inflicted on the west coast by De Beers in prospecting for alluvial diamonds. But subsequent conversations with "geologists, engineers, metallurgists and industrialists" prevented Unite from adopting the finger-wagging posture many have sought to adopt in response to the role of mining houses in the South African economy.

Unite’s admiration for the "impressive scale" of heavy industry, for its "geometry", and for its "proud, powerful, sculptural qualities" is matched both by her environmentalist apprehensions and by her awareness of the direct link between South Africa’s mineral wealth and its legacy of race-based exploitation. While abstraction is a formal quality of her art, however, she does not view mining in the abstract way most of us do, distancing ourselves from the sites, from its labour ethics and from its output.

Instead, Unite emphasises complicity. She mixes her own boldly coloured pastels from "mine dump sand, dust, overburden and metal oxides"; she collects toxic materials and recycles these into molten glass panels. She thus enacts directly what most of us experience only indirectly. We are all "end users" of mining products. Once this has been acknowledged, we are forced to reconsider our responsibilities as citizens in the post-Marikana moment. We can no longer pretend that because mining happens out of sight, it happens "elsewhere". Yet Unite’s work is not intended to induce self-flagellation. Indeed, while Lamprecht and Powell affirm that Unite’s "artistic reflections" constitute "an important contribution to understanding" the "profound ambivalences of mining", they are ultimately more interested in how the artist turns "history, politics and economics into metaphor".

In an essay on artists who are "sympatico with Unite’s concerns or present an interesting comparison to her work", Lamprecht lists numerous South Africans who have "referenced mining". Of these, he argues, only William Kentridge and David Goldblatt have a "distinct corpus" of mining-oriented material. It is significant that Lamprecht invokes Goldblatt’s seminal book, On the Mines, which has now been revised and republished about 40 years after it first appeared in 1973. Unite’s figurative approach seems at odds with the documentary realism typically associated with Goldblatt’s well-known photographs — yet the two have much in common. Both are fascinated by the technology and techniques of mining; both are aware of the knot of sociopolitical problems in which mining is bound up; and neither is polemical or humourless or lacking in sympathy with the subjects. The key difference is that, whereas human figures are mostly absent from Unite’s work, they dominate Goldblatt’s photographs. Half the pictures show us life around and about the mines: the imposing wealth of company headquarters or the comfortable lifestyles of mine managers, as opposed to the efforts of miners to make their living conditions "livable" (pin-ups above bunks, model villages, tin churches, traditional dress). The other half take us to the top of the shaft and convey us deeper and deeper underground.

Goldblatt collaborated with Nadine Gordimer in the 1960s and 1970s, and Gordimer is co-author of On the Mines. Still, the most intriguing texts are those written by Goldblatt to accompany the photographs. Occasionally this pedagogical mode is adopted in presenting race dynamics, when Goldblatt wishes to ensure that the perversions of apartheid are made explicit.

If Goldblatt’s book was vital in bringing the "hidden" dangers, abuses and mundanities of mining into the public eye in the 1970s, its reissue is both timely and disturbing. At the beginning of the year, many South Africans would have seen these photos as belonging to an almost-forgotten past. The mining sector crisis in recent months has shown, however, that the milieu they depict is all too contemporary.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that mining unease is not unique to South Africa. Many of Goldblatt’s photographs from On the Mines are on display at the Goodman Gallery, until December 14, along with a small selection from Alfredo Jaar’s Gold in the Morning. Jaar, a Chilean artist who photographed the famous Serra Pelada opencast mine in Brazil in 1985, nearly steals the show.

This may be attributed to the novelty of his images to South Africa; we know Goldblatt, we know his style, we know his context. Jaar’s photographs are larger and mounted on light boxes, with a palette of colours in contrast to Goldblatt’s black-and-white: the russet-brown of the mud in which most of the miners are covered, interrupted by occasional flashes of red, yellow or blue clothing.

The Serra Pelada landscape is otherworldly; Jaar’s lens gazes down on a network of ladders, pipes and huge cubes of rock, creating the effect of an inverse, benign, brown Mordor. Benign? The men trudging in single file up precarious slopes look like chain gangs in forced labour. Crucially, however, these miners were self-employed; they exercised a form of independence South Africa’s miners do not have. Jaar focuses on muscular legs, on bodies that may be dwarfed by the width and depth of the pit but do not immediately evoke pity.

Doubtless Brazilians or Chileans would interpret these images differently, feeling a mixture of guilt, shame, anger and approbation — just as we do when South African artists remind us of what happens "on the mines".