First, visitors see a full wall projection of swirling, colliding galaxies from the balcony above Kelly Akashi’s compelling installation Encounters at the Henry Art Gallery.
After descending into the gallery, we see clay sculptures in various odd shapes and sizes. The change of scale is intentional. Akashi seeks to immerse us simultaneously in the microcosm and the macrocosm. A third scale, hanging on one wall, are images of crystals placed directly on film. The crystallographs, as they are called, are solarized to increase the eerie effect.
Akashi created the clay sculptures at the University of Washington in collaboration with the Ceramic and Metal Arts Department, draping thick sheets of clay over bricks in the kiln, not knowing what to expect. Chance and accident play a part in what we see. Though each form stands alone, they also seem to interconnect.
Viewers are invited to walk among the clay sculptures. As we wander, we see strange details. A bronze finger poking out of a cavity that appears to be the center of a ceramic flower. Two cast bronze fingers point into the cavity of another flower, deep in its center is an origami-like white ceramic flower. A bronze hand holds a glass vine on top of another brown ceramic form. A white ceramic origami flower has long nylon strings falling from it out into the room.
The longer we look, the stranger the installation becomes.
There is an interconnection between these forms and the colliding solar systems. We see the small swirl of a glass necklace (blackberry stems) echoing the large swirl of the galaxies. Yet even as there are echoes between the huge scale and the human scale, the clay forms themselves seem like aliens that have landed after a collision of the galaxies. Or like the last remnants of Earth from which the tendrils of life (the nylon strings) reach out. Or creatures from our planet that have changed in response to climate change. Or random eruptions from a lava flow.
Akashi is Japanese American and because her father and his family were forcibly incarcerated during World War II, I also see a struggle for survival with the bronze fragments of hands that seem to just manage to avoid being enveloped by the clay forms. The hands, or just fingers, are literally barely hanging on. There is a sense of entrapment and claustrophobia in this struggle. Are the bronze hand fragments survivors, or are they about to disappear? Or is the clay form going to collapse, leaving only these fragments?
The artist was raised and currently works in Los Angeles, with education at various schools in both Southern California and Europe. She has worked in such dissimilar media as photography, bronze casting, and now ceramics. Encounters follows the exhibition “Formations” last fall at the Frye Art Museum, which I reviewed for the IE.
That exhibition came from the San Jose Museum of Art, the first time the artist had addressed the theme of her family’s incarceration. But never literally.
In Formations there was a sense of stopped time and space in objects that could be read in many ways. That sense of time, and the attention to random small objects that assume great importance might characterize what it felt like to be imprisoned in a camp in the middle of the desert. Small events and objects come to stand for the huge experience of disorientation that Japanese Americans experienced at the time.
The artist’s main concern is the intersection of different types of time — astronomical, geological, and biological. When I read this goal, I was skeptical. But the experience of this exhibition achieved exactly that. The changing scales intersect and throw us off balance from our confident, limited experiences. The collision of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, the closest galaxy to the Earth, is apparently predicted to happen in 4.5 billion years, gigantic and far away.
But it comes literally to our feet in the clay sculptures, with grasping bronze hands, while the crystals multiplying in the photographs on the wall points to the micro scale that builds our bodies.