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An unhealthy glow – What the Birds Knew

10 August 2012 Alex Bellemore

Uranium is not sexy.

But surrounded by the eerie fluorescent glow of Ken and Julia Yonetani‘s chandelier- USA (part of the larger body of work, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations) floating luminous in the blackened space of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (4A), one could reconsider this opinion. The chandelier contains tiny amounts of radioactive uranium, glowing a violent shade of green illuminated by UV lights; but hidden beneath the elegance and hard edged intricacy of the chandelier lies an ominous reflection. Ken and Julia Yonetani in the exhibition What The Birds Knew, at 4A express concerns over the Fukushima nuclear accident and broadly, cultural expressions of environmental anxiety. ‘Uranium glass was perfect, for it is radioactive, and also beautiful. Moreover, these days Uranium glass is made from depleted uranium, a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. So our work is recycling radioactive waste. Through the reaction between the uranium glass and the UV light, suddenly the presence of radiation becomes visible.’

The title for the exhibition refers to Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 post-war film I Live in Fear, in which the central character declares that the birds would flee if they knew of the impending environmental threats. Walking through the gallery to be approached by a six metre, uranium beaded ant, brings to mind those animals who are less fleet and the potential affects of environmental disaster. The dark void surrounding the animal contributes to a sense of reflection on the untellable future and its possibilities.

4A continues its curatorial mission of diverse cultural engagement between Australia and Asia in What The Birds Knew. The exhibition explores the linkage between Indigenous Australian and Japanese cultures and this is easily connected, through associations between the recent nuclear events in Fukushima and the long and majorly lost battles of Australian Indigenous communities’ rights to sacred land in the face of exponential profit from uranium sites. Aaron Seeto, Director of 4A says of What The Birds Knew, ‘The particular focus of this exhibition is on shared cultural expressions of environmental anxieties…and whether these function as either warnings or premonitions’.

What the Birds Knew is at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art until the 22nd of September.

Ken and Julia Yonetani are recent recipients of the Visual Arts Board New Work Grant and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is a key organisation of the Visual Arts Board.


Image Credit: Ken and Julia Yonetani, What the Birds Knew (2012), production still, Uranium glass beads, aluminium wire, and UV lights. Courtesy of the artists, Artereal Gallery, Sydney and GV Art, London.