Interviews

Kelly Akashi

On eternity, internment, and the memory of touch

Kelly Akashi, Cultivator (Hanami), 2021, flame-worked borosilicate glass, bronze, 9 x 10 x 4".

“Formations,” Kelly Akashi’s ongoing exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, surveys the past eight years of the Los Angeles–based artist’s practice, mounting a menagerie of bronze-cast, hand-blown glass, carved-stone, and 3-D–printed sculptures in addition to an array of chromogenic photograms, Cibachrome crystallographs, and silver gelatin prints (not to mention the occasional accoutrement of family heirlooms and human hair). Amid all this processual prowess, attention is also paid to the more mysterious operations of memory, time, the human body, and their mutual imprint on one another. Always an alloy of the organic and inorganic, the tactile and the intangible, Akashi’s practice extracts meaning from the ore of object relations, striking at the heart of our attachment to things.

PEOPLE OFTEN BRING UP the idea of the “memento mori” with regard to my practice. But I found a Japanese term that, I think, fits much better: mono no aware. It refers to a wistful awareness of impermanence—the “pathos of things.” It’s central to hanami, the Japanese custom of venturing out to enjoy the brief season of cherry blossoms. That’s why I named one of the casts of my hand Cultivator (Hanami), 2021, and why it clutches a cluster of glass cherry blossoms. And Long Exposure, 2021, a cast of my entire body, is littered with petals from flowers that slowly decay. I want everything to somehow contain both a single instant, a moment, and an eternity.

“Formations” is decidedly nonchronological. I don’t see my practice as isolated bodies of work; I always try to keep my mind on the greater lifelong practice. So it’s been exciting to see similar themes and questions arise in works that were made years apart, sharing rooms together in conversation.

The “Witness” series from this year is my newest work in the show, and they’re the first straight photos I’ve exhibited in a very, very long time—that is, if you could say that I’ve ever shown straight photographs. I printed them by hand in the darkroom with someone who has a lab here in Los Angeles. I’ve gone to the darkroom pretty regularly throughout my life, but when I first returned after the pandemic shutdowns, it was surprising to feel how my body had held onto the memory of other darkrooms. You can’t see anything in color darkrooms, and I was reaching for light switches that weren’t there, imagining that the processor was in one corner when it was in the other. The body’s memory is so strong. I’m very comfortable in complete darkness—it’s not a big deal for me. I can see in this whole other way, through touch and memory.

These photographs were taken in Poston, Arizona, where my father, his parents, and his siblings were interned during World War II. They had to leave their Boyle Heights home—and my grandfather’s business in Little Tokyo—and had no idea how long they would be gone. The artist David Horvitz, who is also Japanese American, told me that the trees that still stand on these sites were most likely planted by the people interned there. Many of the interned Japanese Americans came from agricultural backgrounds, and apparently, they built ponds, cultivated the land, had harvests, and added these trees. The trees, along with some barracks and an adobe brick schoolhouse, are all that remain, and they won’t live forever.

View of “Kelly Akashi: Formations,” 2022, San Jose Museum of Art, 2022. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell.

In addition to photographing the trees, I cast some of their fallen branches in bronze. It’s nice having both the prints and sculptures in the show because I’ve always thought about bronze casting’s relationship to photography. There’s a positive, original referent—the subject—that gets made into a negative mold or cast, and then recapitulated as another positive. I used the lost-wax bronze casting process for the branches, which involves creating a model of the object in wax, then dipping and rolling it in silica slurry and grain for days, letting it dry each time, and repeating it over and over. After its shell becomes thick and hardens, it gets put in an oven so all the wax melts away from the inside, which is why it’s called “lost-wax” casting. The bronze is then poured into the resulting shell. Both in sculpture and photography, I’ve always been most devoted to the idea of directness. Casting these branches, and my hands, and my body—often with molds that can only be used once—seems like the least amount of translation between subject and object. One original, one reproduction.

Sometimes bronze casting can create imperfections, but I love that. You can, of course, fix areas on a cast where texture is lost, or where the shape changes. But isn’t a natural flaw in the process more “direct” than all the consequent repairs and fixes that make it more “faithful”? I always relate this idea back to a quote in Barthes’s Camera Lucida, about wanting “just an image” that is a “just image.” I’m into the endless pursuit of a just image. To me, the flaws in the process often have more meaning than an illusion of wholeness.

I think that my interest in these processes has to do with conceptions of time, too. I started thinking about geological time when, back in 2015, I started CT-scanning shells from extinct invertebrates that are millions of years old. It makes the time between my father’s lifetime and my own seem very short. Part of the reason that I wanted to visit Poston, Arizona, is because, to that land, my father’s internment was basically yesterday. A minute ago, even. Juxtaposing and combining these vastly different time lines makes me reflect on existence in a different way. I see how my fingernails change across all the casts of my hands; they look like little geological formations on my body. Each work really is a marker of a single mortal moment.

ALL IMAGES