Radioactive chandeliers commemorate Japanese nuclear disaster

The uranium glass works by two Australian artists go on view in Germany
Ken + Julia Yonetanis’ “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations (Germany, Japan)”, 2012, metal, UV lighting, uranium glass (Photo courtesy of the artists, GV Art, London and Artereal Gallery, Sydney)

A set of glowing green chandeliers made from uranium is being installed at Nassauischer Kunstverein (NKV) in Wiesbaden, Germany. Part of the group exhibition “Keeping up Appearances” (18 March-6 May), the work is timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary on 11 March of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, artists based in Sydney, sourced vintage chandeliers and replaced the traditional crystals with thousands of uranium glass beads. They used UV light in place of normal bulbs, causing the uranium glass to glow green. The Yonetanis are coy about where they managed to source the uranium glass, saying that it is an “artist’s secret”.

The series is titled “Crystal Palace: the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations”. The Yonetanis plan to make about 30 chandeliers—one for each nuclear nation in the world. The first three chandeliers to go on view represent Germany, France and Finland and each work’s size is equal to the nuclear output of that particular nation.

The Yonetanis have applied a Geiger counter to the uranium glass chandeliers and determined that a reading slightly above the normal background radiation level is detectable up to 30cm from the works. The highest reading the artists’ Geiger counter displayed when placed right on the uranium glass beads was 1.3 microsieverts per hour. From a few centimetres away, the reading dropped to 1 microsievert, which the artists said was approximately five to ten times higher than normal background radiation. Despite this, the artists say the uranium glass presents no health hazard. It was widely used in late 19th and early 20th centuries to make sugar bowls, cake stands and other decorative objects.

“Uranium glass is a collector’s item. Anyone who’s familiar with it probably wouldn’t be that freaked out. But we want to have the element of surprise or even fear as a response from the viewer,” says Julia Yonetani.

After their display in Germany, the works will go on view in Sydney later in the year, at Artereal Gallery and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Ken Yonetani, whose family lives in Tokyo “quite close to a hot spot”, believes many people are complacent about nuclear power. He says society was destined to repeat Chernobyl, having learned nothing of the potential dangers inherent in the nuclear industry. Despite the disaster at Fukushima, many developing countries are going ahead with plans to build new nuclear power stations.

The Art Newspaper
By Elizabeth Fortescue. Web only
Published online: 06 March 2012

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