Art, Science and the Sugar Reef: An Exploration of Climate Change | Art
Ken and Julia Yonetani’s work expose the hidden links of capitalism and overconsumption with environmental collapse, play with eroticism and anxiety, and reference the Greek gods of love and death, Eros and Thanatos.
But their series of works, Dysbiotica, began when they spat into a vial.
Looking through the lens of an electron microscope to observe the fluid, the art and life partners descended into the world of their own microbes.
“There’s so much inside of us, literally, in terms of microorganisms, that our own DNA is just a fraction of the DNA inside of us,” says Julia Yonetani.
This is not a throwaway line – the work of the Yonetanis is deeply informed by science.
As she walks through the highlights of their 14 years of work on display at Queensland University of Technology’s Museum of Art, Julia Yonetani reminisces about the individual scientists whose research and ideas have inspired much of their art.
There’s microbiologist Caroline Hauxwell’s perspective on the links between soil and human health, coral reef ecologist Katharina Fabricius’ research on the impacts of the sugar cane industry and climate change. on coral reefs, and molecular biologist Richard Jefferson’s hologenome theory of evolution.
Dysbiotica grew out of a 2019 residency with researchers at QUT, but Yonetani worries that’s a bit too one-sided to call for a collaboration.
“We were just selecting the brains of scientists,” she says.
Atheist activist Richard Dawkins, it seems, was not consulted. Yonetani work also draws on the spiritual.
Take Sweet Barrier Reef (2009), a work with a separate room. Suggestive heads of white bony coral, bathed in a dappled, flickering blue light, sit on a bed of sand-like substance raked in the patterns of a Zen garden. The substance is actually sugar. Coral too.
Ken Yonetani is a freediver and bleached coral haunts many of their collaborations.
Couples’ reef anxiety dates back to the 1990s, diving off the Japanese islands of southwest Okinawa.
“We went diving the previous summer and where there had been amazing corals, the branches were now a brilliant blue and white,” says Yonetani. “It was dying.”
The coral was a victim of rising temperatures, as well as runoff from sugar cane plantations coating the reefs with soil, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Other works are made of solidified salt. Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) grew out of a residency in Mildura. It’s a table groaning under the weight of a feast made from salt pumped from rising groundwater to protect agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin from the creeping threat of salinity.
Farming practices need to change, Yonetani says, but she respects farmers just as she respects scientists. In fact, she is. The couple run a small organic farm just outside Kyoto City.
Instead of petrochemicals, they grow beans to fix nitrogen in the soil in which they plant rice and wheat.
And as they watched the earth improve, the couple began to wonder about the life hidden in the ground and its connection to the unseen within themselves.
They therefore turned to science to open a window on this invisible world. They spat into this vial. Looking through the electron microscope, they saw a changing vision as they zoomed in further and further. First, it feels like space, Yonetani says, like looking at the moon. Then a coral reef, seen from above. Finally, the microorganisms themselves are revealed.
This was the journey from which Dysbiotica was born. Human figures and a deer’s head, created from pieces of what could be bleached coral, but also evoke a microbial world. Strange, disturbing perhaps, but also hopeful.
“Things are adapting, especially microorganisms, at a rate that I don’t think humans have enjoyed,” Yonetani says.
Ken + Julia Yonetani: To Be Human is free to play and runs until October 23 at the QUT Art Museum in Brisbane.