In Kurosawa’s 1955 movie ‘I Live in Fear’ Toshiro Mifune plays an aging industrialist so frightened of a nuclear attack on Japan that he tries to move his entire family to Brazil, far away from radioactive fallout. If the birds knew what was coming, he says, they would fly away in terror. His children have him committed to a psychiatric institution. The alternative title for this film, ‘What the Birds Knew’, is also the title of Ken and Julia Yonetani’s provocative show at Gallery 4A, the Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney.
Through the window one glimpses a gigantic glass chandelier which glows a vivid, poisonous green, filling the darkened space. Entitled ‘Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations’, it is part of a much larger body of work. The artists plan to make a chandelier for each of the twenty-nine countries in the world which operate nuclear power plants. Chandeliers, so redolent of luxury and the heedless consumption of electricity, are a potent symbol of beauty with a disturbing underlying hint of the sinister or the decadent. This piece, together with the other works in the show, is made of radioactive uranium glass which glows green under UV light, thus making the invisible visible. Signs in the gallery assure visitors that the works pose no risk to their health or safety, but there is a definite quality of unease in the viewing experience, despite the aesthetic beauty of the work.
Ken Yonetani was born in Tokyo, and the artists wanted to respond to the fear and overwhelming helplessness provoked by the Fukushima disaster. In my conversation with him, however, he emphasised that it could just as well be a response to Chernobyl, to Three Mile Island, to Sellafield or indeed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the past these artists have worked with unexpected materials, including sugar and Murray River salt. Seeking an appropriate material for a new work which could embody the sense of environmental anxiety they wished to evoke, they discovered to their surprise that they could purchase radioactive uranium glass, containing depleted uranium, online. Their use of this by-product of the uranium enrichment process means that their work is, literally, recycling radioactive waste.
In the main gallery space a 6 metre-long green ant made of uranium glass beads looms out of the blackness. The work is inspired by the Green Ant Dreaming stories of the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, from a site near the Nabarlek Uranium Mine. If their sacred sites are disturbed, the story says, the giant ants will emerge from a place of fear and desolation, with catastrophic results for all living creatures. The uranium mined here from the 1970s onwards was sent to Japan, among other countries. The connections with Fukushima are obvious and thought-provoking. Ken Yonetani told me that ‘fear and healing’ lies behind the work, and the connections the artists make between environmental anxieties felt in Japan and by indigenous peoples in Australia suggest that the way forward may lie in dialogue and exchange across language and cultural barriers.
At the other end of the gallery words glow a luminescent green: ‘Electric Dreams’, ‘Meltdown’, ‘Radioactive’… They suggest warning signs, or a premonition. The installation is both beautiful and disturbing, making one think of the responses of people who have watched nuclear tests in Nevada or, indeed at Maralinga in Australia’s desert where nomadic Aboriginal people as well as British and Australian servicemen were affected by the fallout. Beauty, awe and terrible, terrible danger, coexisting.