While most art is visual, the work of Anicka Yi engages viewers through smell, taste and touch. Described as a “techno-sensual” artist, Yi weighs in on such topics as gender, the environment and bioengineering. She has synthesized perfume with bacteria harvested from women and created sculptures with tempura-fried flowers. Remarkably, Yi is self-taught, having only been an artist for 10 years. Now, as winner of the 2016 $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, she’s readying a solo showcase at the Guggenheim. While prepping her exhibition, Yi pauses to discuss her ideas as the incongruous scents of Asian-American women and carpenter ants fill the air.
Your work emphasizes the olfactory over the visual. Why?
It’s a political statement to counter what I call the ocularcentric society we live in. We assign associations around smell that are often filtered negatively by gender, ethnicity and age. We think of scent as being subjective, when in fact there are objective truths around it. So using scent is a way of dismantling the misunderstandings around it.
What are some of those misunderstandings?
We’re obsessed, as a society, with hygiene. There’s a denial of our bodies and our agency as individuals that’s tied to our rejection of certain smells and tastes. Our aversion to those smells and the bacteria that cause them really encapsulates our social conditioning in a lot of repressive ways.
You mentioned that objective truths exist around scent. What do you mean?
Scent is sculptural. It has volume. It has dimension. It has range. It has a kind of spectrum. But we are also only now coming around to understanding the benefits of the bacteria behind the scent. Bacteria offers lots of answers that we’ve yet to discover for our own survival.
You didn’t have formal training as an artist. How did you become one?
In a very circuitous way. Frankly, I’m still surprised that I am an artist. I don’t know how things turned out this way, but I can’t think of another field that would allow me to do the things I do.
What does this show involve?
There are these dioramas for which I’ve taken samples of sweat from Asian-American women and combined them with the smell of carpenter ants, so you have this hybrid aroma. I guess I regard it as a drug that allows visitors to imagine what it would be like to be an Asian-American woman and an ant.
You’re calling this show “Life Is Cheap.” Why?
To convey the times that we’re living in, when life seems increasingly unvalued. I wanted to use a phrase that reflects the attitude of those in power.
“The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap” is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Fri 21–July 25.