The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum invited me to a 4/20 preview of bioartist Anicka Yi's new show, Life Is Cheap, the result of winning the $100k Hugo Boss Prize last year. Yi, whose work explores altered states of mind through smell and other chemical reactions, joins Matthew Barney, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Paul Chan as a recipient of the award. Going stoned was a no-brainer, so I woke up early, shared a bowl with my girlfriend, and hopped on the subway, unaware that I would soon develop an intimate relationship with the animal I most detest: ants.
While painters capture a story or feeling with pigment on canvas, Yi creates a narrative with objects and ideas sourced from the scientific community. One of the most memorable entries in the Whitney Biennial is her 3D film The Flavor Genome, which centers around a smell scientist searching for scents in the Amazon rainforest. 100 women contributed their personal bacteria for an installation "cultivat[ing] the idea of the female figure as a viral pathogen," at legacy NYC non-profit art space The Kitchen. Titled, You Can Call Me F, the piece is her reaction to the Ebola scare. There are three "biofictions," as Yi describes them, in Life is Cheap.
The most visually stunning piece is Force Majeure: every surface is covered in gelatinous, nutrient-rich agar, which nourishes live bacteria cultures. Yellow arthrobacter pityocampae, orange micromonospora equina, green fridge mold, and Janthinobacterium Lividum—dyed purple due to anti-fungal compound violacein—make their way across luminous white agar plates.
I'm told nothing inside is harmful to humans—also it's sealed behind a window and refrigerated to slow growth—but seeing the microscopic hustle dominating an entire room triggers my fight or flight instincts. "Actually, your body has more bacteria than skin cells," says Frank A. Cusimano, one of three Columbia University graduate students who helped Yi on the installation. He's probably trying to comfort me, not freak me out, but the factoid makes the microorganism-soaked room as unsettling as it is beautiful. Over the course of the show, the cultures will slowly overtake the entire whiteness of the room.
To find Force Majeure, I had to walk down an eerie hallway ending in a grated metal gate. Three canisters of what look like insect poison sit outside the portal, and I immediately notice gas leaking into the air. A surge of anxiety spikes until an attendant explains that it's not dangerous; it's an artwork called Immigrant Caucus. Assistant curator Susan Thompson says Yi made the scent with compounds collected from Asian-American women and carpenter ants. The aroma permeates the gallery with a mustiness that conjures images of bacteria floating into my THC-laden lungs.
The same smell is diffused into the third artwork in the piece, an array of abandoned servers, LEDs shaped like circuits, two-way mirrors, Plexiglas, and a live ant colony called Lifestyle Wars. Thompson suggests that the combined scent "allows us to enter the same psychological space as the ants," which really starts eating at me as I watch the ants explore their new home. They scurry like organic data packets through the tubes embedded in the server. For the first time since the traumatic morning in middle school when I woke up with a bed full of ants, I try to empathize with creatures I've despised for years.
In this cyber-biome, they're fed seeds and beetle larvae. They can never return to the desert they were harvested from in Utah. After their 15 minutes of fame at the Guggenheim they'll be distributed to schools throughout New York, to live and die at the whims of children. I'm certainly in an altered mental state—whether from the pot or perfume is up for debate—when I murmur into the enclosure, "I salute you, ants. Men and women have sacrificed themselves for less."
In Life Is Cheap, the smell sets a mood: whether or not you believe the smell of human mixed with ants is physically transforming your mind, knowing that it might makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Life is Cheap opens today at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and will run through July 5.