Art, Science and a Reef Made of Sugar: Exploring Climate Change | Art

Ken and Julia Yonetani’s work reveals the hidden connections of capitalism and overconsumption with ecological collapse, plays with eroticism and anxiety, and references the Greek gods of love and death, Eros and Thanatos.

But their series of works, Dysbiotica, began when they spat into a vial.

Peering through the lens of an electron microscope to examine the liquid, the art-life partners descended into the world of their own microbes.

“There is so much inside of us, literally, in terms of microorganisms, that our own DNA is only part of the DNA in us,” says Julia Yonetani.

This is not a throwaway line – Yonetani’s work is deeply informed by science.

As she examines highlights of their 14 years of work on display at the Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, Julia Yonetani talks about the individual scientists whose research and ideas have informed much of their art.

There’s microbiologist Carolyn Haxwell’s take on the links between soil and human health, coral reef ecologist Katharina Fabricius’s research on the impact of sugarcane production and climate change on coral reefs, and molecular biologist Richard Jefferson’s hologenome theory of evolution.

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Dysbiotica was born out of a 2019 residency with QUT researchers, but Yonetani worries it was too one-sided to call it a collaboration.

“We were just picking the brains of scientists,” she says.

It appears that militant atheist Richard Dawkins was not consulted. Yonetani’s work also draws on the spiritual.

Take Sweet Barrier Reef (2009), a work with its own room. Imposing bone white coral heads, bathed in a mottled and flickering blue light, sit on a bed of sand-like substance raked into the patterns of a Zen garden. The substance is actually sugar. Also the corals.

Dysbiotica is the result of a 2019 residency with QUT researchers. Photo: Anthony Waite/Queensland University of Technology

Ken Yonetani is a freediver and bleached coral haunts many of their collaborations.

The couples’ concern for the reef dates back to the 1990s, when they were diving off the southwestern Japanese islands of Okinawa.

“We were diving the summer before, and where there was amazing branching coral, now there was this bright blue and white,” Yonetani says. “He was dying.”

Corals have fallen victim to rising temperatures as well as runoff from sugar cane farms covering the reefs with soil, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Other works are of hardened salt. Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) emerged from a residency in Mildura. It’s a table groaning under the weight of a feast made of the salt pumped up 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 much as scientists. In fact, she is one. The couple runs a small organic farm just outside 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 couple began to wonder about the hidden life in the soil and its connection to the unseen within themselves.

So they turned to science to open a window to this unseen world. They spat into this vial. Peering into the electron microscope, they see a changing vision as they get closer and closer. At first it 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.

It was the journey that gave birth to Dysbiotica. Human figures and a deer head created from pieces of what could be bleached coral, but also create a world of microbes. Strange, perhaps disturbing, but also hopeful.

“Things are adapting, especially microorganisms are adapting, at rates that I don’t think people have appreciated,” Yonetani says.

Ken + Julia Yonetani: To Be Human is free and runs until 23 October at the QUT Art Museum in Brisbane.

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