Big Time Sensuality
Blocks of Tofu, cultured bacteria, swab samples from women’s mouths, tempura batter, air collected from the Gagosian Gallery, shaved sea lice, honey, crushed up anti-depressants, soap, hair gel, bee’s wax, Kombucha leather. These are just some of the ingredients that make up Anicka Yi’s artistic palette. A smorgasbord of textures and materials that mould, grow, cultivate, decompose, drip, smell and perish.
Convox Dialer Double Distance of a Shining Path, 2011, recalled powdered milk, abolished math, antidepressants, palm tree essence, shaved sea lice, ground Teva rubber dust, Korean thermal clay, steeped Swatch watch, aluminium pot, cell-phone signal jammer and electric burner.
Anicka Yi was born in Korea although her family moved to America when she was 2. Now 45, she spent her 20s in London trying to work out what to do in life, writing ad copy and working as a stylist but on returning to New York in the late 90s found her way into making art. In the New York Times she describes her first attempts as, "gravitating towards textures" and having not gone to art school someone that, "wasn’t adhering to what was allowed and what was not allowed." Her original approach has seen her exhibit all over the world and in 2016 was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Art Prize, for her innovative and influential practice. Her solo exhibition Life is Cheap is currently on show at The Guggenheim, New York.
Bacterial tiles part of Life Is Cheap at The Guggenheim
The best art, I think, represents and actively engages with life and society. It challenges convention and re-frames what we think we know about ourselves. Art encourages us to appreciate different facets within society, as well as question what see as valuable and what we find unpalatable or beautiful.
Life is a dirty, visceral business, especially if you live in a city. The daily commute - a sweaty mosh pit of workers, the fleshy charred smell of the latest burger joint or the tastefully fragrant floral candles of a designer clothes store, smell is a mainline to our emotions.
235,681K of Digital Spit, 2010 PVC and leather bag, hair gel and tripe
Scent for Life is Cheap at The Guggenheim
Take Yi’s work Aliens and Alzheimer’s, a scent made in collaboration with perfume designer Barnabé Fillion based on Alzheimers, according to the artist’s research, when your start to lose your memory your sense of smell degrades too. This inter-connectedness between smell and forgetfulness was fascinating to Yi as well as the bigger idea of how we view others that forget things. She said in a 2015 Frieze talk, ‘forgetting is increasingly a cultural and collective symptom increasingly and I wanted to address that in a personal subjective way as well as collectively - in a way I wanted to take away the stigma of forgetting because we forget all the time, sometimes it's ok and sometimes a tremendous loss.’ When we are visually assaulted everyday with imagery, it's so refreshing, to have to apply and explore our other senses.
Grabbing At Newer Vegetables, 2015. Plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus.
Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal. Photo by Jason Mandella
Another perennial, but often unseen material, is bacteria. We are full of it, surrounded by it, but not necessarily aware of it. It’s an essential part of the primordial soup that is humanity, and yet has, rather unfairly, a bad rep. An artist’s residency at MIT enabled Yi to collaborate with scientists and to morph biology and science more effectively into her work. In 2015, Yi invited 100 female friends and colleagues to swab their bodies to collect samples and this ‘collective bacteria’ was part a range of raw materials that she used in a show called ‘”You Can Call Me F” that sought to explore two worrying social trends, the fear of contagion and the dismissive response to groups of women…It’s a potent concept, the scent and make up of many creative women in a variety of works alongside another work, the captured air from the Gagosian Gallery - a patriarchal figurehead of the global art scene – here the odour is significant in its absence, a sterile, clinical, no-smell that represents Western wealth and power.
Working with bacteria and scent also means there’s an ephemerality to the works. The perishability of it all is a poignant stand against the classical marble statues and steel modernist structures that have represented humanity so far. You imagine that even the most meticulous archivist cannot fully control living organisms. And for me, there’s a message there - a need to appreciate the moment, that not everything needs to be, should be Instagrammed and documented. There’s a significance to existing and enjoying the sensorial present and then reflecting and accepting the fragmentation and disintegration of our memories.