THE HUGO BOSS PRIZE 2016: Anicka Yi, Life is Cheap
As we strolled up the spiraling rotunda of NYC’s Guggenheim Museum, we took in the classic contemporary artwork all the while keeping an eye out for the Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life is Cheap Exhibition we had long anticipated. Once we’d reached the top, we realized we’d never found the exhibit and headed back down the nautilus shell this time paying closer attention. We happened to wander into a small artery off the ramp and there tucked cryptically away was the Hugo Boss Prize exhibit.
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 Hugo Boss exhibit, Yi worked with a team of molecular biologists and forensic chemists to create the installations. “We researched this for 6 ½ months, said Yi in front of the first of her two life size dioramas . “I worked with 3 structural biologists at Columbia University in their lab and we researched bacteria for quite a while.”
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 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 seaweed substrate 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. “An entire installation of 440 tiles have agar on each tile. You’re essentially looking at a giant refrigeration unit because there is an entire climate control system that’s installed right here. This is all bacteria we’re looking at,” said Yi standing in front of the first of her two dioramas.
At the far end of the gallery, a second diorama houses a colony of ants. These insects 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.
When asked about her background, the California native candidly replied, “I have zero hard science background at all. I studied film theory. I didn’t go to art school and I was always interested in scent. I made a perfume and that got me into deeper biological interests and concerns.”
From April 21 to July 5, 2017, the exhibition of new works by Anicka Yi, winner of the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize, will be on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The exhibition presents a densely layered examination of the intersecting biological, social, political, and technological systems that define our lives. Overall this dark one-room exhibit with its sci-fi undertone encourages us to take a closer look at our world and its possible future. It’s well worth a look.