Anicka Yi (b. 1971) is a New York-based conceptual artist who works with scent, biological matter, and found objects to explore the social systems that we adhere to. Her work not only questions the values instilled within contemporary society, but also the senses that dominate our reception of information. Using fragrance as a sculptural form, Yi compels us to question why, particularly in the art world, we give our eyes so much power.
In 2011, Steven Soderbergh released Contagion, a film about a rapidly spreading epidemic and the panic, teased as more contagious than the airborne virus itself, that take over society. In the trailer, scenes filled with the hysterics of frightened people culminate in a final quote: “No one is immune to fear.”
Before the Canadian release of the film, a unique marketing
campaign took place in two Toronto storefront windows: With the help of mycologists, petri dish billboards were stenciled with bioluminescent fungi and bacteria that spelled out the movie’s title. Passersby were fascinated by the sinister and artful scientific display that grew before their eyes. The video documenting the process behind the billboards quickly went viral.
Anicka Yi’s You Can Call Me F played with the sensationalism caused by the film’s unique bacterial advertisement. Using similar methods, the artist collaborated with scientists to create a large petri dish that spelled out the title of her show. Taking it one step further than Contagion’s marketing team, the artist also intentionally unleashed the festering, pungent scent it emitted.
For this work, Yi sourced bacteria from 100 women in her professional circle in order to draw connections between society’s similar treatment of a ‘viral pathogen’ and a ‘female figure.’ The exhibition illustrated how misinformation and lack of understanding transmit paranoia as well as a desire to contain and neutralize ‘foreign’ bodies.
The sour, difficult to describe smell released by Yi’s billboard wafted into the exhibition’s entrance. At once familiar and alien, it both drew curiosity from and discouraged visitors. It was a work that filled space beyond its flat surface and clung to your nose.
Born in Seol, South Korea, Yi developed a fascination with the olfactory at a young age. Her oeuvre includes scent-based paintings that linger in the elusive zone between 2D and 3D work. Created from fragrant soap, the pieces in this series appear much like minimalist paintings, yet extend past the flat limitations of the visual.
By introducing the fear of contamination as an illustration of
our fear of both the feminine and the unknown, You Can Call Me F equated the marginalization of women artists with the marginalization of the senses.
Laid out like a forensic site, the nose played an important role in deciphering this multilayered exhibition. Between the petri dish billboard, diffusers, and sculptural installations, there was a lot to take in.
The main gallery space was a darkened room with five installations that resembled quarantine tents. Their plastic walls were covered in greasy handprints and opaque geometric reinterpretations of biohazard symbols, both of which blocked a clear view of the complex assemblages inside.
The shadows of the darkened room provoked both curiosity and misinterpretation, forcing visitors to trust less in sight and to instead rely on other senses as they navigated the space. Those who only looked missed most of what was there.
Motorcycle helmets, hoisted upon metal pikes, rotated slowly within three of the quarantine tents. Their mouth holes looked like actual mouths, perhaps a reference to Yi’s description of scent as a form of cannibalism. The rotation of the helmets made a subdued noise like a mechanical drone or a dull, churning motor. The sound felt both mechanical and primal. Like the scent of Yi’s bacterial billboard, it filled the dark room.
From below three of the tents, fog wafted from diffusers. It didn’t have a noticeable scent and was actually more visible than olfactory: This was the smell of Gagosian Gallery, captured and synthesized by the artist as a representation of the patriarchal, ocular domination of the arts. More of as absence of scent, the diffusers injected a stark contrast to the voluminous smell of feminine fungi growing in the front room.
As Yi told Karen Rosenberg in a recent Artspace interview, “Eyesight and vision are associated with knowledge, discovery, power, and the masculine. Smell is shrouded in mystery, subjectivity, because it’s related to long-term memory. There are things about smell that are objective; they’re just really difficult to talk about. And anything difficult is put into a mysterious box, and therefore feminine.”
For both sensorial and feminist reasons, You Can Call Me F challenged viewers to gather information with more than just their eyes. While “No one is immune to fear,” we all have the ability to listen, smell, and feel in order to broaden our perspectives. Yi reminds us that by preserving pristine, unquestioned systems, we only serve to perpetuate our collective fear of the unknown.