Wads of chewing gum are stuck to the shiny, smooth surfaces of Kelly Akashi’s elegant glass botanical sculptures, sharply undercutting their preciousness. These sculptures, like casts of various parts of the artist’s body, are littered throughout her current show, “Infinite Body,” on view at Tanya Bonakdar in New York through June 10.
Other sculptures—delicate and glassy, hearty and crystalline—sit on plinths that are made of dirt, yet perfectly rectangular. Upstairs, she’s showing photographs made from an astrophysics archive. As art-science crossovers proliferate in the art world, Akashi’s stunning work stands apart as it cultivates wonder, humility, and awe for the beauty and complexity of the natural world. Below, the Los Angeles–based artist discusses how curiosity and chaos inform her approach.
A lot of people pointed to the wads of chewing gum and asked me, is that bronze? Is that glass? But no, it’s just gum! I was drawn to the idea of mastication, and to having this unnamed material—saliva—as a crucial component. I tried to choose pieces of gum that had visible tooth marks, impressions of the body. Actually, I had a nice chat with [artist] Haim Steinbach, who also shows with the gallery, and he called the gum “sublimely offensive.” I thought, well that’s a nice summary; I think I’ll borrow the term.
The plinths are rammed earth, an ancient building technique where you use tools to stamp and pound dirt and Portland cement into layers. The cement works as a binder; without it, the dirt would just crumble once it dried. With this and other materials, I wanted to play with ideas of permanence. The gum might seem like the most temporary material in there, but in actuality, it might be the most archival material I’ve ever used. Some of these sculptures feature a broken friendship necklace as well.
I was trained in photography, which got me thinking about time, and how to make fleeting moments permanent. But as my practice has grown, I’ve been playing with longer timescales and different ideas about permanence, trying to get outside of the human perceptions of duration. My first step into deep time involved working with fossils. Now, in this show, I’m working with images of different objects and phenomena in outer space—these exist on their own timescale, too.
In the galleries upstairs, I’m showing images taken by researchers using telescopes. I made contact prints of these from glass-plate negatives housed in an astronomy archive in Pasadena. They have 100 years of glass-plate negatives, and someone made copies that I was allowed to borrow and take into the dark room. When you make a contact print, you lay the negative directly on the paper; you don’t use the overhead enlarger.
I trained in the dark room, in analog, chemical-based photography. I graduated in 2006; and by now, that equipment barely exists any more. So I was forced to figure out what was important and meaningful to me about that way of working. I really liked the idea of creating such a direct image. And, some aspects of those processes are similar to making molds and casts.
In the archives, I was initially trying to find images of phenomena in outer space that I thought would mirror different kinds of interpersonal relationships on Earth. There’s one photograph of a galaxy merger, which occurs when a larger galaxy latches onto a smaller galaxy and starts to pull it into one of its arms. It’s also known as galaxy harassment.
I used to always say that I liked materials I could have conversations with, and I still believe in that. But more and more, I’m starting to think about my process as containing both control and chaos. I’ve realized more and more that I’m using control to figure out how to talk about that entropy with other people through sculpture. I’m not premeditating a form and then executing it precisely—there’s always an engagement with chaos.
My work is often about encouraging people to look at things in broader, less human-centric perspectives. It’s not about forgetting about humans entirely, but considering where humans fit in a much bigger system. I’m after that feeling of being humbled and experiencing wonder at the same time. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything, but I do I have a certain sensibility, or a particular approach to existence, that I am trying to get across in the works.
—As told to Emily Watlington