Art, science and a reef made of sugar: an exploration of climate change | Art

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

Looking through the lens of an electron microscope to see liquid, the partners in art and life descended into the world of their microbes.

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

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

As she walks through the highlights of their 14 years of work on display at the Queensland University of Technology art museum, Julia Yonetani teases the individual scientists whose research and ideas informed so much of their art.

There’s microbiologist Caroline Hauxwell’s thinking on the links between soil and human health, coral reef ecologist Katharina Fabricius’s research on the impacts of the sugar cane industry and climate change on coral reefs, and molecular biologist Richard Jefferson’s hologen theory of evolution.

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

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

Apparently militant atheist Richard Dawkins was not consulted. The work of the Jonathans is also based on the spiritual.

Take Sweet Barrier Reef (2009), a work with its own room. Suggestive heads of bone-white coral, bathed in pale, swaying blue light, sit on a bed of sand-like substance, immersed in the patterns of a Zen garden. The substance is, in fact, sugar. So does the coral.

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

Ken Yonetani is a free diver and bleached corals haunt many of their collaborations.

The couple’s reef angst dates back to the 1990s, diving off the southwestern Japanese islands of Okinawa.

“We went diving the summer before and where it had been stunning, the branch corals were now so vibrant blue and white,” says Yonetani. “He was dying.”

The coral was falling victim to rising temperatures, as well as runoff from sugar cane farms covering the reefs on land, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Other works are with hardened salt. Still Life: The Food Bowl (2011) emerged from a residence in Mildura. It’s a table that groans under the weight of a feast made of salt pumped from rising groundwater to protect agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin from the creeping threat of salinity.

Farming practices must change, Yonetani says, but she respects farmers as much as scientists. In fact, she is one. The couple runs a small organic farm 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 land and its connection to the unseen within them.

So they turned to science to open a window into that unseen world. They spit into that vial. Looking through the electron microscope, they saw a vision that changed as they zoomed in more and more. 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 discovered.

This was the journey from which Dysbiotica was born. Human figures and a deer head, created from pieces of what could be bleached coral, but also create a microbial world. Strange, maybe disturbing, but also hopeful.

“Things adapt, especially microorganisms adapt, at a rate that I don’t think people have appreciated,” says Yonetani.

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

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