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Last spring, Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Akashi traveled to Venice, Italy, and its neighboring island Murano to produce a new body of work for Life Forms, the inaugural summer exhibition at Barbati Gallery. Situated inside the Palazzo Lezze, the space offered a cooling refuge in the heart of the baking Campo Santo Stefano. Murano is renowned for its innovative role in the history of European glassmaking, and Akashi worked with the local glassblowing community to produce some of the handblown glass sculptures included in her exhibition. The sinuous, meandering forms of these sculptures take advantage of glass’s ability to molt, curl, and mimic the natural world, particularly the vibrant biodiversity of its flora.
Akashi’s sculptures place human beings within the context of these nonhuman agents, implying a cohabiting and leveling of lifeforms—in the artist’s work, hands and figures coexist with plant-inspired iconography, coalescing into a system of support and interdependence. This notion is paralleled by her partnerships with local artisans—within a community of glassblowers in which knowledge-sharing is a tenet, teamwork is indispensable, and collaboration is intrinsic. By following the medium of glass to one of its historic epicenters, Akashi’s show works to undermine the idea of “mastery,” instead embracing humility and curiosity by seeking ongoing nourishment from process, material, and community.
Modeled after the Palazzo’s floor, the slab of terrazzo included in Floret (all works 2022) aptly modeled Akashi’s collaborative prowess. The hefty, elevated slab became a table that supported five handblown glass objects produced with the aid of master glassblower Matteo Tagliapietra. They incorporated techniques that are traditional to Murano glassblowing, such as murine and merletto, to create unique patterns based on plant cell specimens. In a nod to Venice’s famed boating culture and canal-lined architecture, local boating rope tethered these spherical “florets” together into a cross-pollinated ecosystem of forms.
On the dimly-lit first floor, Akashi literally draped the human form with florals. The Palazzo’s foyer was flanked on either side by wall-mounted bronze casts of the artist’s hands—a motif she returns to frequently across her oeuvre—holding shapely glass bulbs like floating offerings (Life Forms). At the center of the space, a relief of a human body was draped in knit bronze, like a bespoke weighted blanket. Titled Heirloom, the bronze blanket was constructed from an intricate and layered process: Akashi cast the blanket using hand-crocheted flowers and “knit” the form together through meticulous welding. The piece recalls Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas (1973–80), a series of earthworks in which the artist imprinted her body into various natural landscapes, their hollow silhouettes sometimes filled with fire, water, or flowers. In Heirloom, the human form is inseparable from its floral shroud—the bronze flowers contour the body, whose defining human characteristics are hidden from view.
On the gallery’s upper level, sparse scenes throughout each of the light-filled rooms further imagined human connections to the nonhuman world while also engaging in collaborations with the built environment. Tucked into a shelf in a small room was April 2022 – Scarpa Graveyard; Murano (Matteo); Buona Pasqua Giudecca; Pearl, a bronze cast of the artist’s hand delicately holding materials culled from various areas in Venice: a cloth leaf, a green and black glass flower, a single white pearl, and pieces of rocks and broken-off edifices laid atop one another like geological strata. The bronze hand functions as a vessel for items gleaned from the city, creating an unassuming archive that inflects Akashi’s experience with local cultural memory. Contrasting the built environment with the natural world thus highlights human intervention in nature on a city-wide scale.
Glass is, in some ways, the ultimate teacher—we can bend it to our will, but the final results are beyond our control, mirroring our attempts to control nature. This illusion of control is becoming increasingly apparent in the context of the Anthropocene, in which hyperobjects of our creation, like climate change, exert forces that threaten to wreak havoc on both natural and manmade spaces. In this way, Akashi’s recent works hinge on disparate yet interconnected forms of collaborative knowledge. Turning to tradition to participate in a communal lineage of craft, while also gleaning insight from the vast intelligence of the natural world, Life Forms took shape as a timely feat of collaboration. Thus, these collaborations—between humans and across species—are now all the more essential, as we belatedly recognize that ours is a shared world, shaped by the same forces, entwined by a collective fate.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 30.