5 Works to know by Anicka Yi: superbacteria, tempura-fried flowers, posthuman futures, and more

Monitoring Desk

More often than not, the best way to experience an Anicka Yi sculpture is to sniff it. Seeing the odd materials that Yi often relies upon—tempura-fried flowers, luxury handbags, and sacs formed from kelp, to name just three—is but one way of experiencing them. Getting a whiff of them is another matter entirely. To smell Yi’s sculptures is to unfurl statements about feminist subversion, colonialist exploitation, and posthuman futures. In Yi’s world, vision is simply not enough.

Born in 1971 in Seoul, Yi got a relatively late start as an artist after working within the fashion industry. For the past decade and a half, she has been making memorable artworks that have famously contained olfactory effects. They have been amusing for their weirdness and thought-provoking for their suggestion of alternative forms of perception and existence, and they have won Yi top honors, including the Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize in 2016, which came with an exhibition there the following year.

On Monday, Yi unveiled her latest project: “In Love with the World,” a series of floating sculptures commissioned for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. The sculptures, which Yi has termed “aerobes,” resemble extraterrestrial creatures and emit various scents, with some intended to recall spices once used to ward off the Black Death in the 14th century. With that show having just opened, below is a look back at five notable works by Yi.

Shigenobu Twilight (2007)

Three sleek glass perfume bottles with what appear to be creatures encased inside them.

Anicka Yi’s 2019 “Biography” line included Shigenobu Twilight (2007).Photo : Courtesy the artist

Made with Yi’s friend, the architect Maggie Peng, Shigenobu Twilight seeks to act as a perfume “portrait” of Fusako Shigenobu, the cofounder of the Japanese Red Army, the militant group that operated between 1971 and 2001. A former Kikkoman worker who later became a communist activist, Shigenobu eventually wound up in Lebanon, where she allied herself with pro-Palestine causes, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 2000, she was arrested for illegally entering Japan using a forged passport and was later sentenced to 20 years in prison. Yi grew interested in the way that smell could communicate Shigenobu’s memories, and even bottled and sold the fragrance in 2019, as part of a limited-edition perfume set called “Biography” that sold at the Dover Street Market in New York and Los Angeles.

Yi’s work, especially her scent-based pieces, are often suffused with erotic potential. “Smell,” Yi told art historian Caroline A. Jones in 2015, “is so powerful—it’s like a form of cannibalism, which is why the format is so appropriate. To take these molecules into your nasal passages is to take these women into your body—to smell is to eat them.” Some critics have taken Yi’s interest in smell one step further, saying that it is part of the artist’s project to deconstruct the human body. In the catalogue for the 2017 New Museum show “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” Kaegan Sparks writes of Yi’s art as “breaching the integrity of the body might yield new intersubjective alliances.”

Grabbing at Newer Vegetables (2015)

A long Plexiglas structure dotted with black forms and the words 'YOU CAN CALL ME' crudely painted on it.

Anicka Yi, Grabbing at Newer Vegetables, 2015.Photo : Photo Jason Mandella/Courtesy the Kitchen

For one of her breakout shows, held at the Kitchen in New York in 2015, Yi pumped the scent of Gagosian gallery into the famed experimental space and showed a set of boxy vinyl sculptures that were lined with dried shrimp, bowls containing hydro-gel beads, and more. But the most talked-about work of the exhibition was Grabbing at Newer Vegetables (2015), the result of a project for which Yi asked 100 of her female friends, many of whom had ties to the art world, to swab a body part of their choosing. (Its name is a reference to “Boundary Issues,” a 2009 poem by John Ashbery.) With the assistance of Tal Danino, then a postdoctoral fellow at the bioengineering department of MIT, where she was at the time an artist in residence, Yi created a paint-like “superbacteria” synthesized from all the individual samples and fixed it in agar. The final work was something like a “giant petri dish,” as Yi put it in her interview with Jones, with the phrase “YOU CAN CALL ME” spelled out amid blooms lit from below in an acrid shade of orange.

The project foreshadowed a number of thematic concerns that still course through Yi’s work. Grabbing at Newer Vegetables countered the notion that white cubes were inherently deadening and male-dominated by bringing in female matter that was quite literally alive. It also proposes that, when it comes to experiencing an artwork, vision is not the only important sense. At first glance, though not necessarily at first smell, this work didn’t seem like much. Over the exhibition’s run, however, its unpleasant scent grew unmissable.

Maybe She’s Born with It (2015)

Three ovular clear structures with piles of tempura-fried flowers inside. They are exhibited inside a sleek room with the lights dimmed.

Installation view of “Anicka Yi: 7,070,430K of Digital Spit,” 2015, at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, with Maybe She’s Born with It at left.Photo : Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel

During the early 2010s, Yi showed works from a trilogy that she termed “Denial, Divorce, and Death,” its name a loose reference to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s three stages of grief, at 47 Canal gallery in New York, Lars Friedrich gallery in Berlin, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. These works epitomized the high-gloss aesthetic Yi is now known for. There were DVDs dipped in honey, vacuum-sealed pearls, and wall-mounted washer doors that could be opened to reveal hidden fragrances, as well as sculptures whose materials include organic dog food, contact lenses, plastic hearts, and Prada moisturizer. For many, no work in this series proved quite as memorable as her ones using tempura-fried flowers, which appeared elegant, then kind of gross, then just flat-out weird.

Those flowers showed up again at the 2015 Kunsthalle Basel show that helped cement Yi’s reputation on the international scene. Titled “7,070,430K of Digital Spit,” the exhibition featured a set of three works featuring Yi’s crisped blooms. Encased inside mylar balloons that threatened to collapse with any slight agitation, they were arranged in formations that suggested alien presences. The name of Maybe She’s Born with It, one work from that trio, refers to the makeup company Maybelline’s tagline, and indeed many of Yi’s works have drawn on—and subverted—the conventions of marketing used to sell beauty products.

The Flavor Genome (2016)

A half-filled beaker rests above an open flame in a sleek laboratory setting. The only pop of color comes from vibrant purple flowers behind it.

Anicka Yi, The Flavor Genome (still), 2016.Photo : Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal

Yi has implied that the olfactory could be integral to reorienting our conception of the world at large. Many of the referents for Yi’s scents have been marginalized communities and people outside the West—consider Immigrant Caucus (2017), a series of a canisters made for her Guggenheim Museum show that emitted the scent of Asian women and carpenter ants. In her 3D film The Flavor Genome (2016), first exhibited at the Fridericianum museum in Kassel, Germany, Yi dealt head-on with the role that colonialism could play in the quest for new scents.

Ostensibly an essay film in line with Chris Marker’s blend of fact and fiction, this unclassifiable work loosely centers around a scientist and a local guide on the hunt for a much-prized plant with mysterious powers in the Brazilian Amazon. The film doesn’t offer us much of an idea of what they looking for, however, and it doesn’t exactly chronicle the voyage either. Instead, primarily through voiceover, the film muses on unnatural combinations of organic materials across the ages amid images of dolphins and a pineapple being injected with an unidentified substance. “Humanity still has not successfully metabolized the imperialist cultural pollution, the planetary despoliation, the vanished Indigenous civilizations—key elements that comprise the flavor profile of the Tropics,” the film’s narrator intones. “If pleasure is to give the world gloss, then pain must be its pores.”

Biologizing the Machine (tentacular trouble), 2019

Floating semi-opaque sacs in an unfinished exhibition space with a concrete floor.

Anicka Yi, Biologizing the Machine (tentacular trouble), 2019.Photo : Photo Renato Ghiazza/Courtesy the artist; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; and 47 Canal, New York

Over the past few years, Yi has grown increasingly interested in the ways technology has forever altered nature—and in some ways even fused with it. Biologizing the Machine was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2019, which that year took as its theme upheaval and uncertainty. Sheathed beneath bulbous surfaces made of kelp were animatronic moths that periodically fluttered. The structures were hung above small pools of water inset in a concrete floor, their contents rhythmically rippling in such a way that they recalled the Venetian lagoon. Artificial intelligence was used to cause the temperature to shift over the course of the exhibition’s run.

These kelp sculptures resembled malignant tumors or cocoons on the verge of bursting. And if indeed these forms split open, would these mechanical moths become one with their environment? Biologizing the Machine seems to suggest a future in which man’s technological creations can no longer be separated from the environment—which has long been the goal of scientists and engineers, for better and for worse. “What if AI could learn through the senses? Could machines develop their own experiences of the world?” Yi told the Art Newspaper ahead of her Tate show’s opening. “Could they become independent from humans? Could they exchange intelligence with plants, animals and micro-organisms?”

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