A Letter from Souls of the Dead points quietly in multiple directions at once. This exhibit by Aki Onda (they/them), an artist and composer currently based in Japan, opened at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art on July 10 to an eager public. Masked attendees filled its warehouse to watch Onda and several local artists perform with the exhibit’s signature decorative hand bells—an offering that Onda described as “a small ritual for activating the works and pouring energy into the space.”
I had the opportunity to preview the exhibit and speak with Onda and curator Kristan Kennedy (she/her) prior to the opening. Near the start of our discussion, as we spoke about childhood memories, Onda motioned toward the PICA warehouse and said, “This is our church.”
A Letter from Souls of the Dead does take on the likeness of a sacred environment. In addition to a host of bells, the exhibit includes old technology from an electronics store as well as imagery of vintage cassette tapes. Onda’s caring arrangement of this ephemera invites awareness of the memory and energy that lives between and beyond it all. Many of the materials in the exhibit are sourced from Onda’s previous works. Kennedy aptly described it as a “collection of collections,” which coalesced through a mix of Onda’s intuition and intention. “There’s a lot of decisions made in advance, a lot of careful planning, but then there’s also a lot of room for openness,” Kennedy recalled of the process.
Kennedy and Onda have known one another for over a decade, and they have been feeding the spark of this collaboration since 2009. The exhibit’s title, A Letter from Souls of the Dead, came before the pandemic hit and carries a predictive undertone given the past year of tremendous loss. Its varied microcosms seem to be connected by the ghost of a palpable logic. Onda likened their installation pieces to “dead creatures,” which have some life that can be brought back. “It’s really about energy control,” they mused.
Just through the entrance of the exhibit, visitors will find three oval tables covered in decorative hand bells. The bells glisten below spotlights, each as peculiar as the next, forming a topography that blurs the delineations between their similarities and differences. From their resting place at the mouth of the exhibit, the bells channel many possibilities through stillness. They are suggestive conduits, beckoning visitors inward and inviting attention to details across the exhibit at large.
Just past the islands of bells, a hoard of miscellaneous materials lies on the floor. Onda sourced all of these objects from Argo Electronics, a now defunct store in New York City frequented by artists. This collection appears to be ordered in microcosms of likeness: speakers, batteries, motherboards, lights, wires connecting to and disconnected from power sources, and even old TVs playing black and white documentary-style footage of the store shot by Brooklyn-based artist and Onda’s collaborator, Moko Fukuyama.
The installation, entitled Shopping at Argo, draws attention down to its interplay with markings and scuffs on the PICA’s floor, denoting all that has been left behind there. As a de-elevated installation, it honors the obscure role that Argo’s played in the greater art ecosystem. To collect and store “junk” (be it to save or to sell) may seem futile or even pathological to some, but these acts always belie intuition.
“I have sort of a collecting habit since when I was a child,” shared Onda, offering some context for their work. “It’s something natural to me.” They continued, “I’ve been traveling a lot as an artist. So whenever I go, I end up going to a thrift store, a junk store, or antique store, or I can find something interesting on the street. Those things naturally accumulate, and they start telling me something.”
Onda has expressed fascination with the connection between spirits and matter and the notion of communing with spirits of the dead. In a way, their collecting habit makes way for these possibilities to emerge. They described organically accumulating their collections without much intention, until, at some point, an intention makes itself known. “I start to realize what I want to do,” Onda said of this process. “It’s almost like, for me, hearing what they say . . . it’s really like a conversation.”
Toward the back of the exhibit, two vintage projectors cycle slides onto a far wall. The sepia hue of the slides is a subtle interjection into darkness at the edges of the space. Thick beams of light extend from the projectors toward a wall, reminiscent of spirits that could easily pass through it. The projections feature images of tape that Onda methodically extracted from various cassettes. They offer a point of continuity with Onda’s adjacent work.
Beside the projectors, a giant ghostly piece of fabric hangs from the ceiling. It is covered in black and white distorted images of Onda’s cassette tape collection. Light passes through the fabric from above, pulling attention upward. Nearby, a series of enlarged cassette tapes, which have been flattened into adhesives, creep up the walls. The cassettes are covered with Onda’s dynamic collages of stickers and images, signifying the imaginative space of deep internal worlds. They feel animistic, like faces with hollow eyes that peer out from the wall.
Sound emanates from this corner of the space—a composition by Zach Rowden made from Onda’s cassette recordings and contributions from Charmaine Lee. Tones cycle and dissipate, infusing texture and mystery. Every aspect of Onda’s work seems to involve a level of rearrangement or manipulation.
On a nearby pedestal sit a series of old walkmans. Though they are arranged in rows according to their similarities in brand, many have stickers or some sort of marker that subtly differentiates them. Their organization is reminiscent of gravestones at a cemetery—rows of uniform structures that serve the common purpose of remembering many different pasts.
Onda’s habit of recording sounds on cassettes has intrigued Kennedy for a long while. She described Onda pulling out a tape recorder and making recordings at PICA many years ago after they first met. In Kennedy’s estimation, the materials that Onda chooses to work with are “more organic than we think they are.” She added, “A lot of the stuff that is around us, we don’t really acknowledge that it’s taken on a human patina.”
For Onda, the ongoing practice of recording sound on cassettes has become a therapeutic way to remember and grapple with life experience. In a prior interview with Kennedy about the exhibit, Onda shared, “At some point, I start blocking my memories to avoid looking back at the past. I suffered from memory loss, depression, and a series of panic attacks for some years.” But Onda’s cassette recording practice allowed them the chance to archive their experience with a looser grip.
They described to me how recorded sounds and their meanings shift over time, drawing the correlation to subjectivity of human memory. “You can modify, or you can manipulate your memory more,” they explained. “We human beings, in a sense, kind of manipulate our memory a lot. Basically, we remember as we like.”
In reflecting on my own memory of A Letter from Souls of the Dead, I realized that each of Onda’s collections function as a metaphor for illustrating the simultaneous compartmentalization and continuity of the entire exhibit—as a collection of collections. Each collection has its locus of affinity. Each contains infinite nuance, and each leaves space for noticing and contemplation in between its material components. But in speaking with Onda, I got the sense that this interpretation might not be how they think about their work. In fact, there really is no urgency to decide what these collections have to say.
The exhibition text written by Onda for Collage on Cassettes concludes with the following sentiment:
“Being trapped in the past is a bitter fate, and nostalgia is a saccharine refuge. I release these documentations, fictitious as they may be, like arrows flying toward the future.”
While Onda’s collections could be interpreted as sentimental or even political, their work serves as a reminder that these ethos, too, arise from natural ways of being and doing. The materials Onda collects have a strong relationship to human life, history, and bodies. They still ask for care and attention and call back with messages for those inclined to listen.
A Letter from Souls of the Dead is on view at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art through September 4th.