Anicka Yi’s mysterious Guggenheim Museum show must be smelled to be believed. Entering the exhibition, visitors rely on their noses to properly see the first work, Immigrant Caucus (2017), a set of three smallish canisters that disperse a scent derived from an unexpected combination of sources: Asian-American women and carpenter ants. The aroma is subtle, but pay attention and the gallery begins to smell a little like wet wood and soft skin. In Yi’s hands, the Guggenheim’s tower gallery is literally full of life.
If Yi were a lesser artist, Immigrant Caucus would seem like the kind of overblown experience that announces itself as a must-see — or, rather, must-smell — work. But thankfully, this show is understated, even if it represents yet another creative feat for Yi. Made after she won the museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, it’s further proof that she is one of today’s best artists.
Yi’s work often combines the sensibilities of a mad scientist and a contemporary artist, so it’s no surprise that Immigrant Caucus — and the show’s two installations — feel like experiments that just so happened to work. It’s easy to imagine her testing various ideas in her studio, like a lab technician faced with a scientific problem: What if bacteria could grow in a gallery? What if ants could colonize an installation? What if vision isn’t the best way to see art?
In fact, Yi has no art background, which might explain why her work resembles little else being made right now. The Korean-born artist became interested in fragrances because of her mother, who worked at a biomedical corporation. Before she started making art, in her mid-thirties, Yi resided in the fashion industry, working on ad campaigns and photo shoots. She never went to art school, and frequently expresses thanks that she doesn’t have to deal with the baggage of art history.
By now, it’s normal for Yi’s work to feel so cutting-edge. In past shows she has isolated the scent of the Gagosian Gallery and pumped it into an exhibition space; she’s also tempura-fried flowers, letting their oil drip onto a Uniqlo sweater as they decayed. Even by her own standards, though, the Guggenheim works are brave and new. For the installation Force Majeure (2017), Yi lined a space with tiles of agar, a gelatinous substance made from algae. Bacteria collected from New York’s Koreatown and Chinatown neighborhoods dot these translucent blocks, creating splotches of purple and black that, over the course of the show’s run, will continue to grow.
The gleaming Force Majeure finds its opposite in Lifestyle Wars (2017), a foreboding installation that looks like circuitry. Towers with Ethernet cords appear to drip with dried resin; mushroom-like structures bear clusters of pearls. In the installation’s walls are ants that slowly creep up small, lighted chambers and group in crevices. They, too, are exposed to the scent being pumped out of Immigrant Caucus. Both installations recall the sleek window displays of lifestyle-brand stores, yet unlike most art about fashionable corporations, these works are quietly moving. The ants in Lifestyle Wars become stand-ins for viewers — they congregate because they smell together. It suggests that in a time when people can’t see eye to eye, we might need to depend on other senses. Put another way, there is nothing dead about Yi’s work. Quite the opposite — it’s very much alive.
Anicka Yi: ‘Life Is Cheap’
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through July 5