Anicka Yi offers me some beetroot crackers. These, along with carrot chips, are her breakfast, both free of oil and salt.
“I can’t eat greens, dairy, sugar, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, nightshades, spice, alcohol – nothing,” the Korean American conceptual artist reveals. “I can only eat grass-fed meat, wild fish, unseasoned all of it, vegetables and a little fruit.”
Why? “I have auto-immune issues, and my doctor put me on a diet plan to see if something in my diet is causing them to flare up.”
Poor you, I reply, thinking I should wave away any coming cheese trolley, as we sit chatting in Tate Modern’s members’ area. Yi’s three-week journey from New York to London to install her latest work at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has been complicated by her nutrition.
“I didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t go to restaurants. My doctor recommended, ‘Get a chef.’ My daughter says the same thing.” Yi chuckles.
“Can you imagine how the staff at this place would react? Prima donna on a whole new level! I need a piano-tuner, an omelette set and a chef.” Instead, Yi cooks at her flat.
However, the artist believes that her diet and her Turbine Hall project are related. Her work explores how we ignore our bodies, particularly in the sanitised, desensitised, socially mediated, cerebral west. “We are wetware, but we like to think of ourselves as hardware,” she argues, adding that if we want to better our lives, we should use technology to enhance, rather than transcend, our senses.
“Your body is yelling at you, ‘Pay attention!’ And you say, “No thanks.” “Can you do that for a while?” She has finally begun to pay attention.
“Now my health is in charge of my life. It is the driving force behind all of my significant life decisions. It’s just the way things are.”
Yi’s work is frequently olfactory, honoring a sense she believes humans have forgotten in favor of vision. “I’ve always maintained that when you’re on death row, you should get last scents or last sounds, just like you get last meals,” she once stated.
She and French perfumer Barnabé Fillion created Aliens and Alzheimer’s six years ago to investigate the concept of forgetting. They sprayed the scent on a book of writings Yi titled 6,070,430K of Digital Spit, placed it on a spit, and turned it over a flame.
Visitors were invited to purchase the catalogue, which was similarly scented, and burn it after reading it. It was destructive, but at the very least it made the rooms smell nice.
She explains, “I don’t think of myself as a visual artist at all.” “I’m not a big fan of looking at things.
Maybe that’s why I’m interested in olfaction. We place far too much emphasis on what we can see with our eyes.”
Yi’s feminist critique of the patriarchal art world’s aesthetic preoccupation is reflected in her foregrounding of the stinky. Cultural values, she claims, shape our perceptions.
“Smells are associated with the feminine. The feminine is associated with the unseen. We identify the masculine with sight, mastery, and knowledge.”
What if, instead of satisfying the lubricious male gaze through pictures and sculptures of naked women, art explored the “patriarchal fear” of women’s smell, as Yi proposed in 2015? To that goal, she collected swab samples from 100 female acquaintances and coworkers.
Some people swabbed their mouths, while others swabbed their vaginal areas. Yi grew bacteria in laboratory plates with these samples, then analyzed aroma molecules from the bacteria, turned the data into a formula, and generated a chemical – similar to how commercial scents are made.
Then, at a show called You Can Call Me F at the Kitchen gallery in New York, she released the results into the air. The aroma was diffused into the space where the bacteria samples were alive and growing in petri dishes, thanks to a scent diffuser.
“The odor is innocuous,” remarked one critic. It’s unlikely that the gallery visitor would see it if they weren’t warned about it.”
She flooded the museum entrance with a mixed aroma of ants and Asian American women’s sweat at a Guggenheim solo show called Life is Cheap the following year. Visitors encountered plexiglass tiles covered in agar on which more growing bacteria sourced from Asian American women was growing, as well as a colony of ants roaming lighted tunnels, after entering through a dark tunnel, which Yi said echoed the containment cells the Trump administration was then using to imprison immigrants crossing the Mexican border.
Yi remarked at the time, “You’re dealing with a society that is overly obsessed with cleanliness.” “And that’s one of the reasons I work with bacteria. We have a sick fear of pungent odors and microorganisms, especially in the west.
I’m visualizing people’s fears about all the germs and bacteria that are proliferating all around us.”
Where did Yi get his revolutionary sense of smell? She was born in Seoul in 1971 and relocated to Alabama with her family when she was two years old. Her father was a clergyman who was a Protestant, and her mother worked for a biotech company.
Is her work a reaction to her parents? Perhaps her father preached that cleanliness is next to godliness, while her mother nurtured a love of scents in Yi and her sisters? Yi chuckles.
“While those connections may be titillating for your readers, I believe they are a little flimsy. That isn’t to say that they aren’t correct.”
Across the Thames, the 50-year-old seems moody. Yi is well-versed in the city.
She first moved to the United States in the early 1990s. “I was attempting to flee. As a young person, I was completely lost, and I found my way here through a romantic relationship.
My ambition was to be a wanderer. Going against the grain made me feel like an oddball.
It’s terrible to say, but that way of life has vanished in just one generation. I recall thinking how much I admired those who could proclaim, “I’m going to be an accountant.”
I couldn’t make up my mind. That may sound like the ultimate privilege, but I didn’t come from a household of wealth, nor did my family support me. It felt like I was hanging over the edge of a precipice for an eternity.”
Perhaps Yi’s wanderings aided him in becoming a separate artist, albeit late in life, one who never went to art school but regarded visual art with a skeptical outsider’s eye. When she returned to New York in the late 1990s, she connected with creatives she met at Face magazine fashion shoots, and she was soon creating her first art pieces out of materials that other artists scorned.
She injected live snails with the painkiller oxycodone for one installation to give them a boost. She prepared a tempura flower sculpture for another. Another used powdered milk sculpture, antidepressants, palm tree essence, sea lice, a sandal turned to dust, and a cell phone signal jammer.
In 2017, the New York Times noted, “Anicka Yi is creating a new kind of conceptual art.” She recounts the type of reaction she is used to: “When I lecture, it breaks people’s brains, especially young students.”
‘How is she even possible?’ they wonder. My route is not one I would endorse because it is quite dangerous.”
Would we be different if we were guided by our noses rather than our eyes? Yi takes a bite of carrot crisp and says, “Absolutely.”
Humans are capable of perceiving a wide range of odors, but our senses have been utterly blunted. That, I believe, would result in a completely different relationship between us and our surroundings.
It would have a huge impact on our microbiome. It would almost certainly alter our eating habits.
We’d be healthier because our biomes would be more diverse. We’d communicate in a variety of ways, and our tolerance for one another would be greater.
“We are biological beings,” says the speaker. We need to be able to smell, taste, and hear things.
That is impossible to capture in the online world. Creating a virtual reality that is incompatible with our physical reality is impossible. Look at what people can get away with online that they couldn’t get away with in person — boasting, trolling, stalking.”
In two pieces for the Venice Biennale in 2019, she explored such ideas. Animatronic moths flew within huge kelp lanterns in one piece called Biologising the Machine (Tentacular Trouble) (despite what Yi says about her lack of visual interest or flair, they were very beautiful to look at).
On the other, Terra Incognita’s Biologising Machines, she created a light-based language from bacteria dwelling in muddy panels. “I don’t believe we can ignore biology. Rather than just being a cerebral exercise, I want to emphasize a biological approach to nurturing machines and artificial intelligence.”
I think you sound like a philosopher rather than an artist. “I am a philosopher, and that is all I do!” I practice philosophy that you can smell, touch, and feel, as well as philosophy that has depth. It isn’t solely abstracted through the use of words.
That is what artists are capable of – we are philosophers.”
All of this makes her Tate Modern installation a fascinating potential. The most successful Turbine Hall commissions have traditionally been those that have taken the massive space and filled it with visually clamorous, often bombastic works — consider Fons Americanus, Kara Walker’s recent gigantic fountain painted with slave scenes.
It’s a terrifying environment. So, how can an artist who despises visual art fill the void? “What I like to do is sculpt the air,” she says, keeping the specifics under wraps and just revealing that the new piece will be inspired by the aromas of Tate Modern and beyond.
“In a way, a place like Tate Modern does lend itself to being infected with a biological agent – that was a very good point of entry for me.” She retooled this idea as the pandemic took hold. “Air connects all of us and yet it is highly risky in the age of Covid. We’re all entangled in this thing called life and we’re all vulnerable to it.
The difference between self and other collapses when we realise we’re subject to the same forces. That’s what this project is about. We’re not the impenetrable autonomous entities we would like to think we are.
We try to seal borders – against viruses and against humans and against other life forms. But that turns out to be impossible. We need to realise everything is porous.”