Anicka Yi works at the juncture of human, microbe and machine
In the Oscar-winning “Parasite” (2019), the wealthy Mr. Park complains about his new chauffeur, saying, “This gentleman almost but never crosses a line. However, his smell does.”
Through the ages, smell has been associated with class. And yet, it is also a molecular activity that frustrates attempts to maintain barriers and borders. For Anicka Yi, a 51-year old Korean-American artist, smell is an important element of her work and what she wants it to say.
Yi is holding her first solo exhibition in Korea through Friday at New York's Gladstone Gallery’s newly-opened branch in Gangnam, southern Seoul. When the Korea JoongAng Daily asked her in late May what she thought of Seoul and its smells, she had lots to say.
“It's a very fragrant city," she replied. “Here in Seoul, people don't try to repress or turn away from the aromas whether it's on the body or in the kitchen and food. It's very refreshing. In the West, people really want to repress smell and sanitize it. You're supposed to hide any smell when you walk into places like a bank or an art gallery.”
The artist continued, “It has a lot to do with the anxiety around the body. There is an inherent risk with smell, because you're inhaling these (odor) molecules that may be harmful or not. It's such an intimate experience because it literally enters into your body. So you become immediately activated by your atmosphere. In the sociopolitical aspects, there is a lot of atmospheric injustice. Poor people have to breathe the toxic fumes that are pumped out from factories. There has been a history of those more economically disadvantaged who have been subjected to the less healthy clean air. I’m interested in how smell and odor become politicized.”
Last year, Yi was the featured artist in the Tate Modern's annual project sponsored by Korean auto giant Hyundai Motor in a show called “Hyundai Commission: Anicka Yi: In Love with The World,” which wrapped up in February. Each week, Yi filled the huge Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London with a different aroma. The aromas were re-creations of smells from different eras that would have characterized the Bankside area around the museum. They ranged from the smell of the Precambrian era hundreds of millions of years ago to that of the cholera outbreak of the 19th century and of the Machine Age in the 20th century. Scientists helped her create them.
In addition, the artist let her “biologized machines” or “aerobes,” which resemble jellyfish, float in the Turbine Hall like visualized odor molecules. She used drone technology to float them in the air and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to make them detect the movement of the viewers and hover over people.
Yi has long been interested in things that float and cross boundaries including viruses, bacteria and spores. In 2015, when fear of the Ebola virus was high, she presented petri dishes culturing bacteria collected from 100 women in the art world at The Kitchen alternative art space in Manhattan. In the following year, she was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum.
“Now, with the Covid-19, more than ever people are highly aware of the space between us and the air we are sharing," she told the Korea JoongAng Daily. "But what I would say is that air is full of these molecules that never really go away. We are still producing molecules from long ago that are constantly a part of the atmosphere. When we die, our bodies decompose and we create carbon dioxide that can contribute to growing a tree. This cycle keeps going and going. It allows me to have less anxiety about the air.”
Yi has the idea that in the cycle of life, the boundaries between microorganisms and humans, plants and animals, organisms and machines are not that clear. That idea is reflected in the artworks on view in her solo show titled “Begin Where You Are,” at the Gladstone Seoul. They include the Chicken Skin series, in which silk flowers sprout in a silicone frame that resemble animal skin, and the Nest series, in which insects’ nests are reborn with a mechanical structure.
The highlight of the exhibition is a piece from the Anemone Panel series, which is a huge burgundy sculptural panel that seems to depict protozoa floating in a liquid. According to Gladstone, the work was inspired by the fact that anemones and corals have very similar shapes to that of ferrofluid, a magnetic liquid developed by NASA.
Here are excerpts from the KJD’s interview with the artist.
Q Your Chicken Skin series shows something that is between plant and animal. I heard the work was inspired by your travel to the Amazon river area in Brazil.
A Yes. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. I worked with an anthropologist and a biologist who took me around. We traveled by boat for ten days about 700 miles (1,226 kilometers), stopping at various places and swimming with pink dolphins. It left such an intense impression on me.
I learned a lot about indigenous populations and their approach to life, which is what we would call perspectivism. They view that everything is a relation; as a human, a monkey is my brother and a plant is my sister. They don't distinguish between species. That inspired me so intensely.
I also saw plants that can disguise themselves as insect to lure insects to pollinate their flowers. I made a 3D film about this – about a fictitious flower that is part animal and part plant and has magical properties. It’s about inter-specific and trans-species connection. It’s only in the industrialized world that all these distinctions between species were created.
Your work seems to cross boundaries not only between animals and plants but also between living organisms and machines. At Tate Modern, “aerobes” floated in the air and detected and approached people by AI technology. How did the audience react?
What happened was something I could not predict. People, especially children, developed a kind of kinship with these machines. That let me have some important insights that machines can be our companions instead of just competitors or dominators. I myself feel an intense bond with them. I became very emotional when they were activated.
You said in a past interview that you wanted to create work that decays and disappears rather than monumental work. Don’t you feel sad when a work you felt connected disappears?
A I'm interested in the process of entropy and decay. It's a part of life. Humans have this anxiety about death. So we want to freeze everything, suspended in time. But that's impossible to do. And if we could just embrace that death is a part of life and that there is an entire cycle that just keeps going and going as a part of evolution, if we just embrace that we are all a part of evolutions including machines and AI, we have nothing to be afraid of. Even AI is not outside of evolution - not outside of nature. So I don't feel sad when the artwork goes on to another stage.
You presented a work containing bacteria amid the fear of Ebola in 2015. Are you currently creating a work about Covid-19?
Not directly. When I was making that show in 2015 at The Kitchen, I was really trying to underscore the social anxiety and the tension in the air. We create all of this tension and violence due to our lack of acceptance of the fact that we are also biological entities. We have tried to distinguish ourselves as (being) outside of the nature cosmos and to distinguish ourselves as exceptional, like, “We are not like microorganisms. We are our own other kind of entity.” But we share more in common with these other biological entities. And from a microbiological perspective, we are mostly comprised of trillions and trillions of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and viruses. Yet we are repelled by the idea and it's an incredible contradiction.
Even with two years of the pandemic, we haven't learned anything. We want to control, isolate and dominate something that is absolutely a part of an ecosystem and a life cycle. I'm not making an artwork about Covid-19 directly at the moment. What I'm doing is observing what impact the Covid is having on our civilization and the escalation of the fear tactics and the control tactics.
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]