In 2016 Anicka Yi was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in recognition of the power and singularity of the experimental body of work she has produced over the past decade. Her installations, which draw on scientific concepts and techniques to activate vivid fictional scenarios, ask incisive questions about human psychology and the workings of society. Yi uses unconventional materials to examine what she calls "a biopolitics of the senses", or how assumptions and anxieties related to gender, race, and class shape physical perception.
For this exhibition Yi worked with a team of molecular biologists and forensic chemists to create an installation in which natural and technological forces appear as surging, unruly forms that are nonetheless clinically contained. Visitors first pass through an entryway, or "holding pen", where canisters emit a scent conceived by the artist. Yi has consistently sought to generate a sensory immersion that goes beyond visual experience, with an emphasis on smell and its potent link to memory and subjectivity. This aroma, titled Immigrant Caucus, combines chemical compounds derived from Asian American women and carpenter ants. Yi posits the scent as a drug that manipulates perception, offering humans the potential to experience the installation with a new, hybridized perspective.
The gallery’s central space features two opposing dioramas, each providing a view into a self-contained biosphere. The first is lined with tiles that hold a gelatinous substance called agar, on which the artist has cultivated various strains of bacteria sampled from sites within Manhattan’s Chinatown and Koreatown neighborhoods. This living composition also blooms across several sculptures, as if an invasive life force has overrun the environment. At the far end of the gallery, a second diorama houses a colony of ants-insects that interest Yi because of their intricate division of labor and matriarchal social structure, as well as the sophisticated olfactory system that guides their behavior. The ants navigate a network of pathways that are reflected infinitely across mirrored surfaces, evoking a massive data-processing unit in which their industrious movement embodies the flow of information. The colony is exposed to the same hybrid scent that fills the corridor leading into the gallery, creating the possibility of a shared psychic experience between ant and human.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Life Is Cheap
April 21 - July 5, 2017