“Like the philosopher, the author views his task as one of establishing a clear connection between life and history, and of making the past bear fruit for the present and future.”
- Lion Feuchtwanger, Vom Sinn des historischen Romans, 1935
Kelly Akashi Heirloom at Villa Aurora brings together three recent sculptures by the Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Kelly Akashi in the historic setting of Villa Aurora. Located in the garden, salon, and courtyard of the storied residence, the trio of works speaks to many of Akashi’s sculptural and conceptual concerns—how materials encode presence and absence, flowers as a marker of ephemerality, and cycles of life, death, and rebirth. The installation also evokes an historical parallelism between Akashi’s family story and the journey of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, Villa Aurora’s earlier owners.
Villa Aurora was constructed in 1929 as a spec house by the Los Angeles Times and investors Arthur Weber and George Ley, who had partnered on a real estate venture to attract wealthy buyers to settle in this remote part of Los Angeles that lacked public infrastructure. The houses would be equipped with all the modern comforts, and excesses, available at the time. At Villa Aurora, for example, an organ was installed so that future residents could provide musical accompaniment to the projection of silent movies. But when the market crashed in 1929, the investors abandoned the venture, leaving Villa Aurora vacant until 1943, when the Feuchtwangers purchased it for $9,000. Apparently, the home was so run-down after years of neglect that Lion and Marta spent their first nights in the garden in sleeping bags.
The Feuchtwangers had arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 after eight years fleeing from country to country in Europe. While Feuchtwanger was on tour abroad in 1933, Nazi Propaganda minister Goebbels named Feuchtwanger “Enemy Number One of the German people,” ransacking his home and setting his library on fire. In 1940, Lion was captured and imprisoned at Les Milles in France for several months and was only able to escape when he was smuggled to Marseille disguised as a woman. From there, with help of various American diplomats, ministers and journalists, as well as the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lion and Marta were able to flee to the United States. Throughout the war, the Feuchtwangers used Villa Aurora not only as a cultural salon, but also as a meeting place to gather support and donations to help other German-Jewish and antifascist authors obtain affidavits and visas to escape Europe. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schönberg, and others gathered at Villa Aurora as it became a site for intellectual reorganization in the wake of modernity’s greatest rupture.
In the gardens outside the Villa lies Kelly Akashi’s sculpture Heirloom (2022), a bronze pall made of hundreds of crocheted flowers. These flowers were cast individually, then welded back together, floating over an impression of the artist's body. Lying in the garden, the work has been seeded with pea vines, nasturtiums, fennel, calendula, white sage, beets and red oak leaf lettuce. A symbol of final rest and recurring rebirth, these vital plants—all edible—grow up and through clefts in the hard bronze surface. Upstairs in the salon, Akashi’s Twine Time (Red Poppy) (2022) depicts a blown-glass red poppy supported by a spiraling metal stem. It hangs in the air, suspended by a delicately knotted jute rope. Twine Time articulates growth and symbolizes spiraling models of time. Outside this room in the courtyard, Fractured Thigh-Tooth (2021) sits in a pool of water. It is a carved onyx form that evokes both a tooth and a torso and speaks to the inner geology of the human body.
Akashi frequently draws connections between the body and the landscape, specifically juxtaposing human temporality with the deeper time of trees, soil, fossils, and stones. Recently, her practice has focused attention on familial time and examined the history of her father’s imprisonment in the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. Akashi’s father was a child when he was forcibly moved with his family from Boyle Heights to the Poston Internment Camp in southwestern Arizona, one of ten internment camps built in the United States during World War II to concentrate and isolate Japanese-Americans. In a recent body of work currently on view in a touring museum exhibition, Akashi draws upon the geology, the tumbleweeds, and the landscapes of Poston as a means of seeking an exchange with the material of the past, to understand and trace its effects on the present.
With the rise of McCarthyism after World War II, Lion and Marta were placed under surveillance by the FBI and repeatedly taken in for questioning. Although Lion made many attempts to obtain U.S. citizenship (stripped of his German citizenship in 1933) while living at Villa Aurora, his applications were constantly denied and he effectively died stateless in 1958. In fact, many of the Weimar exiles in Los Angeles were charged with suspicion and forced to return to Europe at the onset of the Cold War.
After Lion’s passing, Marta spent the rest of her life forming and protecting the heritage of her husband’s estate, including what remained of his collection of books and manuscripts after the 1933 seizure and 1940 loss of his libraries. Today, 30,000 volumes remain in Lion’s library, with 22,000 at Villa Aurora. The remaining 8,000 are at USC’s Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, and contain treasures such as a Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493, Goya prints, letters written by Napoleon, and a signed first edition by Voltaire.
Along with the library, Marta had also bequeathed Villa Aurora to USC, with the stipulation that she be able to reside in the house until her death. Although Marta intended the school to maintain and use Villa Aurora for educational purposes, USC moved quickly to sell the house two years after Marta died. In 1989, a Berlin-based non-profit, Friends of Villa Aurora, was formed to save the home. Millions were raised across Germany and Los Angeles and the house was acquired by the organization that same year. Since 1995, Villa Aurora has also been operating as an artists residency welcoming 12 writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers a year, and is funded mainly by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media. As with the Thomas Mann House, the public programming at Villa Aurora is robust, including for example the two-day “Women in Exile” forum in partnership with the International Feuchtwanger Society (IFS) and USC.
In late 2022, Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 novel, The Oppermanns, was rereleased by Simon & Schuster. In the novel, Feuchtwanger foreshadows the Holocaust years before it begins, writing contemporaneously with the rise of Naziism and the demise of the Weimar Republic. The story follows a Jewish bourgeois family in Berlin as it confronts the rise of Hitler and antisemitism and their eventual internment in a concentration camp. Despite selling over a quarter of a million copies worldwide in 1933, the U.S. remained on the sidelines for almost a decade before intervening in Europe while simultaneously adopting the use of concentration camps for its Japanese-American citizens.
Exhibiting the work of Kelly Akashi, whose practice has engaged deeply with the site of the Poston Internment Camp, at Villa Aurora folds history in on itself. Histories that mirror from opposite sides of an ocean can inform each other and present the all-too-human weakness, horror, and resilience birthed out of hatred, insecurity, and prejudice. Akashi’s intervention at Villa Aurora highlights parallel but dissonant stories of prejudice and exile, memory and forgetting, life and death. And though the result of a cycle can feel relieving, as poppies arising in spring from scorched earth, thinking in this manner urges caution as even the worst parts of our humanity may be bound to repeat.
To read the complete Against the Edge text and learn about other sites and artists included in Frieze Projects curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan and Del Vaz Projects, click here.