On Tuesday 26 May I went to an artist talk at RMIT Gallery by Ken and Julia Yonetani that brought their collaborative art together, at least for me, I’m sure that there are people who have been following their art for years now.
I had seen the work of Ken and Julia Yonetani before but I hadn’t tied it all together. At the Melbourne Art Fair 2014 there was their market of inedible food cast from salt, The Last Supermarket. In 2012 at an earlier RMIT exhibition, “2112 Imagining the Future”, I had seen their Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) a play on traditional European still life with a table, glasses, fruit bowl, cutlery, fish and crayfish all cast from the pinkish salt of the Murray River. And I was aware of Ken Yanetoni’s Sweet Barrier Reef , a Zen garden made entirely of sugar, raked sugar and icing sugar coral formations as it was chosen to represent Australia in the satellite exhibition held in conjunction with the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Ken and Julia Yonetani were exhibiting two of their chandeliers made from uranium glass in the RMIT Gallery exhibition “Japanese Art After Fukushima”. The uranium glass glows green under ultra-violet light with a fantastic beauty just like radioactive material always does in movies and cartoons. The artists explained that uranium glass “is made from depleted uranium and is a by product of the uranium enrichment process – so its like recycling the byproduct of nuclear power.” The uranium glass isn’t that radioactive compared to background radiation but it does link the beginning of consumerism to the advent of electricity and the invention of ultra-violet lights.
Considering its current impact on human life radioactivity has not featured prominently in contemporary art. In the immediate aftermath of WWII some artists did focus on the catastrophic destructive power of atomic weapons. Salvador Dali talked about atomic art and there was the Nuclear Art movement founded in 1951 by the Milanese painters Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. But Fukushima brought all of this back for Ken and Julia; Ken now wears a wrist watch with a built in geiger counter. The danger of atomic weapons has been dwarfed by the dangers of billions of consumers buying sugar and using fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
Ken and Julia Yonetani are collaborative artists, a not uncommon feature in the contemporary art world where artistic partnerships are common, the most notable and enduring of contemporary art partnerships are Gilbert and George. In Australia there are several other artists that work in partnership, like Brown and Green or Gillie and Marc. For this Japanese/European couple the most obvious artistic partnership is that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Ken and Julia Yonetani have played with the work, “War is Over! IF YOU WANT IT”, turning it into “global warming is over, IF YOU WANT IT”.
However, even compared to Lennon and Ono, Ken and Julia Yonetani are far more political and it is also far more personal as, Ken changed career from a financial broker to an artist. We might all need a change of career if don’t prevent global warming.