Ken Yonetani - About the exhibition and artist PDF Print E-mail

Sweet Barrier Reef is an installation about coral bleaching, a phenomenon that leads to coral death. The work comprises a reef of white sugar, its arrangement inspired by the form of a Japanese Zen garden. Sugar represents human desire, consumption and greed, all of which are impacting disastrously on the natural environments upon which we are dependent for life. Sugar is also a symbol of colonialism, modernisation and materialism, sugar plantations and their exploitation of native workers having played key roles in colonisation across the globe.

Free-diving off the coasts of Queensland, Fiji and Okinawa, I have witnessed first hand the destruction of marine environments and come to acknowledge the perilous disconnection that exists between the human and natural worlds. River waters containing high levels of suspended sediment (nitrogen, phosphorus and herbicides) cause coral bleaching and death. This sediment often comes from harvesting sugarcane, known to be one factor leading to bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia. Around the world, many large sugarcane fields are similarly located beside coral reefs, also creating irreversible damage to the animal life below.

Presently the most significant danger to coral is posed by global warming: abnormal rises in sea temperatures lead to massive coral damage across vast areas. Coral is a very sensitive animal and cannot tolerate a rise of even one or two degrees in sea temperature. It is also one of the animals most easily damaged by human activities such as over-fishing and water pollution.

I have been investigating the impact of human desire and rampant consumption on the natural environment in other projects since moving to Australia in 2003. In one interactive performance work, traditional Japanese fumie tiles imprinted with endangered butterfly species were laid as flooring, only to be smashed beneath visitors’ shoes as they entered the space. Often my work is influenced by aesthetic aspects of Japan, seeking to explore the fragility of nature while revering it as an essential part of human life.

In the performance component of Sweet Barrier Reef, consumers (visitors) are offered sugary, coral-shaped cake by attractive fashion models dressed as trade show attendants. The product is corporatised and promoted as a luxury item, investing it with a stylish and exclusive lure. The models’ offering is difficult to resist given its seductive packaging, and because it’s so far removed from the natural habitat it becomes all too easy to ignore the deathly consequences of materialistic consumption.