How one chandelier can tell us a lot about the world

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Artists, Ken and Julia Yonetani, have created an extraordinary series of objects, one being the ‘USA Chandelier’ (pictured). Art like this powerfully connects us with the planet and people the world over. One of 31 uranium chandeliers made by Ken and Julia as part of the ‘Crystal Palace’ series, this work reflects on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in a way that is at the same time eery, beautiful and deeply moving. The 31 chandeliers is a direct reference to the 31 nuclear nations of the world.

Each glowing chandelier is made up of hundreds of vintage uranium beads with the dimensions of each chandelier directly related to how much a particular nation uses. As a poignant reminder, the ‘USA Chandelier’ is the largest in the series. The chandeliers representing France and Japan are the second and third largest in the series.

Ken and Julia have used antique chandelier frames and refitted these with uranium glass and UV lighting. Once switched on, the UV bulbs cause the glass beads to glow with a haunting green light. And haunting it is. I’ve seen the ‘USA Chandelier’ in person at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney who are in the process of acquiring this important work for its collection. It is spectacular and ominous. It draws the viewer in and forces us to ask questions.

  • Why is the light so green?
  • Why do any white items nearby have a strong phosphorescent glow?
  • How was it made?
  • Are those uranium glass beads safe?
  • Why was it made?
  • Who made it?
  • Why is it so large?

I did not know of the ‘Chandelier’ before I saw it in Sydney. This might seem odd, after all I spent 7 years living in Japan. But somehow I missed coming across Ken and Julia’s extraordinary body of work. So on first viewing, I stood and looked at the ‘Chandelier’ in wonder. Knowing that Ken and Julia are Japanese-Australian artists was my first clue to understanding some of the ideas in the work. Learning that the beads were made of uranium glass set off a whole lot of triggers for me about what the work might be communicating. The artists’ use of radioactive glass is dangerously clever. It’s not actually dangerous. ANSTO (the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) gave it a safety clearance so that the work can be publicly displayed in Australia. But the fear of radiation that Japan has been living with daily is certainly conveyed through this particular choice of materials. And this idea is echoed through the UV lighting, especially the green light that it emits.

This work made me look (see), think and wonder. It stopped me in my tracks and propelled me to think about the material properties of the chandelier and the artists’ intentions with the work. By thinking about these things I immediately started drawing connections with the world at large. Perhaps this was easy for me to do as I already have a deep connection with Japan. But given the scale of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it would be a rare person who did not ask questions about what happened in Japan and the use of nuclear power in the world after looking at the ‘USA Chandelier’. My response was to read about the series (of 31 chandeliers) and to learn which countries use of nuclear energy followed behind the USA in scale. I asked questions about our reliance on nuclear energy, reflected on safer alternative energy sources available, and wondered about the future a great deal. From this point I began to explore the rest of Ken and Julia’s work. And then I was simply and devastatingly awed.

Art contains such possibility and power. It can move us from what appears to be a simple work into a magnificent and challenging realm. And this is possible for anyone who has a moment to pause, reflect and wonder.

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