The art of Ken and Julia Yonetani plays with sexuality and fear, alludes to the Greek gods of love and death, Eros and Thanatos, and uncovers hidden links between capitalism, overconsumption, and environmental catastrophe.
But when they spit into a vial, their series of works, Dysbiotica, began.
The art and life partners entered the realm of their own bacteria when they viewed the fluid under an electron microscope.
We really have so many germs inside of us that only a little portion of our DNA is found there, according to Julia Yonetani.
This is not just a cliche; science has a significant influence on the Yonetanis’ work.
Julia Yonetani reels off the names of the specific scientists whose research and ideas influenced much of their art as she walks through the highlights of their 14 years of work on show at the Queensland University of Technology’s art gallery.
Caroline Hauxwell, a microbiologist, offers her perspective on the relationship between soil and human health, Katharina Fabricius, a coral reef ecologist, examines the effects of climate change and the sugar cane industry on coral reefs, and Richard Jefferson, a molecular biologist, advances the hologenome theory of evolution.
Dysbiosis was the result of a residence in 2019 with researchers from QUT, but Yonetani questions if it truly counts as a partnership because it was so one-sided.
We were merely picking the scientists’ brains, she claims.
It appears that the fervent atheist Richard Dawkins was not contacted. The Yonetanis’ art also incorporates mystical elements.
Consider the 2009 piece Sweet Barrier Reef, which has its own room. Suggestional bone-white coral heads rest on a bed of material that has been raked into the shapes of a Zen garden, drenched in dappled and swaying blue light. In reality, the substance is sugar. Similarly, coral.
Free diver Ken Yonetani frequently collaborates with the theme of bleached coral.
The couple first experienced reef anxiety when scuba diving off the southwest Japanese islands of Okinawa in the 1990s.
When Yonetani and her friends went diving the previous summer, they noticed that the wonderful branch coral had changed to a striking blue and white color. “It was perishing.”
In addition to the runoff from sugar cane farms that covered the reefs in soil, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, the coral was suffering due to rising temperatures.
Other creations are made of salted crystals. 2011 work Still Life: The Food Bowl is the result of a Mildura residence. The Murray-Darling basin’s farmland is being shielded from the advancing menace of salinity by a table that is groaning with the weight of a feast produced with salt that is being pumped out of increasing groundwater.
Yonetani asserts that agricultural techniques must change, but she respects farmers just as much as she does scientists. She is a one, in fact. A modest organic farm is operated by a couple of nearby Kyoto.
They produce beans to fix nitrogen into the soil before manually planting rice and wheat in place of petrochemicals.
And as they observed the ground getting better, the two started to consider how hidden life in the soil might be related to what they couldn’t see within themselves.
In order to provide a portal into that invisible world, they turned to science. In that vial, they spat. They could see a shifting vision as they zoomed in closer and closer through the electron microscope. According to Yonetani, it initially appears as though you are looking at space or the moon. A coral reef is then visible from above. The microorganisms themselves are then made known.
This was the adventure that gave rise to Dysbiotica. From fragments of what might be bleached coral but perhaps suggest a microbiological world, human sculptures, and a deer head were made. Perhaps strange and frightening, but also hopeful.
According to Yonetani, “things adapt, particularly microbes adapt, at a pace that I don’t think humans have comprehended.”
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