by Kristen Wawruck
Formations, the first major survey of Kelly Akashi’s work, provides a glimpse of the artist’s personal cosmology in a distinct visual language composed of memories, earthly wonders, and fragments of herself. The word “cosmos” usually pertains to the universe, but its origin in Greek also defines it as the ordering of things. Both meanings manifest and rub against each other in this sweeping exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art with crafted objects that ask: how can we mark our time on earth—our cosmos, in all its contradictions, in forms that are both fraught and tender? This show compiles Akashi’s answers, capturing the full breadth of her deep curiosity and prolific output over the last ten years.
The exhibition’s first gallery offers an encounter with ideas about land, displacement, dispossession and methods of reclamation and resilience. Conjoined Tumbleweeds (2022), a set of delicately intertwined branches cast in bronze, serves as a sentinel for groupings of sculptures that mine and memorialize her family’s history as prisoners in Poston, Arizona. The internment of Japanese-American citizens—an act of racial carcerality on American Indian reservations—remains undiscussed in nativist WWII histories and often within the families it traumatized, Akashi’s notwithstanding. A descendent looking for traces of these stories in physical form might find nothing but rubble remains at the sites of these camps, as the artist did in her trips to Poston over the last two years.
Akashi unearths these stories and portrays them in sculptures that ruminate on Japanese-American identity, presenting three groupings of works on rammed earth pedestals whose faint scent permeates the show. At a little lower than waist-high for the average adult, the plinths of dirt meet us halfway—a height deliberately chosen by Akashi so that we, the viewers, don’t dominate the objects on view. Each supports cast models of Akashi’s hand, running throughout the exhibition as stand-ins for the artist. In these, hands formed of leaden crystal or bronze come adorned with her grandmother’s jewelry, as with Inheritance (2021); wrapped in glass cherry blossoms in Cultivator (Hanami) (2021); or gripping bronze pine cones cast from trees Japanese-Americans planted in the desert for a reprieve from the sun. The latter appear in Life-Forms (Poston Pines) (2021). Trees, of course, mark the passage of time, as do fingernails and hair, both of which can be seen in Being as a Thing (2019). Other organic forms include Be Me (Japanese-Californian Citrus) (2016), a jaunty sumo orange crafted in stainless steel that captures an emblem of Japanese-Californian hybridity, and Conjoined Weeds (2021). The latter replicates weeds from the artist’s garden; they sprout from her hand, a bronze-and-copper symbol of endurance, even though they are generally viewed as invasive and unwanted.
All these objects display Akashi’s extensive knowledge of traditional craft techniques, like lost-wax casting, glassblowing, ropemaking and stone carving. Seen in the context of a de-skilled art world, Akashi’s re-skilling, to borrow a term from Jenni Sorkin’s catalog essay, stands as a refreshing act. Her absolute mastery of these techniques also sets her apart from many of today’s craft revivalists. Akashi displays her prodigious bronze casting skills in Weep (2020), a colossal (62 x 69 x 69-inch) organ-like sphere that releases a slow, steady drip of water into a reflecting pool, literally manifesting the emotions implied by the title. To address the lacuna of documentation from the camps in her family’s collections, Akashi creates her own archival records of the site, ensuring an inheritance of memory going forward.
Elsewhere in the show, Akashi defines her own order of things by interrogating collections and displays. Body Complex and Spirit Complex (both 2019), for example, function as twin cabinets of erotically charged treasures laden with biomorphic glass vessels alongside coiled ropes and representations of spiral shells. By placing a cut, sprouting onion on top of the former, Akashi takes one of nature’s perfect geometric forms and uses it to introduce ephemerality and disrupt the grid, the age-old organizing device. Nearby walls carry the exhibition’s title series, Formations (2021): photograms of enlarged crystals that Akashi grew, which also note time marked by chemical reactions. Together, these objects and images lend the room the feel of a natural history museum. Yet despite the overall lack of anything natural, save that single onion, Akashi’s works destabilize and feminize any such hierarchies.
Triple Helix (2020) best exemplifies Akashi’s re-ordering. A group of anthropomorphic glass vessels sits in a circle atop a granite-and-steel pedestal. Several of these female torsos, topped with crowns of petals and human hair, call to mind wombs and ancient fertility figures, as well as more contemporary feminist icons like Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures.
These ladies speak to a long-repressed history of matriarchal social structures. At the same time, the title suggests that perhaps these instincts are encoded across generations. Within Akashi’s cosmos, these meditations on the pre-colonial past help reveal the structures of the present more clearly.
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Kelly Akashi: “Formations” @ San Jose Museum of Art through May 21, 2023.
About the author: Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, she was the Deputy Director of Swiss Institute in New York.