The Hugo Boss Prize Anicka Yi: Life is Cheap, Installation view, “Immigrant Caucus” 2017, Scent aroma diffusers, stainless steel insecticide canisters with rubber hoses and brass nozzles and metal gates, Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2017

Anicka Yi won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2016 and following tradition, was awarded a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City the following year. Having opened April 21, 2017, the exhibition titled The Hugo Boss Prize Anicka Yi: Life is Cheap, starts with a subtle olfactory experience. The initial artwork is a perfume –invisible sculpture– titled, Immigrant Caucus (2017), bringing together the duality of smells from as stated in the description; Asian American women and carpenter ants. A goal of the artist is to subconsciously form a biased or chaperoned experience, the scent being an invisible, phantasmagoric guide leading each viewer to a particular thought process. Yi is of Asian descent and the exhibition has an autobiographical component that cannot be overlooked. Quite subtle as a traceable odor, the fragrance could be described as very lightly sweet, which leads me to question: what part of the scent constitutes an Asian woman? Has it been derived on a cellular level (DNA?) or is it something topical such as body odor? The generalization of giving one predetermined fragrence to an entire group is oddly offensive in it’s overarching reach. Carpenter ants and the Asian female scent is, while intriguing and unusual as a medium, not only an unlikely mix but also something from which it is difficult to deduct truth. Instead, the viewer must surrender to Yi’s practice and rather than question, just believe. Normally a tremendous proponent for olfactory participation in contemporary art, Immigrant Caucus set a high, if confusing bar, for what was to come which was ultimately disappointing.

The Hugo Boss Prize Anicka Yi: Life is Cheap, Installation view, “Force Majeure,” 2017, Plexiglas, aluminum, agar, bacteria, refrigeration system, LED lights, epoxy resin, powder coated stainless steel, light bulbs, digital clocks, silicone, and silk flowers, Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2017

In the gallery, two dioramas face each other; enclosed rectangles of equal size, reveal environments of slow, nearly indiscernable movement. On one side is left of the entrance is Force Majeure (2017) a domain made of various substances, the prominent one being agar –a jelly-like substance, obtained from algae– and bacteria, formed into buttery colored tiles. The artist took bacteria from the streets of Chinatown and Koreatown in New York and worked with three Ph.D. candidates from Columbia University studying nutritional and metabolic biology, physiology and cellular biophysics and biological sciences respectively in order to arrive at the best aesthetic bacterial outcome. Attempting to question “how assumptions and anxieties related to gender, race, and class shape physical perception” the artist removes the bacteria from its native environment and made a closed off scientific study, visually a painterly and sculptural execution but in the sense that painting is a ‘closed space’ so is this body of work. When one hears the word bacteria, there is a sense of discomfort, especially when associated with bacteria from the slimy, unidentifiable orange and green puddles found in the streets of New York. However, the bacteria in the exhibition is too sterile. It doesn’t evoke an overwhelming sense of beauty, it’s also not abject or mysterious. Rather, it looks –through creamy color, lighting and the use of fake silk flower petals sprinkled in the agar– like a diorama made of decorative paper, the kind that is available only in large sheets at art supply stores. Locked behind glass, the bacteria, was without scent, disgust, or any other particular dynamic reactionary stimulation. On the contrary, it is a cold –literally– temperature controlled (recognized by a thermometer and a slight chill at the touch of the Plexiglas surface) and inaccessible space, a metaphorical petri dish at a lab accessible to employees only. A failure in my opinion, and perhaps a success at that, the work rather than open perception or connect the visitor to assumptions and anxieties, instead removes any sense of anxiety through the closed interior within an interior model. The only assumption of a more engaging exhibition, formed by the initial scented work, was not met. Removing bacteria that is often associated with smell from a particular environment and attempting to create a new relationship or connotation around it through beautification (silk flowers petals) and sequestration also not only negates what one might associate with class, gender or race, but also does a disservice by making something intended to be a grand gesture in the shape of something quite banal.

The Hugo Boss Prize Anicka Yi: Life is Cheap, Installation view, “Lifestyle Wars” 2017, Ants, mirrored Plexiglas, Plexiglas, 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, Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2017

Installed on the opposing wall of Force Majeure is Lifestyle Wars also 2017, a diorama constructed of mirrored glass, LED lights, epoxy resin, aluminum racks imitation pearls and a variety of other materials. The work basically recreates an imagined experience of looking inside a dissected computer, upon closer inspection, fueled by ants. The tiny black insects are in every crevice and pathway formed by the surface vivisection. Two days prior to the exhibition closing, most of the once busy ants are represented solely by their lifeless corpses. The exhibition statement declares that these installations are “…natural and technological forces appear as surging, unruly forms that are nonetheless clinically contained,” wherein lies the problem. The clinical containment of each of the living environments, not only offers less of an immersive experience but also flattens the depth of possibility or conceptual engagement which I believe that Yi was after. Brimming with potential, both works make for pretty pictures on Instagram, but unlike the square containment of the Instafeed, the containment of the work within the walls of the Guggenheim is much less appealing.

Organized by Katherine Brinson, Curator, Contemporary Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (who also organized The Hugo Boss Prize 2014: Paul Chan, Nonprojections for New Lovers which I wrote about for W Magazine and highly enjoyed) and Susan Thompson, Assistant Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Anicka Yi: Life is Cheap is made possible by HUGO BOSS and closes July 5, 2017.

Katy Diamond Hamer is the Founding Editor in Chief of Eyes Towards the Dove. She has been writing on contemporary art and culture since 2007. For more, follow her on Instagram @katyhamer