The exquisite sculptures on show in GV Art’s Sense of Taste, a solo exhibition of works by Ken and Julia Yonetani, have such myriad layers of meaning that you could stand contemplating them for an age. But to begin with the basest visceral response: like the Monty Python art critic, played by Michael Palin, who gets indigestion after eating Rubens followed by Utrillo and finds he has “Vermeer all down me shirt” – I was yearning to reach out, break off great chunks and eat them. On the entrance level, Sweet Barrier Reef is a sculpture made out of sugar; on the lower floor, Still Life, Sense of Taste and other works are made entirely from white salt. These sparkling, glistening white works, delicately porous yet utterly solid, are the most ravishingly edible sculptures I’ve ever encountered. Maybe a more suitable cultural analogy would be Hansel and Gretel standing before the Gingerbread House. As in the Grimm fairytale, these works are delectably tempting to the senses – sight and touch as well as taste – but they also explore serious subtexts fraught with danger and ultimately, death.
The danger explored by these works are environmental, the unhappy consequences of our endlessly insatiate consumption-lead society, so it is therefore utterly appropriate that one’s sense of taste is so aroused. Sweet Barrier Reef is a sculptural installation consisting of a number of corals laid out on a sea of sugar. It explores the death of coral caused by exploitative human practices, notably the harvesting of sugar cane. The production processes used in growing sugar cane has an adverse effect on the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. These practices lead to the coral bleaching and ultimately, to the coral’s death. Whilst one cannot but be seduced by this beautiful crystalline sight, pure white but lit with an ethereal blue light swirling over the sculptures’ surface to convey a subaquatic environment, the whiteness is in fact an index of death.
Still Life: the Food Bowl is a sculptural homage to a pictorial genre that exploded in popularity during the Renaissance; a long table laden with fruits, fish, seafood and wine goblets. Made entirely from salt sourced from the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, it explores a subject with local as well as global resonance. Salt, whilst offering innumerable practical life-enhancing benefits from food preservation to medical preparations, can also have a damaging impact on the environment. The increasing salinity of the Murray-Darling basin, near to where the Yonetanis were on an art residency, is known to be causing a reduction in biodiversity, agricultural land and water resources, and the changes are wrought by human activities. Despite being drained of all colour the effect of the grapes spilling over bowls, the halved avocado pear and plump apricots is nonetheless mouth-watering. It is no coincidence that the work harks back to a period in (art) history when an agricultural revolution allowed the tables of the affluent to be luxuriously stocked with fresh produce. Like the paintings to which it harks back, Still Life explores our contemporary culture of excess – and the environmental impact wrought by it.
On the wall alongside the sculpture hangs Sense of Taste, which consists of an ornate, Renaissance-inspired picture-less frame made of salt. It speaks volumes not only of the over-consumption of society as a whole but perhaps also about the culture of excess within the art world itself (the work is named in homage to the work of the same name by Jan Brueghel the Elder, itself an allegorical depiction of gluttony). The frame is picture-less, thus evoking a strong sense of absence, emptiness and loss – the inevitable consequences of unconstrained exploitation to satisfy unconstrained appetites.
The miracle of these works is that they explore such unpalatable and rather gloomy realities whilst remaining so captivatingly, dazzlingly beautiful. “But, in beauty, there is always hope”, writes Sean Cubitt in his catalogue essay. Looking at Ken and Julia Yonetanis’ awe-inspiring work, it is easy to concur.