Salt of the Earth

Artists Ken and Julia Yonetani unearth mounds of salt and transform it into a still-life sculptural installation bearing an important environmental message.

A surreal vision of luxury and abundance greets visitors to Ken and Julia Yonetani’s latest sculptural installation. An imposing table and series of rococo pillars are laden with a snow-white spread of ornate tableware, fruit and vegetables. Grapes and lemons spill from bowls as if unable to be contained, a fish is laid out and a split pumpkin reveals the rich flesh and copious seeds within. Completing the impressive display are five ornate frames and a chandelier composed of hundreds of grape-shaped beads; and it’s all made entirely of salt.

Despite the sense of opulence, the scene is disquietingly solemn. It wasn’t the intention of the Yonetanis – a husband-and-wife artistic duo based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney – to create a work celebrating nature’s bounty.
“We are interested in linking together the idea of consuming food with the environmental impacts of that food consumption,” explains Julia. Still Life: The Food Bowl is an ominous but beautiful representation of the threat facing Australia’s most important agricultural area – the Murray-Darling Basin, also known as the nation’s food bowl.

The rich colour of the 17th-century Dutch still-life masters that the work references is deliberately and conspicuously absent – items are bleached, bonelike and unnaturally still. The ornate frames are ghostly and capture expanses of blank space. The chandelier is opaque white and incapable of emitting light. The food is perfectly formed but as lifeless as a classical statue.

Each item in the installation, which debuted at Sydney’s Artereal Gallery in June and was shown at London’s GV Art gallery in November, is produced from salt sourced by the artists from groundwater salt interception schemes in the Murray-Darling Basin. The work had its genesis during a three-month residency the artists undertook in Mildura, north-west Victoria. Organised by the Australian Network for Art and Technology, the residency connected the artists with scientists at the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre and SunRise 21, an organisation that maps agricultural areas. “When we first arrived we were really focused on creating work related to the drought and the lack of water. But there was just salt everywhere,” says Julia.

Salination has the potential to make a region that is responsible for one-third of Australia’s food supply infertile. The duo felt the most evocative way to create dialogue on the issue was to use salt as the medium for the message. They draw an analogy between contemporary Western culture and the protocapitalist culture of the 17th-century Dutch Republic, a period of great prosperity in which previously unattainable goods became widely accessible. This bounty was proudly represented in vanitas – elaborate still-life paintings featuring cornucopian displays of everyday produce alongside the luxury imported comestibles.

Like the originals, Still Life is a snapshot of a shifting of values, as what was once scarce becomes plentiful. All the food replicated is produced in the Murray-Darling and commonly available in supermarkets, but the installation warns it may not always be that way. The artists cite historical precedents for civilisations whose decline has been significantly precipitated by human damage to the environment. Mesopotamia was of particular interest during the research, with growing soil salinity in once-legendarily fertile areas seen as a key factor in its demise. “We are artists; we are not saying we have the solution to save the world, but we think it’s important to draw the link when we can.”

This is an extended version of “Salt of the Earth” by Madeleine Hinchy, an article that appeared on page 86 of Vogue Living Nov/Dec 2011. For more information on the Yonetanis visit here.

Producer/text: Madeleine Hinchy
Photographer: Craig Wall

One Response to “Salt of the Earth”
  1. Emma Davis says:

    Gorgeous work… such labour!

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