Kelly Akashi, installation view of “Encounters,” 2023–24. Photo: Jueqian Fang

Kelly Akashi


Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington

Though presented as a cumulative installation, the freestanding sculptures, wall-mounted “crystallographs,” and projected videos that make up Kelly Akashi’s “Encounters” (on view through June 16, 2024) operate more convincingly as a collection of discrete elements, related, but not necessarily interdependent. Akashi’s earlier work stressed tactile properties, but here she deals with the theme of touch indirectly. Working with the University of Washington ceramics and metal art departments, Akashi had students help with the three types of materials that merge into her sculptural elements—folded slabs of fired clay; bronze casts of hands, fingers, and thumbs; and cast-glass facsimiles of similar body parts.

Eerily rising from the floor, 21 low piles of clay, combined with wax candles, glass and bronze body fragments, and cast glass blackberry branches, reach up toward viewers who walk among them. Primordial and primal in character, these untitled works may symbolize the origins of life emerging from the earth or, conversely, the demise of humanity sinking into a morass of sludge. Fired into inertia, despite their malleable clay origins, the sculptures have a static, rigid quality, reinforced by the bronze and glass casts. In this sense, they are more ecological memorials than myths of origins. The deaths of older systems or civilizations are summed up with the presence of a glass crown sinking into the dirt.

Projected above this random graveyard of earthy assemblages are swirling, studio-generated images of outer space—galaxies, constellations, and shimmering objects. The video imagery constantly shifts and changes, as if the universe were in slow motion, accompanied by a half-dozen large, mounted images of microscopic elements also generated in the studio and darkroom. (To create the latter works, Akashi grew crystals on film and printed enlargements in a camera-less photographic process.) These crystallographs act as pseudo-documents, reinforcing a quasi-scientific quality or even a science-museum look. Given Akashi’s statements about wanting to “map time,” one can consider the assembled objects and images as a coherent whole. The installation approach, however, can come at the price of weakening or subordinating the power of individual objects—in this case, the piles of fired slabs with glass, wax, and bronze appurtenances.

The video projections, on the other hand, have a compelling interest all their own, drawing us in and compelling questions of time, space, and destination. This is in contrast to the objects, despite the curator’s assertion that Akashi’s choices of materials “work against their typical definitions—glass that reacts like a soft pillow, dirt that functions like stone, wax that substitutes for permanence.” The viewer is left with an enigma: time that seems stalled; a cosmos grown in the darkroom; and space that is never-ending but completely imaginary.