Photograph of Ken Yonetani and daughter taken at Bottle Bend, Mildura
Courtesy and copyright of the artist
As much of the art industry thrives on the neo-liberalist spirit of consumerism, making luxury goods of art, many artists also crusade for social, political or environmental causes. Ken Yonetani is one of the latter. While many of his ephemeral works escape the commercial quality of being sold, they are poignant and powerful vehicles for raising awareness of some of the ecological – and hence social – problems which plague our modern world. Yonetani is part of a growing breed of artists who are ‘getting to grips with the idea of ecological systems as art…as the substance of art practice itself’ (Editorial, 2005, p.14). However the tireless efforts of artists like Yonetani, who so passionately create works in the hope of informing and educating audiences, beg a very important question: can art really affect change?
An increasingly unnatural world.
In a disturbingly prophetic essay titled ‘Art and Ecological Consciousness’, first published in 1970, Gyorgy Kepes warned that:
Disregard for nature’s richness leads to the destruction of living forms and eventually to the degradation and destruction of man himself…we are all carried along by the uncontrolled dynamics of our situation and continue to develop ever more powerful tools without a code of values to guide us in their use. (Kepes, 1972, p.2)
Indeed, since the dawn of industrialisation, the natural environment has always been a faint afterthought in the pursuit of technological greatness that boosts both profits and mankind’s insatiable need to tame and control nature. And while Kepes recounts fleeting moments of poetic caution over the centuries – more than a hundred years ago, John Ruskin proclaimed, ‘Ah, masters of modern science…you have divided the elements, and united them; enslaved them upon the earth and discerned them in the stars.’ (Kepes, 1972, p.1) – the narrowly-focused task of advancement at any cost has proceeded relatively unobstructed. It is only in the final decades of the twentieth century that the environmental consequences of a hitherto uncapped project of technological progression were acknowledged by citizens that formed the privileged minority. We came to realise, as Kepes so eloquently reflected, that ‘shaped with the blighted spirit of cornered man, our cities are our collective self-portraits, images of our own hollowness and chaos’ (Kepes, 1972, pp.3-4). Although it may not be too late, much of the damage is certainly irrevocable, causing great anxiety and uncertainty for the future.
At the same time, art’s relationship with nature became precarious as industrialisation gained more steam, and ecological apathy became the norm. Both, as Felicity Fenner writes, drifted apart and ‘each suffered at the hands of social and political indifference’ (Fenner, 2007, p.422). While artistic expressions of nature and the natural order still existed, such forays were intermittent and became more sporadic as humanity and nature became more disparate. ‘While oblique reference to the natural world is found in geometric abstraction of the modernist era,’ Fenner claims, ‘it wasn’t until the 1960s, when a renewed socio-political interest in the environment inspired a young generation of revolutionary artists, that nature again became valid subject matter in contemporary art’ (Fenner, 2007, p.422). Land art and works addressing ecological issues came to the fore as artists began to register society’s discomfort with their increasingly concrete and artificial surroundings. Pioneering artists such as Richard Long, Dennis Oppenheim, and iconic, ground-breaking – sometimes literally – works such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty brought art and artists back to nature, albeit a permanently altered nature. Now at the dawn of the 21st century, the need to preserve the natural world has become an imperative, and artists are at the forefront of a movement that seeks more accountability from humans for their ecological footprint.
While they were once polarities art and science are now, more than ever, joining forces for a greater cause. Given the increasingly destabilized state of today’s natural environment, artists and scientists are collaborating to raise awareness of the issues and to offer solutions. In the last decade, international art collectives such as Ecoarttech, super/collider and Cape Farewell have emerged to fuse the pragmatism of science with the creative processes of art to, as Cape Farewell’s mission states, ‘stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research’ (Cape Farewell, n.d.). Such developments highlight the recognition of the universal need to make concerted efforts towards ecological revival and sustainability. The partnership between art and science therefore represents the holistic actions that need to be taken: art to present the environmental damage caused by human activity and to further re-imagine a better, more ecologically-viable world, and science to impress upon us the disastrous consequences of not striving to attain this world. Simon Torok, CSIRO scientist and Artlink contributor, offers an uplifting and hopeful illustration of how collaboration can affect change: ‘together, art and science can inspire an emotional response, inspiring changes in our attitudes and behaviour that ensure our landscapes survive in more than photographs, paintings and memories’ (Torok, 2005, p.17).
An artist on a quiet mission.
Ken Yonetani started his working life in one career and has ended up at the other end of the spectrum. Originally a finance broker in Tokyo, he was immersed in the narrow, pragmatic, ecologically disinterested world of profit and economics. After three years Yonetani quit his job and spent several more years searching for his calling, which he found in art, as an apprentice to the master potter Kinjo Toshio in Okinawa. From there, a natural progression to conceptual and environmentally-focused art occurred, as the artist recounts:
I am from the concrete jungle of Tokyo. I felt an urge to draw on my own experiences, and from this moved into the realm of conceptual art. For me environmental loss caused a sense of anxiety: working with my hands, I was able to regain a sense of calm. It was only natural to link the calming action of art-making back to something with an environmental message. (Yonetani, 2005, p.33)
A large part of his environmental message is to bring to light the destructive desire of humanity. Yonetani believes it is important for people to ‘see and feel actual works rather than virtual things.’ Many of his artworks, especially the earlier ones such as the fumie tiles, physically recreate this propensity for destruction. These tiles were destroyed shortly after their unveiling on both occasions of their showing at the CSIRO’s Discovery Centre in 2003 and the Asian Traffic project at Gallery 4A in 2004. In both instances, the tiles, which contained models of endangered Australian butterflies that Yonetani himself had individually handcrafted, were placed at the entrance of the exhibition and crushed under the feet of opening night guests, effectively destroying months’ of work with disturbing voracity. Julia Humphrey offers a detailed recollection of how the installation unfolded at the CSIRO exhibition, drawing parallels between the human condition and the act of destroying another person’s work:
Some people…stepped across the tiles below with a sense of dread. Others stomped across the breaking floor with a kind of pained glee…titillating and yet excruciating… desperately trying to save some of the tiles…Several children also picked up some unbroken tiles, only to place them down once again and smash them with a loud and forceful stomp. After they had been smashed, the children then carefully began trying to place the pieces back together again…Several people began putting tiles into their handbag or under their arms, laying claim to them with a sense of triumphant defiance. Yonetani smiled. This too was another display of human desire – the desire to possess and stake a claim of one’s own. (Humphrey, 2004, p.23)
The reactions and emotions by visitors are a telling portrayal of the human desire to both inflict wanton destruction on their surroundings, and then realise the futility of trying to recreate such a fragile environment. ‘I cried a lot with those ephemeral works,’ Yonetani recalls, perhaps lamenting not only the destruction of his hard work, but what such destruction reflects about the human condition. Many of these broken fumie tiles were subsequently put together to create a new installation of a butterfly mandala. The butterfly pictures of this new work, Yonetani explains, ‘form the ghosts of the destroyed tiles, sacrificed by human’s impact on nature, and a gateway to the spiritual world’ (Yonetani, Westspace, 2005).
Sweet barrier reef, Yonetani’s most celebrated work, is a quiet, subtle comment on the state of ocean floor habitats. In its monumental scarcity, the large sculptural installation, modelled after a Zen garden form and made entirely of sugar, represents the coral wastelands that much of our oceans’ underwater ecosystems have become. The sugar is at once metaphorical and literal; it directly points to the sugar industry’s chemical run-offs as the primary cause for the bleached coral, and also stands as a metaphor for the Western world’s increasing gastric gluttony and desire, manifested through excessive consumption, at any (environmental) cost. At the opening night of Once Removed, the group exhibition in which this work represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale, models in coral-inspired bridal dresses meandered through the throngs of guests, holding delectable, intricately designed wedding cakes, sculpted by the artist. The bright colours of these dessert sculptures were a stark contrast to the deathly white of the installation they accompanied. The performance, entitled Sweet barrier reef for the 21st century – play Strauss’s waltz grandly, included a choreographed dance followed by the models serving up the cakes to guests, creating a relational space which facilitated an interaction and dialogue between artwork and audience. In this case, as well as indulging in one of life’s great culinary pleasures – a wedding cake! – the audience became complicit in the physical destruction of Yonetani’s exquisite sugary sculptures, but metaphorically too in the destruction of the ecosystem that these sculptures represented.
Yonetani’s most vocal, assertive and political attempt to create environmental awareness in the general population is a performance piece he delivered in collaboration with his wife, Julia Yonetani. Global Warming is Over! (if you want it) was a bed-in staged in the middle of Melbourne’s Federation Square on a hot, 35ish°, February weekend in 2010. Emulating John and Yoko’s famous 1969 Amsterdam ‘War is Over!’ bed-in, the performance, which received Yoko Ono’s blessing, was staged to draw attention to climate change and the need for action. ‘The message is the same as the message that John and Yoko had’, Julia explains, ‘if you want something you can actually make it happen…Both of them (war and global warming) we should be able to stop by human action, because they’re caused by human action.’ (J. Yonetani quoted in Pardi, 2010, pp.31-32) The public element of their performance, in which the couple stayed in their Fed Square bed all weekend in John and Yoko wigs, also helped the Yonetanis to take their work and message to a wider audience. ‘People we had chats with in our performance are quite ordinary and do not go to gallery openings often’, Yonetani explains. ‘We discussed about global warming with various opinions. It was very interesting to talk with different people.’ Furthermore, the performance can be considered a direct call to action, informing the public that global warming can be over, if they want it, if they are willing to work for it. The sweltering heat only served to re-enforce the urgency of the message.
Given the conceptual strength of Yonetani’s artistic practice, and the social importance of its message, the artist does not fall into the trappings of ‘crusader’. Rather, his works act as quiet, reflective protests; they impress upon the audience the necessity for change, yet leave the onus for action on the individual. In fact, the only violence in Yonetani’s practice is that which is inflicted on his intensely-laboured creations.
The artist’s next step will be an intense foray into interdisciplinary practices, as the Yonetanis begin their three-month artist residency in Mildura, on the border of the Murray River in Victoria. Long established as a hub for experimental projects where art and science join forces in the quest for ecological revival, Mildura seems the perfect place for Yonetani to begin his next artistic journey. Here, the couple will be collaborating with local scientists to explore the nature of salt, water and salinity as such issues are pertinent to this dry continent, and important to the artist. No doubt what the Yonetanis create will be a telling reflection on humanity’s (mis)use of that most precious of resources – water.
Is art enough…?
In 1972 Kepes introduced the notion of consigning the artist to the task of creating an ecological consciousness. Kepes expounds on ‘the role of the artist in educating the public to understand our ecological situation, and how he can serve to renew the sense of happy equilibrium between man and his environment.’ (Kepes, 1972, p.170) While many artists like Yonetani have enthusiastically stepped into this role, one wonders if art really is enough to change the world. What is the real, practical reach that artists can have on a largely uninterested first world which continues to burn through natural resources faster than they can be replenished? What’s more, should it be the social expectation, or burden even, of artists to take on such a monumental task as changing the mindset and careless living patterns of a population based on rampant consumerism and immediate self-gratification? In other words, is it really the responsibility of artists to change the world? While one’s immediate response would be a resounding ‘No!’ when asked this very question, Yonetani humbly, yet resolutely, replies, ‘I think it is not only given to the artists. All the people have a responsibility to try to change the world.’ From here, it appears that there’s nothing left to say, only do.
Fenner, F., ‘The nature of art’ in Art and Australia, v. 44, no. 3, Autumn 2007, pp.420-27
Humphrey, J., ‘Ken Yonetani’s Fumie tiles – the art of destruction’ in Ceramics: Art and Perception, no.57, 2004, pp.21-23
Kepes, G., ‘The artist’s role in environmental self-regulation’ in Arts of the Environment, G. Kepes [ed.], New York: George Braziller, 1972, pp.1-12
Kepes, G., ‘Art and ecological consciousness’ in Arts of the Environment, G. Kepes [ed.], New York: George Braziller, 1972, pp.167-197
Pardi, L., ‘GLOBAL WARMING IS OVER! (If you want it)’ in Beat Magazine, Wed 17 Feb 2010, pp.31-32
Torok, S., ‘Picturing climate change’ in Artlink, v.25, no.4, 2005, pp.16-17
Yonetani, J., ‘Sweet revenge: interview with Ken Yonetani’ in Artlink, v.25, no.4, 2005, pp.32-35
Yonetani, K., ‘Exhibition invite text’ at Westspace Gallery, 27 May – 11 June 2005, [Accessed 1 Sept. 2010] http://www.westspace.org.au/program/ken-yonetani.html
Yonetani, K., 2010, email 10 Sept., < firstname.lastname@example.org>
‘Editorial’ in Artlink, v.25, no.4, 2005, p.14
‘About Cape Farewell’ n.d. in Cape Farewell, [Accessed 3 Sept. 2010] www.capefarewell.com/about.html