Julia, we’re hoping that the sculptures in What the Birds Knew will be the only works of art we see this year that are actually radioactive… Why did you choose to create the sculptures in radioactive Uranium glass?
Julia: A lot of our works focus on reconnecting the links between human activity and environmental impacts through the use of materials. In the past we have worked with sugar and salt. In making a body of work as a response to the Fukushima nuclear accident, we wanted to use a relevant material. Uranium glass was perfect, for it is radioactive, but also beautiful. Moreover, uranium glass these days mostly includes depleted uranium. Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. In other words, our work is recycling radioactive waste. This too is important in connection to the work’s environmental themes.
But we are displaying more of this work at a solo show at Artereal Gallery in Sydney in October. So it may not be the only radioactive show either, sorry!
But there’s no danger in viewing the works, right? And there was no danger for you in the creation of the works?
Julia: Because the uranium is contained in the glass, it poses no health risk. The amount of radiation that the glass emits is only very minimal. We would not have made the work if we thought there was any risk to the viewer or to us. Uranium glass is also totally legal and a collectable item, for this reason. At the same time, the work does pose the question: How much radiation is ‘safe’? And there is no one definitive answer to this question. The work also confronts the viewer, because through the reaction between the uranium glass and the UV light, suddenly the presence of radiation becomes visible. Even when making the work, it was confronting, turning the UV lights on and suddenly seeing all the materials you were handling glow an amazing luminescent green.
The sculpture that will be visible through the 4A Centre’s window is a glowing chandelier. Why a chandelier exactly?
Julia: The chandelier we are showing at 4A is entitled ‘USA’. It is part of a larger body of work, entitledCrystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations. We hope to make a chandelier for each country that has operating nuclear power plants: 29 in total. Chandeliers were perfect because they both use electricity, and are a kind of symbol of both luxury and consumerism. We first were overcome, while riding a double-decker bus, by the number of chandeliers in the window displays of iconic fashion brands in downtown London. In Sydney too, many shop windows and hotels display beautiful chandeliers. Our works try to emulate this beauty, and then overlay it with a sense of the ominous, the possibility of danger that nuclear power inevitably possesses.
Ken, the exhibition also includes a giant glowing ant. Why an ant?
Ken: The indigenous story of the Green Ant Dreaming is a relatively well known one. It comes from the area near the Narbarlek uranium site in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The site is right next to a dreaming site, where it is said the green ant lay to rest. If the large boulders around the site, thought to be the ant’s eggs, are disturbed, giant green ants will be reawakened and cause misfortune and destruction not only for those who disturbed them, but to all creatures. The story was recounted by traditional owners of the area in documents relating to the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission in the early 1970s. Despite early opposition, uranium in this area was ultimately mined in the late 1970s. The uranium went to, among other countries, Japan.
You were born in Tokyo, and you have both spent considerable time in Japan – what is the feeling about the threat of radiation in Japan currently?
Ken: Japan is very divided right now. We are seeing though for the first time in a long time young people getting involved, attending protests against nuclear power and connecting to others through the internet. It is inspiring to see a younger generation taking the initiative. Another group thrown into political action are young mothers, who have young children. There are very strong powers that are working to try and contain people’s sense of any radiation threat, but, on the other hand, there is also a growing sense of distrust towards the establishment on this issue.