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Olfactory artist Anicka Yi makes work that involves the senses of smell, taste and touch more than sight and sound to comment on social situations. The winner of the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize, which awards her $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Yi came to art late in life — just ten years ago — without any formal training. Celebrated as a “techno-sensual” artist, who has created perfume from the bacteria of women and sculptures from tempura-fried flowers, Yi recently sat down with Conceptual Fine Arts at the Guggenheim to discuss her experimental art and solo show, where the smells of Asian American women incongruously circulate with the scent of carpenter ants.
Since you didn’t formally study art how did you come to be involved with it?
Art is always something that’s in the air. You either find practical, utilitarian ways to wrangle it into your life or you insert yourself into an institution and try to get an education around it. For me it was a lot more nebulous, but then there were also concrete aspects, in terms of having a lot of friends who were artists and being around the community of art but not necessarily having a formal role, per se. I think that gave me a considerable advantage because my relationship to art didn’t announce itself prior to anything else. It was a more abstract relationship, but in terms of activating my participation in a formal way, if you are part of a community eventually someone asks if you want to make something for a group show. I vaguely remember saying yes to that question and to having contributed something that didn’t materialize into anything tangible. The community that was around the early 179 Canal project space was really the engine for getting me involved.
What inspired you to center your artistic production on smell and taste rather than the other senses, which are more predominate in art making?
It’s a definite, intentional, political statement to counter the ocular-centric society we live in. There are a lot of associations that we assign around these senses that are conditioned through culture, such as gender, ethnicity, age—all of those things that are oftentimes grossly misunderstood and oftentimes inaccurate. I wanted to challenge that prevailing ocular-centric tendency we have with art, that’s so deeply embedded in the history of art. Scent is a point of entry for me, in terms of a lot of misunderstanding that we have around the senses—especially around our relationship to the olfactive. We think that scent is somehow gendered because it’s feminine, because it’s illusive, because it’s purely subjective—when in fact I would assert that it’s not purely subjective and that you can have objective truths around it. But it’s difficult to talk about because we don’t have a very strong vocabulary around it, so part of my objective is to dismantle a lot of the misunderstandings around that.
Do you use scent in a sculptural way?
Absolutely, even in terms of formal aspects scent has volume. It has dimension. It has range. It has a kind of spectrum. I use scent not in the absence of something, but to trigger rings of consciousness.
What’s your process for making this unconventional form of art?
There’s not any one orthodox process. The narrative always drives it. Every time I approach a work I start with the narrative. I build a narrative. The scent is in the service of the narrative. It’s working in collaboration with the narrative and it has a role, but it’s not a singular role. The approach varies. The nascent stages are always changing because of what the narrative necessitates. Generally, I tend to do a tremendous amount of research when I’m starting a new project, especially an exhibition and I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to some pretty brilliant collaborators in the field of microbiology, for instance. I have lots of robust conversations that don’t necessarily fit tidily into just science or art or even politics. I think that part of my job as an artist is to challenge a lot of these scientific principles and these scientific methodologies that we take for granted outside of science, and think that’s just how it is and not question it. I want to question it and challenge even the scientific aspect of it, as a tool.
What role does experimentation play in your work?
It’s a primary role. Experimentation is the work oftentimes, because I can’t control the outcome of a lot of my work. The experimentation is almost a medium in and of itself. I have a very slippery relationship to control in that regard so the experimental stage is never just one aspect. There are many complex levels in the experimental stage. It’s always ongoing and it’s never fully resolved.
And what about research? How essential is it?
It’s become increasingly in the driver’s seat. Partly because one of the great privileges of doing what I do is to be able to learn about lots of different subjects and how things work and how they inform each other and how there’s sort of a contiguous relationship, a symbiotic relationship between different sorts of subjects and different facets, which are weaving in and out of my practice. There’s a very realistic amount of research that needs to be embedded into the work but also part of the pleasure is to be able to spend some time with these ideas and see what they can be navigated toward and how organically and symbiotically they will steer me. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m guiding the ideas—if anything I’m a steward of these ideas and hopefully trying not to mess them up too terribly.
How important is collaboration to your process of art making?
It’s become increasingly important because I like being in the world. I like inserting myself into the world and the world is full of brilliant organisms—whether they are bacteria colonies, fungus, frogs and turtles, or biologists, perfumers and chemists. There’s a multitude of rigorous voices in the world and I feel that the collaboration is just tuning in to these voices and seeing if there can be some sort of symbiotic relationship that I can offer to these other organisms and these other voices of specialists. I don’t really set out to collaborate with people; it’s just that through the process of research it organically develops that way. Of course, it most often comes down to chemistry. Do you have the chemistry and if so are there willing participants—consensual, not always with our bacteria friends. If there’s some kind of energy there and if it can be mutually beneficial, it seems that it works out pretty well. I’m not known for collaboration necessarily, but I can’t seem to ever turn that around anymore. I don’t think that I’ve ever authentically worked in isolation to begin with, but I think the collaboration is becoming more foregrounded, and that’s nice. I actually value it.
What’s your fascination with bacteria?
It’s the genesis of life. It was here long before we as human beings ever came around and it will be here long after we’re gone. There’s that respect, a sort of primary respect. I have an ongoing, deeply visceral relationship with bacteria. One could make a case that by being Korean American there is a consciousness of bacteria from an early age. Fermentation is part of the making of kimchi, the national food of Korea. There’s a consciousness around fermentation. I had an early awareness of bacteria as a young child. That also has a very duplicitous meaning, because as a child your parents don’t want you to play in the dirt and to bring home the germs and the bacteria. My mother was quite fastidious about cleanliness, but there was a kind of contrast because in the kitchen or back yard there would be this mold forming over the fermenting soybean. Yet we corporally had to be extremely clean and hygienic. It made quite an impression on me. That kind of duality—how can I say—those vectors just moved through me, and my consciousness. It seems like an old friend to call upon for my work now. We know so little about bacteria yet we know quite a bit. We haven’t fully plundered the real health benefits of bacteria. I worked with a synthetic biologist who was trying to work with bacteria in terms of cancer research. The more that we learn about bacteria the more we are discovering the benefits of it. It renders visible the sources of so much of our needs and discomforts as a Western society, which is so preoccupied with hygiene and cleanliness. There’s a denial of our own bodies and our agencies and how that ties into the senses and our rejection around our sense of smell and our sense of taste. Even though it becomes desirable and a kind of luxury trope— not on a quotidian level as much in touch with it—there seems to be a lot of contradiction around it. Bacteria really encapsulate a lot of these narratives and social conditioning in our culture, for better or worse, and in a lot of repressive ways. I like to work with bacteria as a medium, as a tool to bring out these conversations, this kind of unease. It’s just so palpable. It’s all around us, yet to render bacteria colonies visible makes people somewhat uneasy when bacteria can survive in air ducts and office buildings for hundreds of years. It’s the kind of thing we are exchanging on a nanosecond throughout our existence and yet to see it growing inside a vitrine or a petri dish just shows how disembodied we are and how uncomfortable we are with the biological. So many of the answers that we have for organisms—for our own species—can be found in biology, and that’s another fascination that I have with bacteria. As I said before, there are lots of answers that we’ve yet to discover for our own survival and for communication with other species and other organisms. I will also say that some of my fascination is that humans shouldn’t be thought of as being at the top of the hierarchy of existence and life. We tend to have a very narcissistic, essentialist kind of hubris that we are at the top, but I tend to believe that bacteria are on the top because they’ve been around for so long and they will outlive us, so it’s another way for me to draw that out.
In your marriage of science and aesthetics does one discipline dominate or are they equal partners?
I would say that if I was doing my job right there really should be no jarring edge, one over the other. I would argue that science is implicit in all art. Painting is chemistry. Sculpture is chemistry and mathematics. Science is just everywhere, and it’s always been there in art. I use science as a tool, with it being a little bit more foregrounded than a painter in the 19th century. We have to contend with these issues as artists on a very material level and from a structural level, in terms of physics. How do we get this sculpture to stand up. How we deal with gravity? How do we deal with elements and weather patterns and so forth? These are questions artists have been asking from day one. My work might allow a wider view into the science of the work, and possibly and potentially court a conversation about science around art, but it’s always been there.
How does your background inform your work?
There are very complex, twisted shapes. I could not make a case for any transparent, clear trajectory. I could have easily not been an artist, given my background. I could have easily gone into some other area, and I kind of did want to do that. I thought about going to law school and thought about going to perfume school—both equally three years and definitely a form of practice that I was driven by and enticed by, but then the arts was able to coalesce a lot of my interests in that area. It’s not a case for being a dilettante, but for exploring ideas and having a social space where you can experience these ideas. I think social space is something that’s very important to the experience of art. Most of us have to leave our homes, go on the subway, cross part of town and navigate through social space in order to experience art. I think that’s a huge part of art and I would attach my history, my baggage as an analogy around that social space where you had to travel from one space to another and all of the metaphysics that would facilitate that and all of the experiences that it takes to get you to that art. It’s certainly not a straight line. I went in a very circuitous way that I really value and I don’t know that you could really teach that in an art department. It’s a high-risk, low-return kind of pattern or approach. I wouldn’t encourage people to go about it the way that I did. My way was a way of denying where I am, just denying that there actually could be some kind of route to being an artist. I think I was in deep denial because I thought it would be too easy. I can’t do that, I can’t go to art school, or that there are channels to be able to do these things. I wanted to have a very vagabond, nebulous existence with no certainty of the outcome as to how things would turn out. I’m still surprised that I’m an artist. I don’t know how things turned out this way, but then on the other hand I don’t know of any other realm that would allow the things that I do and embrace it. That’s the brilliant thing about art. You can still do that in this field, in this world.
In talks you have said that you are attracted to contradictory materials, how so?
On a visceral level I’m attracted to materials that are illogical when you pair them together. They just defy a certain kind of scientific, chemical logic and rationale, for instance oil and resin. There’s a certain kind of failure that I’m drawn toward, a kind of infinite failure, the premise of failure as the starting principle, with the knowledge that it’s not going to pair well, knowing that it’s not meant to be combined. That’s the special kind of challenge that I tend to gravitate towards and relish. I think it’s a certain kind of language, a certain kind of logic, that can exist in art and one should take up. It doesn’t necessarily exist in the scientific world. It doesn’t necessarily exist in other worlds of banking or commerce or those kinds of things. It exists corporally though; you can feel something on a physical level, on a bodily level. It’s a desire to bring together two elements, two materials, or two substances that refuse to cooperate. And yet you have such a strong burning drive to combine them, to force them to negotiate with each other. There’s just this kind of deep-seated, alternate logic that I think most of us probably shadow throughout our existence, whether it’s in the form of other voices in our head or a kind of voice that we use for creative writing or make art through. It somehow endows our decision-making that’s not necessarily in a functional way, that’s just on a bare bones survival level. I think it’s important and vital to keep that shadow voice alive and to listen to it and to channel it. Sometimes that shadow voice is the one that’s in charge of what’s happening in the studio. It’s about these contradictions, because you also have to be pretty organized in order to be able to do these sort of very unruly, wayward experiments. It requires a lot of rigorous troubleshooting and a lot of rigorous problem solving, especially when you set out to deal with things that are natural enemies.
Would flowers and tempura be an example of a contradiction, that’s of a shadow idea and when it comes to fruition it becomes something that you are able to explore in different ways?
One would initially pause and think about if there’s an infinity and symmetry with the two and then you would probably know that it’s going to be a very challenging merger. But then you subsequently just try to inhabit the logic of a flower and inhabit the logic of hot oil and the carbohydrate or starchy kind of batter. You have all of these elements going. You have the humidity of the actual batter encasing the flower and then you’re on a clock here because once you are singeing the flowers you’re introducing a rapid deterioration entropy stage. There’s a lot of drama around it, but I think that’s the alternate narrative—or the primary narrative, in my case, for these flowers. I think that they needed that kind of role, that kind of performance, other than sitting on a table in a vase. But I think all art should be about flowers anyway.
What materials did you use in your Guggenheim show?
Living organisms—bacteria, live ants, scent—I would say those are the three primary ones.
What senses are you activating?
Hopefully most of the senses, but certainly our sense of smell, the haptic—the touch—and probably a sense of taste and vision and sight, and probably a bit of sound.
What kind of collaboration went into the making of this show?
This has been a vast network of top-notch specialization. I’ve worked with a structure-biologist, with a forensic chemist, a perfumer, a flavor chemist, and an entomologist. I have worked with the rigorous production team here at the Guggenheim. I’ve cast a wide net because of the technical complexities that we are tackling with this exhibition. There are a lot of voices and opinions, which can easily get overcrowded and veer into a kind of pear shaped chaos, but all of that chaos is pretty delightful. Ultimately, there’s been a lot of really intense symmetry with the way that we’ve been able to think and approach these ideas and refine and sculpt and really get to the kernel, so I’ve been very fortunate.
What kind of environment are you constructing?
I would say that I’m constructing these sort of architectural zones by creating dioramas to contain the bacteria and the ants and the scents.
Is there a narrative to the show?
Yes, it’s a loose narrative compared to my other shows. For some exhibitions I would even measure out how many feet to take to the left and then the right — real choreography — but this one is a little looser. I wanted to address perception. I wanted to address the ability to perceive other forms of life. And through a kind of hybrid awareness I wanted to address notions of prejudice and conditioning of that kind of prejudice, foregrounding aspects of ethnicity around the olfactive. I took numerous samples of Asian American women and their sweat samples and tried to translate that into a scent, which I then combined with the smell of carpenter ants. We have this hybrid smell of an Asian American female mixed with the scent of an ant. That sort of activates the exhibition upon the arrival. That’s your entry point. I’m regarding the scent as a drug, a drug that would help facilitate he visitor to imagine what it would be like to identify as an ant and as an Asian American woman.
What does the title of the exhibition, “Life Is Cheap,” reference or imply?
It references the political moment that we are experiencing at this time. I wanted to have this very off-the-cuff, very un-poetic, disposable kind of title to conjure and convey the times that we are living in. There are so many civil liberties that are being violated and life is increasingly becoming abject and unvalued, whether its human life or planetary or biological. I wanted to turn a phrase that encapsulated the attitude of those in power.
How does this show relate to your past productions?
It’s always an extension, like these rings that just ripple out from one project to another, from one idea to another. This exhibition is an intensely focused compression of a lot of ideas that I’ve been developing over the last five or six years. If we do our job right this exhibition will be a sort of delirious concentration of these ideas.
Your shows tend to have the look of a natural history museum crossed with a high-end retail shop. What’s your interest in display and what are you aiming to convey with it?
I think it’s an interface that implicates the consumer culture. It’s an interface that plays with the idea of how we experience aspects of culture, whether it’s the natural history museum or museums at large. It’s this notion that art should be contained, that it needs to be protected. That works in both directions, in that it needs to be protected from us as the viewers and that we need to protect ourselves from the art. Certainly, with my work people feel that they need to be protected. It’s that language of consumers and conditioning, the language of social conditioning—thus it’s a formal tool in that regard. It’s a conjuring of that kind of conditioning and really a lot of my questioning around that situation, because my work can’t be contained so easily. I work with unstable materials. The notion that you could try to contain it is pretty laughable, when you think about it. I juxtapose that sort of containment, that kind of formal language with this very unbridled, volatile variety of work.
You often use big clear plastic inflatables for your dioramas, which you have referred to as stomachs. What are you feeding these metaphoric stomachs?
It’s about metabolism. It’s about metabolizing these ideas. It’s about how the subjects—such as the artist and the visitor—metabolize into these systems around capitalism, around government, around democracy, banking, finance, the law and cultural production systems, like museums and institutions. It’s about these kinds of metabolisms and our relationships around the gut. For me the stomach is the second brain. It does a lot of my thinking for me. It’s about how we might have lost our way of around listening to that gut and how we might have that painful sort of metabolism around certain truths and around progressive ideas that we need in order to survive. That’s how these stomachs really function for me. Even in their design they conjure shapes of stomachs for me and convey how important the stomach’s intelligence is for me.
And what’s coming out of them, or in other words, what’s the takeaway for the audience from the stomach as a metaphor for the exhibition?
It’s about the symbiotic relationship of this kind of processing. You have these materials that are being fed into these systems and you have these agents and these agencies that are being fed to these systems. How you can render visible—especially through the transparency—these stomachs and you can see the metabolism around that and how the visitor can be a part of that as well. It isn’t some sort of isolation where you are just witnessing one part of the body or its organ doing the work, but it’s all a part of that process. It’s not that my work needs a viewer in order to activate it, but if a visitor is there he becomes a part of the work, especially around the scent work. The scent molecules get inside of the visitor’s pores, inside of his nostrils, into the cavities. There is the symbiotic relationship where the visitor becomes part of the work and takes the work away with him when he leaves the space. The molecules are now part of that visitor’s body, part of his systems. There is this continuation of the living, of these sorts of materials, these ideas that are kind of relentless in a way.
Is this all part of your ongoing project “The Flavor Genome” and if yes what exactly is it?
Gosh, I don’t know if I can really encapsulate it into a tidy definition. It keeps expanding the meaning for me. I don’t know if I have a useful definition for you. It’s just something that I’m constantly exploring and poking. It’s something that’s always mutating around these ideas, around our senses and around these materials and textures and these drives and desires, and this kind of metabolism.
That’s also the title of your 3D film that’s being shown in the Whitney Biennial. What’s the relationship between the film and your installations?
Well, the film is a bit of a thesis of what I’ve been working on for the past seven to eight years. The film distills a lot of the core tenants of my ideas and speaks in a way that you can’t through sculpture and installation. It’s great to experience the film downtown and then to come up here and be able to feel the physical density and the physical warmth of the body being activated by the ideas in the film. You’re able to see the extension and parse out different angles of these larger ideas, which can be unpacked and given life. There are different transparencies and opacities. There’s a difference between the materiality. You have the time-based film downtown but the uptown work is also time-based. It’s exceedingly time based because we’re dealing with bacteria that’s continuously growing throughout the exhibition. You have ants that are mutating because they are being inoculated by the smells, which are also inoculating the visitors. You have their change and their life-cycle mutations, so there’s really a lot of time-based drama going on.
Does this all connect to you being a “techno-sensual” artist?
Sure, whatever that means. If someone would dispute that I’m happy to talk about it. I think it’s just a matter of paying attention. There are probably 15 spiders in this room as we speak and at what point did we start to think about the spiders? And I can tell you the spiders were probably not thinking about us until we have that moment of collusion. I just try to think about consciousness and about spiders and other forms of life and not necessarily think about the hierarchy of consciousness. That sounds like some sort of Buddhist ethos of not prioritizing one form of life over another, but I’m interested in the fulfillment of the spiders in this room and the fulfillment of the bacteria in this room and I’m interested in the consciousness of these organisms, as well as our own — yours and mine.