Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Ken Yonetani's Art of Destruction -
Article by Julia Humphry

The large glass doors of Australia's CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Discovery Centre opened to a wave of squeals, screams and nervous laughter. The crackling of ceramics breaking against the hard floor reverberated across the massive open space around the entranceway and back again. "Oh, it is awful," exclaimed one woman as her high heels crunched into Ken Yonetani's artwork.


Beneath the feet of the large exhibition crowd were more than 2000 white ceramic tiles, laid out in clean straight rows across the Discovery Centre's floor. The tiles featured 10 of the 11 different butterfly species endangered in Australia. Each tile was purposely fired at a low temperature to ensure fragility, and each butterfly design was engraved in the tile in intricate detail. Especially for the exhibition opening night, close to 1000 tiles were laid out on the elevated walkway leading from the entrance to the main gallery. As Ken Yonetani phrased it, each participant was thus "faced with an obligation" to step on and break his work immediately upon entering the exhibition space. Bathed in a blue light, the rows of intricate tiles evoked a sense of ephemeral and mysterious calm, reminiscent of the sea just before the onset of a furious storm. As the exhibition participants filed in one by one, the fragile tiles cracked and splintered into thousands of pieces. One participant compared the piercing sound of breaking tiles echoing across the open space to a herd of stomping elephants. Another likened it to the firing of gunshots in a barren treeless field. In the space of less than an hour, more than 2000 ceramic tiles, eight months of work, had been smashed to smithereens.

In his exhibition, Fumie Tiles, Yonetani made the audience "feel and think about the fragile environment and contradictory human desires" through their own action - that is, by stepping on and breaking his artwork. As Yonetani reasons, all humans contain within them contradictory desires towards the environment in which we live - the desire to protect and maintain, and the desire to impact and destroy. The latter he equates to the sense of euphoria we feel in running across an unspoilt beach, or diving into a blanket of virgin snow. This desire to tread afoot, to make our mark on the world, also leads to the devastation of our natural environs.

Yonetani's Tiles are a confronting and immediate statement on the fragility of the environment on which we tread, and the destruction that humans leave in their path. Fumie, a 'picture on which to trample', was introduced under the Tokugawa system in Japan from the early 17th century as part of its campaign to combat the perceived threat posed by the spread of Christianity. Originally fumie was a trampling board made up of medals or statues that had been confiscated from Christians and featured images of Jesus. As the system of fumie became entrenched, official bronze tablets depicting Jesus' image were made especially out of brass. Those suspected of being Christian were forced to trample on the images as proof of the renunciation of their faith. Yonetani borrowed the ancient concept to deal with contemporary issues concerning humans and the environment.

As his target Yonetani chose to depict the endangered butterflies of Australia. As a reason for choosing this image, he cites the painful and enduring impact of seeing numerous butterflies along the roadside when he was travelling by bicycle in central Queensland several years ago. Many of the butterflies fluttered and fell to their death on the side of the road after being hit by oncoming cars. For him, the fragility and beauty of the butterfly acts as a metaphor for the fragility and beauty of nature as a whole. In the smashed tiles - as profound image and excruciatingly emotional act - Yonetani captures the scene of the butterfly fallen by the roadside in all its forlorn beauty.

The life cycle of the butterfly - from caterpillar to cocoon to colourful creature in flight - also forms a metaphor for life as a kind of spiritual journey. As another inspiration for choosing the butterfly, Yonetani cites a story he heard about concentration camps after World War II. On entering the camps, it was found that victims persecuted by the Nazis had left drawings of butterflies on the wall before facing their death in gas chambers. The butterfly symbolised their escape from the ugliness of this life and metamorphosis into a beautiful, spiritual existence beyond this world. As with this image, the ephemeral beauty of Fumie Tiles, the making of a work of art and its destruction, was interspersed with the underlying sense of a consuming violence.

According to Kim Pullen, collections manager of the Australian National Insect Collection at the CSIRO and guest presenter at Yonetani's exhibition, more than half of the 400 different species of butter-flies found in Australia are endemic to the country. As also explained, most of these are found in the tropical and subtropical areas of northern Queensland. Butterflies, like other insects, birds, lizards, bandicoots, mushrooms, ferns and trees, have been affected by environmental change. While extinction is a natural process, the massive changes we have made to the environment following white settlement in Australia have hastened this process of extinction. Species of Australian 'Blue' butterflies depicted in Yonetani's tiles, for example, rely for their survival on certain native ants. As Pullen explains, instead of attacking the caterpillars, as you would think, the ants actually protect them from other predators in return for the sweet secretions the caterpillar produces from pores on its back. Yet the foreign ant species invading Australia have replaced native ones, leaving the caterpillars vulnerable.

Yonetani visited the Discovery space at CSIRO to seek Kim Pullen's expertise on the different species of endangered butterfly in Australia as part of the preliminary research in preparation of his artwork. This became the initial impetus that led to the holding of the exhibition within the Discovery Centre itself, as a part of its endeavour to promote the interrelation between science, culture and art.

Science and art also became integrated within the exhibition content. Ten tiles, each featuring a different species of endangered butterfly, were hung around the gallery walls and illuminated in blue and yellow lighting. The lighting added to the creation of an atmosphere at once spiritual and mysterious, yet also somehow sterile and lifeless. These wall tiles took a form reminiscent of butterfly specimens that had been catalogued and saved for human inspection. The placement of information boards below each wall tile further emphasised a likening to a museum insect collection display. The information detailed the common name of the butterfly and a map of the area the butterfly was found to inhabit. It also included the different Aboriginal terms used by tribes in the area inhabited by the butterfly to describe it.

This marriage between art and science came with a discernable tension. Initially, Yonetani hesitated to incorporate practical scientific information into his exhibition. This hesitation came from a reaction against the urge towards arbitrary classification and ordering, as itself symptomatic of a modern rationalist desire to objectify and control nature.

Yet ultimately within Yonetani's exhibition the viewer is only able to gaze at the wall tile butterfly specimen through stepping and breaking the other fumie butterfly tiles that lie below. This formed another symbolic statement on the devastating consequence of modernity's obsession with tidy classifications. The inclusion of various discourses within the exhibition space - scientific, indigenous and aesthetic - moreover enables an open dialogue between these discourses, pointing a way towards the future.

The exhibition also embodied the marriage of art with science on a further level. Fumie became not only an artwork display, but an experiment in the characteristics of human nature and society. The reactions of participants were as varied as they were emotional. Some people entered the exhibition looking uncomfortable and defensive and, with their arms folded tightly across their chests and their shoulders hunched, stepped across the tiles below with a sense of dread. Others stomped across the floor with a kind of pained glee, full of a sensation at once exhilarating and yet charged with regret, titillating and yet excruciating. As the crowd charged into the main gallery space, a group of women began desperately trying to save some of the tiles before they were pummelled to their death, and placing them against the walls of the gallery. Several children also picked up some unbroken tiles, only to place them down once again and smash them with a loud and forceful stomp. After they had been smashed, the children then carefully began trying to place the pieces back together again. This image portrayed contradictory human desires and worked as a metaphor for the difficulty humans face trying to recreate a fragile ecosystem they have just destroyed. As the tiles smashed and crunched below, etiquette also seemed to become of little concern. Several people began putting tiles into their handbag or under their arms, laying claim to them with a sense of triumphant defiance. Yonetani smiled. This too was another display of human desire - the desire to possess and stake a claim of one's own.

The entire opening was filmed using five handheld cameras. From this film we can discern another human desire - the desire to perceive and find meaning in wanton destruction after the event through recording, representation and commemoration. At the opening, a short film was shown which traced the process involved in making the tiles, from the casting of the mould to firing. After the opening, footage filmed on the opening nigh itself, from the laying of the tiles on the gallery floor to their destruction, was added to this original video. The final edited film was then played on a screen in the main gallery for the remainder of the exhibition.

Yet watching the moving and powerful event on screen is no less confronting, and the film too is an artwork. The last scene of the film ends with a young woman carefully placing the tile she has saved against the main gallery's glass wall. On realising that she was being filmed, she gave an embarrassed smile and shied away from the camera. After showing the edited film, co-editor Simon Choo (Centre for cultural Research, Australian National University) also gave a smile as he turned to me. "We thought it would be good to end on a message of hope."

As a work of art, Fumie Tiles was complete at the moment of its own destruction. Yet in concept and enactment, it did not adhere to a detached or cynical nihilism. For the act of destruction was not 'obliged' upon the exhibition participants as a mode of silencing, but as a way to open up new lifelines of expression. At the moment between ephemeral beauty and chaotic devastation lay multiple possibilities for communication - among life forms, across cultures and between humans and their environment. Like the butterfly fluttering to its death by the road-side or the butterfly drawings left on the walls of the concentration camp as a last living act, Fumie Tiles offered a precious link, no matter how fragile or short-lived, between life and death, material and spiritual existence. The final task is then left to us - to interpret, perceive, transform and remember.

Julia Humphrey is a writer, translator, and teacher. She researches and lectures in Japanese Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Photography by Katie Englert.


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