Walking into Ken + Julia Yonetani’s “Wishes” is like stepping into a bad dream. The room is illuminated by hanging chandeliers, their green light eerily flickering against black walls, as Disney’s “It’s a Small World” repeatedly plays in the background. This first Tokyo solo show for the husband-and-wife team Ken and Julia Yonetani is a visual comment on nuclear power that invites visitors to tread the fine line between fear and beauty.
Ken + Julia Yonetani’s past works have explored a number of environmental and political issues — including climate change-induced coral bleaching (“Sweet Barrier Reef,” 2009), the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute (“Senkaku,” 2013) and unsustainable agricultural practices (“The Last Supper,” 2014) — and their viewpoint and unusual installations have gained acclaim overseas, having exhibited in Australia, Germany and France.
“Wishes” at the Mizuma Art Gallery, however, focuses on an issue closer to home and is the duo’s first solo show in their native Tokyo. The couple were in Australia when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit, having to watch the disaster unfold via new bulletins on television. They vividly remember watching an Australian news network and seeing Emperor Akihito making his unprecedented televised national address. His speech, the Yonetanis say, evoked the first time an emperor spoke to entire nation —Hirohito’s World War II radio announcement of defeat.
Julia mentions how Ken became neurotic about radiation following the disaster, constantly checking the Internet for news.
“When Fukushima happened we were creating artworks with salt, but we wondered if we could make a work as a kind of healing process for our neuroses, and what kind of material we could use,” says Julia, as she explains how Ken, who became obsessed with radiation levels, would keep checking the Internet for news.
Finding the kind of chandeliers that are often seen in high-end shops in London as an intriguing medium, Ken + Julia Yonetani began putting together “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations,” which debuted at the Singapore Biennale in 2013. The piece’s 31 chandeliers represent the 31 countries that were relying on nuclear power at the time of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant disaster, with the size of each chandelier corresponding to the number of operating nuclear plants in that country. Refitted with uranium glass beads, the light fittings glow when lit by ultra-violet light.
Several of these chandeliers make the main exhibit for “Wishes,” at the center of which sprawls the spider-like “U.S.A.,” which is followed in size by “Japan.” The other accompanying chandeliers were chosen for their corresponding countries’ proximity to Japan, such as China and Taiwan, or because they represent nations that visitors may be surprised to learn house nuclear power plants.
Other works in the show include a newer piece titled “Three Wishes.” This features three rotating glass figurines modeled after Disney’s Tinkerbell. The fairy’s wings, however, have been replaced by real Zizeeria macha butterflies, which were collected as a part of a lab study on the biological impact of the nuclear disaster.
The exhibition opened in October, as talks in Japan about nuclear power raised critical points, and less than a week later, the Ministry of Labor announced that a cancer case had been linked to the Fukushima accident. For Julia, that announcement made her think of Sellafield, where Britain’s worst nuclear accident took place in 1957 and local families have been fighting ever since to prove a link between the radiation and leukemia.
“The irony is, the more that link is washed over, the more people will fear,” says Julia. “They can’t gauge what can be determined as safe and what is harmful. Our work is mainly an expression of our own anxieties and neuroses in this context.”
Both Ken and Julia believe such issues won’t be going away anytime soon, either: “It seems sometimes like we are on a merry-go-round. In a similar way to our work ‘Wishes,’ we keep rotating as the lights flicker around us.”
Ken + Julia Yonetani’s “Wishes” at Mizuma Art Gallery runs until Nov. 14; 1 p.m.-7 p.m. The duo will also be exhibiting their work at the autumn Kenpoku Art 2016 festival in Ibaraki Prefecture. For more information, visit: kenpoku-art.jp