7.3.17 — Bacteria, Ants, and Women

What do Asian American women have in common with carpenter ants? They both figure in the art of Anicka Yi—and they both smell.

If one may trust the artist, in fact, they do not smell half bad. They do not, at any rate, preclude entering Life Is Cheap, through July 5, although they do present a bit of an obstacle. They are not the first. One enters a Guggenheim Museum tower gallery past a warning about aromas and through two steel gates, to reach a “holding pen,” where three canisters emit a scent taken, she swears, from women and ants.

Yi claims to draw on a whole team of “molecular biologists and forensic scientists” to study how “gender, race, and class shape physical perception.” And she has a history of dubious appeals to the senses. She appeared in “A Disagreeable Object” at SculptureCenter and in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she interviewed a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon. Here, too, she boasts of a “biopolitics of the senses,” and here, too, it comes across as sentimental and pretentious. She has this year’s Hugo Boss Prize, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, and Emily Jacir before her, and it has not always gone well. As the song goes, “Life is short, and talk is cheap. Don’t be making promises that you can’t keep.”

She is not, fortunately, all talk, and her installation does not end with a cloying smell. She calls that first part Immigrant Caucus, which sounds like Donald J. Trump’s worst nightmare in the Senate. Yet it has a visual component as well, in the bareness of the holding pen. The canisters lie in a corner by a third gate, as if left there by mistake. At first I thought she meant that Asian women and ants smell the same—which could explain why Asian cuisine involves neither one as ingredients. I came to appreciate instead the visual threats.

Past the gates, a museum’s white cube stands empty, making all the more dramatic the busy displays on facing walls. Ant life and the immigrant experience branch off behind glass, as Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. In one, the ants make their way through white tunnels in the shape of a giant circuit diagram. Mirrors above and below multiply its depths to infinity. The tunnels have a further reflection in a construction like coral at the window’s center, broken by a white pole topped by, I am guessing, a hat. In the other, New York’s Chinatown and Koreatown appear only as bacteria sampled from genuine urban cultures.

Yi sets them, though, on something more directly allusive. The bacteria grow on agar, as in a lab, spread on off-white tiles that ascend as steps in front of similarly tiled walls. They could belong to a public atrium or an Asian temple. They are also the setting for more fabric, Ethernet cables, and digital clocks ticking off the invisible motion of biological and electronic networks. Beside the shared dimensions, both sides of the room riff on colonies, circuits, and cultures. They are visually alluring but slightly disgusting.

Yi pulls off a display for the senses, while keeping the insects and bacteria (I hope) behind glass. Born in South Korea, she also aligns herself with the politics of globalization, global feminism, and Asian American art. Does she have enough to say about any of them? Not really, unless you believe that ants, bacteria, and microchips are fitting metaphors for oppressed cultures and the lifestyle wars. If anything, language seems to have broken down entirely, even in the supposed service of political and critical theory. One can, though, admire the breakdown while exiting the last steel gate.

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