Ken and Julia Yonetani’s work exposes the hidden connections of capitalism and overconsumption to environmental collapse, plays with eroticism and anxiety, and references the Greek gods of love and death, Eros and Thanatos.
But his series of works, Dysbiotica, began when they spat into a vial.
Looking through the lens of an electron microscope to observe the fluid, the partners in art and life descended into the world of their own microbes.
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“There is so much inside us, literally in terms of microorganisms, that our own DNA is only a fraction of the DNA inside us,” says Julia Yonetani.
This is not a throwaway line: the Yonetani’s work is deeply informed by science.
As she walks through the highlights of her 14 years of work on display at the Queensland University of Technology art museum, Julia Yonetani recites the individual scientists whose research and ideas informed much of her art.
There’s microbiologist Caroline Hauxwell’s take on the connections between soil and human health, coral reef ecologist Katharina Fabricius’s research on the impacts of the sugarcane 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 QUT researchers, but Yonetani worries it was too one-sided to call for a collaboration.
“We were just collecting the brains of scientists,” she says.
Apparently the militant atheist Richard Dawkins was not consulted. The work of the Yonetanis also drinks from the spiritual.
Take Sweet Barrier Reef (2009), a play that has been given its own room. Suggestive heads of bone-white coral, bathed in flickering, dappled blue light, sit on a bed of sand-like substance raked into the patterns of a Zen garden. The substance is, in fact, sugar. So too the coral.
Ken Yonetani is a free diver and bleached coral lurks in many of his collaborations.
The couples’ anxiety about reefs dates back to the 1990s, when they dove off the Okinawa islands of southwestern Japan.
“We went diving the summer before and where there was amazing branch coral it was now this vivid blue and white,” says Yonetani. “He was dying.”
The coral was falling victim to rising temperatures as well as runoff from sugar cane farms that coated 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 extracted from groundwater to protect agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin from the growing threat of salinity.
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Farming practices need to change, Yonetani says, but she respects farmers as much as she does scientists. In fact, she is one. The couple runs a small organic farm on the outskirts of the city of Kyoto.
Instead of petrochemicals, they grow beans to fix nitrogen in the soil in which they plant rice and wheat.
And as they watched the land improve, the pair began to wonder about the hidden life in the soil and their connection to the unseen within themselves.
So they turned to science to open a window into that invisible world. They spit in that vial. Looking through the electron microscope, they saw a changing view as they got closer and closer. It first looks like space, Yonetani says, like you’re 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 head, created from fragments of what could be bleached coral, but also evoke a microbial world. Strange, perhaps disturbing, but also hopeful.
“Things adapt, especially microorganisms, at a rate that I don’t think humans have appreciated,” says Yonetani.
Ken + Julia Yonetani: To Be Human is free and will be available until October 23 at the QUT Art Museum in Brisbane.