Contained fear: Ken & Julia Yonetani's uranium art

When the magnitude 9.0 quake hit the Tohoku Plain on the east coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 a very human wave of shock and fear ran through many, including Australian-based artists Julia and Ken Yonetani. Their current exhibition deals with nuclear danger. Still radioactive but contained the exhibition of uranium glass beads wired into luminous chandeliers “challenges the viewer in a direct way with the presence of radioactivity”.[1]

The nuclear reactor, Fukushima Daiichi (number one) created in the 1960s, lost power on March 11. All its cooling facilities required power. It was unthinkable that all generators would fail. Trauma always addresses (or produces) the unthinkable. The plutonium alloy ripped oxygen from the surrounding water resulting in four hydrogen explosions which ruptured the containing walls of the reactors, releasing radioactivity spread by the northwest wind (coded in red, yellow and green) depending on the level of radioactivity – in curies per KM2.[2] There is an eternal and invisible danger with radiation. Julia spoke of being influenced by Kurosawa’s film Dreams (1990). One dream of a nuclear reactor exploding under Mount Fuji, where they put powder in the radiation so that you can see it – reds and blues according to its danger level – was “a visionary dream” said Julia and “we were inspired by that movie to visualise radiation in some way.”

Avoiding re-imaging an event is common in coping with ordinary stress: we often explain away the connections between events and ourselves. In coping, we cut temporal and causal connections and leave negative events in a temporal bubble. We try not to overgeneralise or “catastrophise” but tend to depersonalise and disown events to minimise the chances of our own thought processes becoming the enemy where anxiety revved to high levels makes us scan the environment only for danger. Trauma overwhelms us, produces aftershocks of fear; impacts us in ways that we cannot fully mentalise. Like coping with stress, the effects of trauma can also be to sever links.

Further it can promote dissociation which can occur as a failure to fully process incoming information, setting up mental partitions to form sub-selves. Rather than a forcible removal of material from conscious awareness (as in repression) there is an “attending away”, a motivated avoidance of the lingering mental reminders, so longer-term memory and meanings fail to form. The suggestion that traumatic events have thus “not registered” mentally, is countered by evidence that such avoidance is linked with vividly relived flashbacks, some of which are uncontrollable. So avoidance, while an almost inevitable feature of the shock of trauma, can have negative consequences.

The Yonetanis enable us to visualise the danger, sense the fear and shock that they both felt at the spreading of radioactivity, unseen, in their native Japan. The challenging beauty of the chandeliers is their personal response to a trauma which could too readily remain unseen and unprocessed. The transformation of the radioactive glass beads from Eastern Europe – containing up to 2% of depleted uranium – into chandeliers which glow green when illumined with UV lights evokes grandeur past. This linking across time and cultures of antique structures from garages in Portugal and Europe with contemporary nuclear by-products, is real work.

Julia describes the “nightmare of re-wiring them” of “linking the uranium glass beads together, with threads of stainless steel with nylon covering”. Bringing to awareness a contained fear that links past with future, across cultures, this highly personal work connects us with geological time, invites us to share the uncanny beauty of their art. Julia describes this faintly ominous glass as “like not-quite-ripe lemons under normal light. UV light makes it glow a green reminiscent of the Northern Lights which lends an ethereal atmosphere to the exhibition.” It evokes another space/time altogether – reminding us that we are also part of sidereal time. It gives us pause and space to reflect on a most unnatural disaster mediated by our human failure to live in geological time.

Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (Hungary) 2012, antique chandelier frames, uranium glass beads, wire, uv light bulbs, and electric component. Courtesy the artists, Artereal Gallery (Sydney) and GV Art (London).
Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (Hungary) 2012, antique chandelier frames, uranium glass beads, wire, uv light bulbs, and electric component. Courtesy the artists, Artereal Gallery (Sydney) and GV Art (London).

Living in geological time: Contained danger

Reading about Fukushima swiftly introduces geological time when Suzuki refers to the Jogan earthquake in 869. I did a double-take. Surely he had omitted a numeral. Since 1977 precise paleo-tsunami research discovered how to gauge the power of quakes and the height of tsunamis in our remote past by identifying and interpreting “sedimentary rocks deposited by tsunamis up to several kilometres from the shoreline; [they have] obtained the ability to delineate the extent of flooding caused by tsunamis over the past several thousand years.”[3] This knowledge did not impact the engineers and safety committees overseeing the design of nuclear reactors.

When Fukushima was built, megaquakes were unknown. Then in the 1970s seismologists had a breakthrough in quantifying the size of an earthquake – by its “seismic moment” rather than its “surface-wave magnitude” which had a ceiling effect; it “maxes out at about 8.5 regardless of how large the seismic moment is.”[4] Since 1980 knowledge has been generally available that magnitude 9 mega-quakes are possible. There have been two: the 2004 Sumatra earthquake with a moment-magnitude of 9.3, and the 2011 Tohoku event of magnitude 9.0. “The knowledge ... should probably have triggered a re-examination of the earthquake and tsunami countermeasures at the Fukushima power station, but it did not.”[5] “Altogether the historical catalogue counts up to 70 tsunamis generated by submarine earthquakes that have occurred since AD 869 near the eastern Tohoku coast … at least six destructive tsunamis … that resulted in run-ups of 25 to 38 meters and thousands of fatalities.”[6]

To truly live with this past as vivid reality is to live in geological time with compassion for civilisations past. This “retrospection” is powerfully relevant to envisaging our futures. The processes that permit us to project ourselves into the feeling states and thoughts of others derive from our textured access to the past and in turn permit us to imagine futures that we find personally compelling, that we will work to bring about.

If we avoid textured access to a painful past, or if we form a nested sense of self that is trapped in a cell of present time, we lack the means for emotional investment in the future to help us to override the motivation to “act opportunistically and myopically” that arises from temporal discounting where “later counts for less than now.”[7] In this temporality, we can fail to act prudentially, in our own best interests; but rather take decisions that seem fine within that nested cell of time, but which are disastrous when viewed within a wider time scale like geological time. “After the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan revised its seismic guidelines (NSCRG, 1978) for nuclear plants in 2006. But they downplayed historical and paleo-tsunami data in these efforts.”[8]

We do not readily think of scientists as visionary in their predictions. Yet in 2001 Koji Minoura and colleagues at Japan’s Tohoku University presented convincing evidence that the Sendai plain experiences mega-tsunamis every 800 to 1,100 years on average, and concluded their paper with the following statement: “More than 1,100 years have passed since the 869 Jogan tsunami and, given the recurrence interval, the possibility of a large tsunami striking the Sendai plain is high. Numerical findings indicate that a tsunami similar to the Jogan one would inundate the present coastal plain for about 2.5 to 3 kilometers inland.”[9] How could this information not have been taken seriously? Yet Nöggerath notes that: “In reviewing safety standards in 2009, Tepco representatives did not discuss the possible risks posed by a mega-tsunami of the size caused by the Jogan earthquake.”

Holding the past: Dreaming a future

To imagine a compelling future we need to be intimately and affectively linked to our past. Textured, emotionally rich autobiographical memories that give us specific access to the past are crucial resources for imagining possible futures (or counterfactuals) in vivid and motivationally compelling detail.

The art of the Yonetanis evokes the grandeur of ballrooms and civilisations past using the byproducts of ruptured history with a challenging half-life. It is an art that awakens a very specific sensory and affective engagement with residues of the recent past, and which invites us to link past and future in powerful ways. Ken Yonetani acknowledges the “many filmmakers and animé creators who make works that contain premonitions about the future. They are concerned with the past of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they are also concerned with what that means for the future.”

There is a peculiar dread associated with nuclear disaster, which Von Hippel suggests pertains to the “invisibility of damage and long latency of cancer and genetic defects.”[10]Napier traces shifts in the Japanese imagination of disaster in science fiction and manga (comics) from “secure horror” to “paranoid horror”. With secure horror the enemy is external, authorities (like governments and scientists) are benign and the crisis is resolved “with definitive narrative closure”.[11]Her example is Godzilla where the T-Rex that was awoken by nuclear disaster is killed by heroic forces and there is a “catharctic/empathetic vision of destruction”.[12]

The more paranoid, open-ended horror is exemplified by Akira where there are no trusted authorities, but disenchanted anomic gangs riven by rivalries. The enemy might well be within one’s own group, or – given mutant transformations producing terrifying psychic powers – within oneself. The government is only interested in the mutant gang members to exploit their powers – the mutants are “both insider and outsider, exploited and feared”[13]. The moebius strip blurring of inside(r) and outside(r) is ripe for paranoia which flourishes in times when there are attacks from within, when there is an expedient duping of citizens.

Burchfield  notes that “something in the world shifted imperceptibly”[14] when nuclear energy became a practical device and when the first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico in July 1945. President Truman’s decision to drop a bomb named Little Boy on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and another called Fat Man on Nagasaki was something that the American populace found out about when reports came “within seconds of the atomic blasts” that 110,000 Japanese had been killed. The number doubled to 220,000 dead within days – “most of those were civilians”.[15] 

Some science fiction writers came so close to secret information involved in the Manhattan Project that they were censored by the US Government. Burchfield suggests that “the giant insects, mutant monsters and atomically-armed aliens were special effects enhanced stand-ins for the real concerns of Americans about what radiation could do (or had already done) to the water supply, soil and air.”

Avoiding or disowning the past, leaving fear invisible contributes to suboptimal ways of coping with trauma which keeps our vision on nested cells of time, and cuts the links between event and meaning, the lived past and possible futures. The linking work of the Yonetanis is to connect across time and cultures, shedding light on a fear we should all share. Our failure to live in geological time has led to disaster. Making links, like threading glass, overcomes the dissociation of trauma and the myopia that makes now seem so much more important than the future.

Joint Working Group on Earthquake/Tsunami (2009) Remarks made at the Joint Working Group, Geology/Ground Foundation, Subcommittee on Seismic and Structure Design, Committee on Nuclear Safety and Security, 24 June. Minutes online here.

Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (Hungary) 2012, antique chandelier frames, uranium glass beads, wire, uv light bulbs, and electric component. Courtesy the artists, Artereal Gallery (Sydney) and GV Art (London).
Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (Hungary) 2012, antique chandelier frames, uranium glass beads, wire, uv light bulbs, and electric component. Courtesy the artists, Artereal Gallery (Sydney) and GV Art (London).



  1. ^ Ken Yonetani, personal communication.
  2. ^ F.N. Von Hippel, ‘The Radiological and Psychological Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 67:5, 2011, pp. 27–36.
  3. ^ T. Suzuki, ‘Deconstructing the zero-risk mindset: The lessons and future responsibilities for a post-Fukushima nuclear Japan’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 67:5, pp. 9–18, 2011. DOI: 10.1177/0096340211421477.
  4. ^ Kanamori and Anderson, 1975 cited in Nöggerath, J., Geller, R.J., and Gusiakov, V.K. ‘Fukushima: The myth of safety the reality of geoscience’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 67:5, 2011. pp. 37–46.
  5. ^ Nöggerath et al, 2011, ibid., p. 40.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ P. Boyer, ‘Evolutionary economics of mental time travel’, Trends in Cognitive Science, 12:6, 2008, pp. 219–24.
  8. ^ Remarkably there are admirable government employees who stand out as alive to the reality of history: In June 2009, when a working group met to discuss earthquake and tsunami risks, Yukinobu Okamura, a government researcher, said, “I cannot accept this report because it does not mention it [Jogan earthquake and tsunami] at all, [even though] it hit the Tohoku area in 869 with huge impact.” (Joint working group, 2009). Suzuki, op.cit. 2011, p.42.
  9. ^ Minoura et al., 2001: 87, cited in Nöggerath et al. op.cit.,  p.41.
  10. ^ F.N. Von Hippel, ibid., p. 33.
  11. ^ S. J. Napier, ‘Panic Sites: The Japanese imagination of disaster from Godzilla to Akira’, Journal of Japanese Studies, 19:2, 1993. pp. 327–351.
  12. ^ S. J. Napier, ibid., p.332. 
  13. ^ S.J. Napier, ibid., p.344.
  14. ^ L.A. Burchfield, Radiation Safety: Protection and Management for Homeland Security and Emergency. John Wiley and Sons Inc. 2009.
  15. ^ Ibid, p.3.

Doris McIlwain is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University and a contributor to journals in psychology as well as the humanities.