Born in South Korea and now living in New York, Anicka Yi is best known for bio art in sculptures and installations of scent-based artwork. Yi bottles biological cultures and deploys them as fragrances. She works with unstable volatile materials combined with stable industrial materials. A typical installation might include honey, taxidermy, flowers, electronics, live bacteria, insects, and a custom-made fragrance. Yi makes perishable works which reflect on the fact that while we are transformed by digital technology, we still live, die, and disintegrate into the earth.
Her 2014 “Le Pain Symbiotique” filled a room at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. Microbial yeast, mold, and bacteria grew in the room’s environment. Yi merged a lightbulb shaped object with a science lab beaker for a room-filling environment of inflated plastic. Her lightbulb was home to pedestals on which microbial yeast, mold, and bacteria were growing, eating up the once pristine setting.
After there was a confirmed case of Ebola in New York in 2015, Yi created an installation, “You Can Call Me F,” at The Kitchen in Manhattan. She gathered swab samples from 100 art world women and grew the accumulated bacteria to analyze the molecules for a scent which was diffused through the exhibition space.
In 2016, Yi won the Hugo Boss Art Prize, which gave her a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Her 22 minute video, “The Flower Genome,” was shown in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In this video she followed a chemist in the Brazilian Amazon who was searching for a special plant thought to have medicinal properties.
In 2017, Yi’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, “Life is Cheap,” she collaborated with molecular biologists and chemists. Her “Immigrant Caucus” was a scent created from chemical compounds from Asian American women and carpenter ants. There was a diorama, “Force Majeure,” a chamber lined with framed silk flowers and agar plates in beautiful strong colors that were growths of bacteria collected from New York’s Chinatown and Koreatown.
In 2019 at the Venice Biennale, Yi presented her “Biologizing the Machine” where bulbous structures made of kelp were hung above small pools of water set in a concrete floor. These sculptures resembled tumors or cocoons about to burst. Animatronic or puppet-like moths fluttered within the the cocoons causing viewers to wonder what would happen if the moths caused the forms to split open.
Yi turned the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern into an “aquarium of machines” for her installation, “In Love with the World,” which was on view through January 2022. Her work featured amoeba- shaped machines of nine jellyfish-like creatures and three that were shaped like beehives, which sputtered through the air. Occasionally these machines returned to a structure in a corner of the room to be recharged. In addition to these machines, she made a series of “scentscapes” which recalled the olfactory history of London’s Bankside area from Neolithic era to the present time. These included scents of coal and ozone as well as spices once used during the fourteenth-century to curb the Black Death.