Life Is Cheap, the recently opened Guggenheim showcase of new work by New York-based artist Anicka Yi (b. 1971), is part of her reward for winning the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize (that and $100,000). When Yi won the prize last October, it seemed a bit of an upset. In retrospect, it shouldnt have.
Yis art offersa perfect conjugation ofa number of the concerns that are animating art right now: a rebooted interest in the politics of identity; a fey technophilia; a yen for fabulated narratives; and, with her use of weird, sometimes living things, what David Joselit calls recent arts emphasis on the agency of materials.
Life Is Cheap is a chance to see how all this fits togetheror doesnt.
This is a small show, made in collaboration with a team of young scientists from Columbia University. As you enter, you pass Immigrant Caucus, a set of three canisters of the kind used by exterminators. They are displayed casually on the floor and fuming a scent that, the show text explains, has been synthesized from the smells of Asian women and carpenter ants.
Anicka Yi, Immigrant Caucus(2017) at the Guggenheim. Image: Ben Davis.
Beyond this are two installations, Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars, which look like otherworldly shop-window displays. The former is a shallow, glassed-off chamber, containing two chair-like structures on stepped platforms. Every surface is overrun with speckled pink blotches which turn out to be blooms of bacteria, harvested from Chinatown and Koreatown (mixed with the odd green spot of mold). The refrigerated environment has been custom-designed to keep the bacteria in aesthetic stasis.
Anicka Yi, Force Majeure (detail) (2017) at the Guggenheim. Image: Ben Davis.
Across the small gallery, the other installation, Lifestyle Wars, is a cluttered diorama featuring sculptures of oversized mushrooms, blinking internet servers, mirrors, fake ice, cables, and living ants. The latter swarm through an oversized circuit-board pattern printed on the wall.
Installation view of Lifestyle Wars (2017) in The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap. Photo: David Heald, courtesy the Guggenheim.
Yi has spoken ofherself as a techno-sensualist. Shehas saidthat her multisensory art isa timely response to a culture overly dominated by the ocular sense, on a mission to reconnectus with our other, overlooked senses, in particular smell.
I wouldnt be the first to say that the anti-visual approachcan lead, quite logically, to art that is more satisfying as a curatorial proposition than as a physical installation, and Life Is Cheap does feel a bitunderwhelmingon first brush. (Food for thought: Yismasterpiece so far, the absorbingThe Flavor Genome, a highlight of the current Whitney Biennial, is a 3-D filmabout as overbearingly ocular as you can get).
The complicating thingabout Yis mission to take onarts visual bias is that it arrives on the heels ofmore than a half century of conceptual art. And conceptual art was very specifically founded on Marcel Duchamps rejection of what he termedretinal art.
That brings us around to consider theless sensual, more critical claims of Yis art. She has spoken about developing a biopolitics of the senses, meaning, inthe words of the introductory text panel for Life Is Cheap, that she wants to generatecritical reflection of how assumptions and anxieties related to gender, race, and class shape physical perception.
Anicka Yi, Force Majeure(2017) at the Guggenheim. Image: Ben Davis.
Just how exactly Life Is Cheap might accomplish this latter is not really spelled out anywhere, as far as I can see. Upon investigation, one has to imagine that the entry point is meant to be the stress put onto the Asian-ness of her materials.
Even if it is pursued with a pokerfaced scientific literalness, Yis claim to distill the unique smell of Asian American women must be meant as a kind of ruse. One imagines that Yi can only be asking you to examine how your assumptions about the essence of Asian women shape your perceptions here. The work makesa claim on your intellect, not your senses. (Truth be told, Immigrant Caucus doesnt smell like much.)
But then, you have to ask: What is the deal with the ants?
Squinting hard at Life Is Cheap(intellectually), I wonder if there is some kind of vague background reference to Westernstereotypes about Asian cultures as worker ants. That seems like a stretch, but maybe?
But no. Returning to the official explanation, we read thatImmigrant Caucuss perfume is also being pumped into Lifestyle Warss alien ant farm environment, thereby creating the possibility of a shared psychic experience between ant and human. As for the specific symbolism, the text explains that ants interest Yi because of their intricate division of labor and matriarchal social structure, as well as the sophisticated olfactory system that guides their behavior.
As far-out as these claims are, theywould seem to be sincere. They dovetail with Yis established feminist and techno-sensualist interests.
The upshot is that Life Is Cheap calls uponyou to invest in sciences ability to stimulate human-ant communion, but also asks you to havea seriousconversation about racial stereotypes. It both claims to reconnect you imaginatively with some kind of lost kingdom of multi-sensory, extra-human knowledge, and to forceyou to scrutinizethose senses critically for their very-human cultural biases. Thetechno-sensualist and the biopolitical piecesdont quite align. Theyre in tension.
You could say that this makes the whole affairseem alittle self-indulgent. Nevertheless, I find itsbrazen oddness lovableand to be generous, you might also arguethat its contradictions are whatmake it particularly of-its-moment.
Classic-model Conceptual Art took great inspiration from both Anglo-American analytic philosophy and French semiotics. Yis art, for its part, has benefited greatly from its resonancethe various new materialist philosophies that have recently become the guiding light of almost every art biennial, a strange kind of philosophical animism speculating on the independent life of things beyond human cognition.
Anicka Yi, Lifestyle Wars(2017) at the Guggenheim. Image: Ben Davis.
Yi doesnt dwell on the relationship of text to imagein the mode ofclassical Conceptual Art. And yet, in a kind of return of the repressed, a particular kind of writingdoes pop up around Yi, one more proper to the contemporary philosophical vogue.
As Alice Gregory recently observed inher profile of Yi,her wall texts characteristically read more like an alien shopping list than an informational label. Critical writing on Yi has a tendency to linger on lists of her materials with a specificity not equal to what might be known through the senses (e.g. recalled powdered milk, antidepressants, palm tree essence, sea lice, a Teva sandal ground to dust, and a cellphone signal jammer.)
As it so happens, those trendynew materialist philosophers also have a notablehabit of studding their texts withlists of discordantnouns, such as aardvarks, baseball, and galaxies; or grilled cheeses, commandos, and Lake Michigan (inAndrew Coles homage). The trope of reeling offthesebestiaries of things is so common that it has even acquired a nerdy technical name: the Latourian Litany (after philosopher Bruno Latour).
You can see Anicka Yis pointedly disparate art as Latourian Litany in sculptural form.
Anicka Yi, detail of Lifestyle Wars,showing ants. Image: Ben Davis.
In philosophy, the tic is meant to convey an adventurous theoretical ecumenicalism, a cosmic viewpoint that transcends the everyday categorization of things. As for art that retraces its path, ithas the everydayproblems of fabrication and presentation to think about.
And so, Life Is Cheap may be genuinely usefulas anillustration of the direction that such thought pointsin the gallery: towards an art of materials that isnt really about materials, and an art of ideas that isnt reallyabout those either.
The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap is on view at the Guggenheim April21July 5, 2017.
See the article here:
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