Humanity’s progress in today’s modern age, thanks to technology and innovation, has brought about unprecedented advancements in all fields. At the same time, development has not come without the expense of environmental sociopolitical problems. It is not an understatement to say that we are living in a global age of anxiety and insecurity with regards to our future and the finite resources of Planet Earth. These timely and relevant concerns are the central focus and basis of inspiration for the works that comprise “The Great Exhibition” at Singapore’s Mizuma Gallery. In it, Australian-Japanese artist duo Ken and Julia Yonetani respond to current affairs that hit close to home, and to their hearts, expressing their apprehension for the sustainability of our futures while also calling for awareness within our world. Their deep-rooted message is embedded within the grand installations and aesthetically striking sculptures that make up this exhibition, which stimulate viewers both visually and emotionally.
This is the artist-duo’s first solo exhibition in Singapore, which features nine works that represent their most recent practice. The Last Supper (2014) anchors the exhibition with its magnificent presence in the main space of the gallery. The installation spans nine meters and resembles a grand banquet table evocative of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century mural painting of the same title. Suspended above this installation is Grape Chandelier (2011), and hung around the gallery wall space are the five pieces that make up The Five Senses (2011), which frame The Last Supper. All of these works, reminiscent of monumental marble sculptures, are created entirely from salt—an organic material that, in this case, holds a multilayered, symbolic function.
In fact, the works are made from over one ton of groundwater salt obtained from the Murray-Darling basin in inner southeastern Australia. Though the Yonetanis’ works are engrossed in global themes that resonate with a universal audience, the starting point and catalyst for them are often distinct, local affairs such as with The Last Supper, which addresses the dire situation of highly saline groundwater rising in the Murray-Darling basin. This phenomenon of salinization is having adverse effects to the local soil, streams and vegetation, thus posing a huge threat to Australia’s most productive agricultural region and, in turn, raising food security issues. In order to mitigate this problem, up to 550,000 tons of groundwater salt are being drawn out every year; as such, the artist-duo has re-appropriated and recycled the material by giving it new life.
The Yonetanis have articulated that The Last Supper not only illustrates the concerns springing from growing salinity levels in Australia, as well as its unsustainable agricultural practices, but is also a “larger visualization” of food security and safety problems in a progressively “toxic world,” and simultaneously addresses the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The table in the installation is crowded with a sumptuous spread of food and is a setting of opulence. In a world full of disparities, there is such a drastic imbalance between the hundreds of millions of people who do not have enough food to live, and the rest of the population who indulges in unnecessary excess. By using salt as the sole material in making this installation, the artists created a highly charged work that dives into the complex layers of societal issues arising from the themes of food security and environmental risks.
In a smaller room, just off the main gallery area, viewers are confronted with a space that is in stark contrast to the blinding whiteness of the salt-based installations. Displayed in this room, which is entirely shrouded in black light, are four works that include Wishes (2015), a piece made out of uranium glass tubing and UV light, which form the word “Wishes” in an ominous, neon green hue. The slogans that make up the signs in this series of work is influenced by the chirpy and always glossy Disneyland, the so-called children’s paradise where “dreams come true.” Ironically, the use of uranium glass—and its association with uranium, an element with nuclear properties—corrupts the superficial happiness exuded by the promise of Wishes, again subtly drawing out the multifaceted problems our modern society faces today, including political strife, environmental disasters and resultant socioeconomic troubles. In a world of instant gratification, Ken and Julia Yonetani’s highly conceptual and sophisticated works provide a critical reflection of today’s current affairs and addresses the need for sensitivity, enlightenment and awareness among our communities.
“The Great Exhibition” is on view at Mizuma Gallery, Singapore, until July 17, 2016.