Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

On Sense: The Work of Ken & Julia Yonetani

by Alana Wesley

22 Dec 2011

 ‘If revolt is to come, it will …come from the five senses’

- Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth 

You have a taste in your mouth. At first salty, but then sweet. Artists Ken and Julia Yonetani serve up this dish. Not in a restaurant, but a gallery space.

Ken and Julia Yonetani experiment with a large range of edible mediums in their art. In July of this year Still Life:The Food Bowl at Artereal in Sydney lured visitors with white sculptural constructions reminiscent of both Grecian antiquity and modern domestic life. These intricate displays were not made of precious marble, but rather salt from the Murray Darling Basin. Known as Australia's 'food bowl', the Murray Darling produces up to 90% of Australia's fresh food and is grappling major salinity issues.

Resulting from a three month art-science residency awarded by the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT) on location in Mildura, the work three-dimensionally manifests the still life genre and aesthetically engaged and surprised visitors. The power of the piece rests in its bittersweetness. Salt is presented as a duplicitous symbol: as a food preservative from the past and poison to ecosystems in the present.

Still Life has also been shown at London ’s GV Art Space, where it was exhibited alongside ongoing project, Sweet Barrier Reef as part of exhibition A Sense of Taste. Here, viewers were tempted with tranquil and meditative coral forms reconstructed from sugar - but alarmed when this ‘sweetness’ became tainted by a subtly rendered statement regarding the harmful practice of coral bleaching .

An ongoing project, Sweet Barrier Reef tempts viewers with tranquil and meditative coral forms reconstructed from sugar; yet alarms them when this ‘sweetness’ is laced with a subtly rendered statement regarding the harmful practice of coral bleaching . The main chemical used for this process is derived from sugarcane, an ironic reference to the concept of ‘bittersweet’.

A Sense of Taste retains a classical European aesthetic whilst entwining the sensory and conceptual. A three-dimensional reconstruction of Brueghel’s 1618 painting, juicy grapes and fresh fish are presented merely for observation – not for sampling. This conscious tease by the artists proves an effective device to illustrate our wasteful, gluttonous natures.

The Yonetanis broaden conceptual and material potentialities through both works to in turn explore not only the enviro-political, but also our primal and sensory natures.

Psychologists Eva Kemps and Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University recently undertook a study that gives insight into the effectiveness of the Yonetanis’ practice and the question of why the edible in an arts context can be so powerful. Subjects in the study had difficulty completing various cognitive tasks when presented with visual representations of food. For instance, those confronted with imagery of chocolate took longer to solve maths problems than volunteers who were not.

The Yonetani’s have invited us to dinner. Their offerings use food - as medium, symbol, or instrument for commentary upon environmental and moral crises. Yet the works are not preachy. Discourse is provoked – and it is no ordinary table talk.