Meet the Artist Who Makes Smelly Art from Sweat and Bacteria
Anicka Yi creates art that’s meant to be seen and smelled. WIRED recently profiled the New York-based conceptual artist, whose installations have featured odiferous materials like olive oil, moss, black tea, dried shrimp, and even bacteria samples taken from her circle of friends and acquaintances. Yi uses these scents to elicit memories or emotions. And the artist’s first major U.S. museum show, which opens April 21 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, may be her smelliest yet.
Yi was recently awarded the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize, a prestigious biennial award for contemporary art granted by the Guggenheim, which includes a solo show at the museum. Yi’s upcoming exhibition, called “Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap,” features pieces inspired by sweaty armpits, among other works. She teamed up with scientists to make scents based on the chemical compounds of human sweat; they waft alongside sculptures made from live bacteria.
Yi collects the sweat and bacteria samples herself. Biologists cultivate the bacteria by feeding it nutrients, and maintaining optimal growth temperatures. Once her “living sculptures” are grown, Yi displays them in petri dish-inspired cases made from plexiglass and resin. As for the artist’s "Eau de Armpit," a forensic scientist uses chromatography to break each sweat sample down into chemical compounds. Then, Yi collaborates with a Paris-based perfumer to turn the compounds into scents.
In addition to artworks that conjure up images of sweaty human bodies, Yi’s upcoming Guggenheim exhibition will also feature pieces made from tempura-fried flowers and a 3D video called The Flavor Genome, which touches on motifs in Yi’s work, including “scent, both natural and artificial, the bacterial, perishability, hybridization, mutation, and genetic modification, as well as the bureaucratization of the body,” as writer Chris Sharpe explains for Cura magazine [PDF].
And keeping with the theme, most of these works can be experienced with the eyes and the nose. "The primacy of sight and vision over all of the other senses doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me," Yi explains in a video produced by the Guggenheim Museum. "I was not only trying to critique it but also trying to offer different alternatives, and I think we could learn a lot more from tapping into our other senses and cultivating our other senses."
You can view some of Yi's works below, but if you want to smell them, you'll have to swing by the Guggenheim before her exhibition ends on July 5, 2017.