Collaborative couple Ken and Julia Yonetani contemplate environmental and societal issues using challenging media.

Australian residents Ken and Julia Yonetani use unusual materials such as uranium glass to provide thought-provoking contemporary installations, rich with layers of meaning and texture. Art Radar finds out more about the artistic duo’s current exhibition in France and how they sculpted a tonne of salt into a three dimensional “still life” masterpiece.

Ken and Julia Yonetani. Image courtesy the artists.

Ken and Julia Yonetani. Image courtesy the artists.

Ken Yonetani (b. 1971) was born in Tokyo and holds an MA in Visual Arts from the School of Art, Australian National University, and a PhD in Visual Arts from the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Once a financial broker, he began his career as an artist when he became an assistant for pottery master Toshio Kinjo, son of well-known Japanese potter Jiro Kinjo.

Julia Yonetani was also born in Tokyo. She earned her MA at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo, and holds a PhD in History from the Australian National University.

The couple‘s work has been exhibited widely in Australia and has appeared in both solo and group shows in Berlin, France, London and Tel Aviv, including at the Singapore Biennale 2013 and the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009). Their work can also be found in select private collections, including Art Bank, Artist Pension Trust (APT), the Balnaves Foundation and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. The Yonetanis reside in Australia.

Art Radar spoke to the artists to find out more about how their installations seek to connect people with their environment and how they use the anxiety surrounding contemporary issues to drive their creativity.

You just completed installing your first solo exhibition in Europe. Could you tell us more about it?

Our first large-scale solo exhibition in Europe, at the Abbaye de Maubuisson Centre for Contemporary Art in France, opened at the end of November 2014. This survey show includes both new and existing work, spanning a floor space of over 600 square metres, exhibited in the context of the Abbaye’s magnificent thirteenth century Cistercian architecture.

New work produced for this show includes The Last Supper, created especially in response to the religious history and aesthetics of the site, and Three Wishes, a piece that we recently developed after our Asialink art residency, also inspired by the site and history of the Abbaye. The exhibition also features The Five Senses, Grape Chandelier and Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations.

The title of our solo exhibition in Paris is “Un autre rëve” or “Another Dream”. This title comes from the Japanese “Konna yume wo mita”, a phrase that was used by the famous novelist Natsume Soseki and then again by Japan’s master film-maker Akira Kurosawa in his film Dreams.

How has the installation been received by the audience?

The show has been very well received. Many of the works we are showing in this exhibition are inspired with a European aesthetic, in a very contemporary way, drawing on histories of imperialism, consumerism and materialism. The works are made from unusual materials, including salt and uranium glass. People have expressed their amazement at the materials we use and they are also interested in the concepts. The exhibition closes in August 2015.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, "The Last Supper installation" at  Abbaye de Maubuisson Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014, salt, 9 meters x 0.75 meters x 1.25 meters. Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Catherine Brossais.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘The Last Supper’ installation at Abbaye de Maubuisson Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014, salt, 9 x 0.75 x 1.25 m. Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Catherine Brossais.

Would you like to share any interesting, surprising or humorous stories from this experience?

The room – and in particular the window positions in the background where we present Last Supper – are very similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. It almost feels as if we had seen this room in a dream, before thinking about the work. Another coincidental story is that the Abbaye previously had a historical mural of the Last Supper, which was removed to the Louvre Museum.

In spite of the fact that France has the highest rate of nuclear power consumption per national power output in the world, we were impressed with their openness to discuss this issue and events, such as the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. They are also very concerned about safety, and the gallery hired a private company which has special regulatory approval from the government to check the amount of radiation in the uranium glass in our Crystal Palace work. They came to check the levels of radiation with various impressive instruments and a very serious face! It was all very formal and bureaucratic and wonderfully French, and though we did not think it would be an issue, even we started getting nervous as he methodically placed all the instruments around the room and the Geiger counter started beeping! The results: the stone walls of the Abbey are actually more radioactive than our uranium glass!

For the Last Supper installation, you cast everything entirely out of salt. Please describe the process and challenges you encounter when working with this medium.

In our previous work, Still Life: The Food Bowl, it took us almost six months just to find a method for casting salt. Salt is highly porous and hardly binds with anything, making it seemingly impossible to cast or sculpt. We finally found a way! People ask us all the time how we do it. Now we just answer “with a little bit of artist magic”.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, "The Last Supper" installation (detail) at  Abbaye de Maubuisson Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014, salt, 9 meters x 0.75 meters x 1.25 meters. Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Catherine Brossais.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘The Last Supper’ installation (detail) at Abbaye de Maubuisson Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014, salt, 9 x 0.75 x 1.25 m. Photograph by Catherine Brossais. Image courtesy the artists.

What was the impetus behind the Last Supper?

Our work with salt began after an artist residency in Mildura, in the Australian outback. This town is a kind of irrigation oasis in the middle of the desert. It is a vision that was originally the result of two Canadians, in fact – William Benjamin Chaffey and George Chaffey, known locally here as the “Chaffey brothers”. The Chaffey brothers established irrigation towns in various parts of California. They brought their dream of turning desert into lush productive farmland to Australia. In one sense, they succeeded. But with every step of the way, they also struggled with the material of salt.

For every drop of water that was poured across plains and every tree that was felled in the process, the Australian desert’s highly saline groundwater swelled. It surged up to the surface in some areas and seeped into the river system in others. Mildura is on the bank of the Murray Darling river, one of the longest river systems in the world. Compacted with drought, recently the Murray has periodically become so salty that the river ecosystem collapses and the water downstream becomes undrinkable. I think they are having the same problems now in California, too.

We worked with scientists studying the impact of salinity on the environment in the area. Then we decided to make a three dimensional “still life” tableau out of salt. This seemed to have lots of interesting connotations, with the rise of the agricultural revolution in Renaissance Europe and the emergence of the art form of the still life. It was called Still Life: the Food Bowl because the farmland on the Murray River is often revered to as Australia’s “food bowl”.

Now we have taken this concept much further, to produce a nine-metre-long banquet table made entirely from salt. Here the issues we feel widen, as salt becomes a metaphor not only for the impacts of salinity, but broader issues of food security and food safety in an increasingly toxic world.

One hundred percent of the salt we use comes from what is called the Murray Darling River Salt Interception Scheme. This scheme pumps out hundreds of thousands of tonnes of salty water every year from groundwater near the river system to try and stop it seeping into the river itself. There is a company called Murray River Salt that harvests this salt and turns it into industrial and food salt products. All of our salt comes from the Murray River Salt harvesting project. We used over one tonne of salt to make The Last Supper work.

Your work consistently examines some of the toughest questions plaguing contemporary society, such as environmental degradation and nuclear power. Do you think that art has the power to change people’s perception surrounding these critical issues? How?

Ken: More nuclear power plants have been built after Fukushima and more wars have begun after World War II. I am not a pessimist, but I have to say that art cannot change the world. If [it were] so, it would have changed already. However, I could change my life through art. I changed my career from a financial broker to an artist. It depends on each person and how they want to change the world. That is why John Lennon and Yoko Ono said “War is Over! IF YOU WANT IT”.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, 'Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations' (USA), 2013, metal, UV lighting, uranium glass, 2 meters (diameter) x 2.2 meters (height).Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Catherine Brossais.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations’ (USA), 2013, metal, UV lighting, uranium glass, 2 m (diameter) x 2.2 m (height). Photograph by Catherine Brossais. Image courtesy the artists.

Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations was a response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Is it difficult to work with or install uranium glass as a medium?

Uranium glass is slightly radioactive, so we have to say that we like working with salt more! Some specialists say it is safe for our health, but we wanted to work quickly to finish the installation. However, the number of chandeliers we had to do was 31 and it took two years. We are still alive!

Apart from the above, what are some of the challenges when working with and creating this series?

Collecting antique chandeliers was the biggest challenge. We travelled to many countries, including Australia, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Portugal, to collect the historical chandeliers. During this process, we learnt to update old chandeliers with electrical components. Now we are experts and can open a chandelier shop!

The Singapore Biennale 2013 marked the completion of the series. How was this series received in a region that has no nuclear power plants?

Maybe we can say that is why they chose our work for the Biennale in that location. There is a political issue. The government is not particularly in favour of nuclear power plants in Singapore. We have not been invited to show the work in Japan yet.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, 'Three Wishes' (detail), 2014, glass, music, butterfly from Fukushima,15cm (height) x 9cm (diameter). Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Catherine Brossais.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘Three Wishes’ (detail), 2014, glass, music, butterfly from Fukushima, 15 cm (height) x 9 cm (diameter). Photograph by Catherine Brossais. Image courtesy the artists.

In a previous interview, you said: “we are just focusing on our anxiety to make something.” What today makes you anxious?

Radioactive fuel is still leaking from Fukushima; but we have recently become worried about the world economy. Many major lending institutions, including the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Federal Reserve Bank, are all printing a lot of money these days. We have been thinking about the concept of “creative destruction”, related to capitalism but also to our work. We are worried that people are living in a huge debt spiral and that we are living on borrowed time, both financially and environmentally.

What is your creative process like? Do you begin with the issue or the medium?

We always start with an issue (concept) first, then find the most suitable material.

Do you collaborate on your projects or does one person take the lead, with the other supporting?

We always discuss and exchange ideas first and then decide if it should be done or not. One of us can take a particular role sometimes, depending on the needed technical demands.

You are currently planning the first anthology of your work. Could you tell us more about the project? When will it be available?

We are working with French publishers and it will be available in English and French. The date of publication should be April 2015. Hopefully!

Ken and Julia Yonetani, 'Sweet Barrier Reef" installation, 2009, sugar, Icing sugar, polystyrene foam, 5 m (D) x 15 m (W) x 1.4 m (H) . Image courtesy the artists. Photograph by Ian Hobbs.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘Sweet Barrier Reef’ installation, 2009, sugar, icing sugar, polystyrene foam, 5 m (D) x 15 m (W) x 1.4 m (H) . Photograph by Ian Hobbs. Image courtesy the artists.

Are there any current or upcoming exhibitions or shows where your work can be seen?

In addition to our current exhibition in France, we are confirmed for the following upcoming events in 2015: “Japanese Art After Fukushima: Return of Godzilla” at RMIT University, Melbourne (March), a performance project at Artplay, Melbourne (May), Camera Atomica, Ontario, Canada (July) and “Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements”, Compton Verney, United Kingdom (October).

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: art in Australia, collaborative, environment, glass art, interviewsJapanese artists, light

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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