Recipient of the coveted Hugo Boss Prize in 2016, South Korean conceptual artist Anicka Yi has garnered well-deserved acclaim for “the power and singularity” of her experimental oeuvre. Honoring her landmark win last year, a solo exhibition of Yi’s work opens on April 21 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Consisting of only three installations, The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap is a comparatively small survey of the artist’s work, yet each component offers a glimpse into another world.
Yi strays far from ordinary materials, exploiting the striking visual quality of bacteria amid LED lights, glitter, and faux pearls. But most notably, perhaps, is her unusual use of olfactory manipulation to alter the viewer’s subsequent visual experience.
Upon entering the exhibition (which purposefully feels quarantined), visitors are met with the scent of Asian-American women and carpenter ants. Indeed, the first installation titled Immigrant Caucus diffuses an aroma of chemical compounds derived from these unlikely sources.
“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,” the Guggenheim explains. “Yi posits the scent as a drug that manipulates perception, offering humans the potential to experience the installation with a new, hybridized perspective.”
In a sterile room following Immigrant Caucus are two dioramas. Facing one another, they bear no resemblance yet both scenes interpret the theme of duality.
To the left, upon entering the central gallery space is Force Majeure, a clinical installation of plexiglass, aluminum, agar, bacteria, refrigeration system, LED lights, glass, epoxy resin, powder coated stainless steel, light bulbs, digital clocks, silicone, and silk flowers. Tiles exhibit what the Guggenheim describes as “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.”
Force Majeur is oppositional. The agar takes on the appearance of a pleasant floral wallpaper, but in reality, “an invasive life force has overrun the environment” behind the plexiglass.
On the far wall of the gallery is Lifestyle Wars, inhabited by ants and made of mirrored plexiglass, plexiglass, two-way mirrored glass, LED lights, epoxy resin, glitter, aluminum racks with rackmount server cases and Ethernet cables, metal wire, foam, acrylic, aquarium gravel, and imitation pearls. The ants circulate through pathways which are infinitely reflected through the mirrors.
Lifestyle Wars looks like a window into a dystopian world of the future. Akin to a circuit board, the complex scene evokes the flow of data, which onlookers may identify as uniquely human. Yet the ants, which fascinate Yi for their social stratification, division of labor, and sophisticated sense of smell, also flow through the diorama, exposed to the same composite scent in Immigrant Caucus. In this discomforting world, humans and ants are unexpectedly similar.
“[Yi’s] installations, which draw on scientific concepts and techniques to activate vivid fictional scenarios, ask incisive questions about human psychology and the workings of society,” the Guggenheim explains. “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.”
The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap will open on April 21, and run until July 5, 2017 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Avenye, New York, NY, 10128.