Anicka Yi's work fuses biology with technology, finding new ways to talk about gender, race and economics. With an introduction to the work by Dan Fox and a short story by Joanna Ruocco
At the entrance to Anicka Yi’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, ‘Life is Cheap’, is Immigrant Caucus (all works 2017). It’s a synthetic fragrance derived, though we are not told how exactly, from Asian-American women and carpenter ants. You might call it an ‘invisible’ artwork but that would be servicing a hierarchy of the senses – one that privileges sight over sound, smell, taste and touch; one that puts the gaze at the top of the pyramid. As all good students of art history know, that gaze is typically a male one. Scent, however, is often feminized; it can also be a more frequent and powerful driver of behaviour than sight. It can alter the way you perceive a person, object or situation. Olfaction is social, political, personal – a chemical doorway into memory, desire, fear, happiness, repulsion. Immigrant Caucus is the drug you inhale in order to enhance your perception of the rest of the show.
Having passed through the Immigrant Caucus dosing process, visitors come across two further works: Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. Facing one another, these sealed vitrines look like hybrids of high-end, department-store window displays and laboratory observation chambers. Comprising Perspex, aluminium, agar, bacteria, a refrigeration system, LED lights, glass, resin, stainless steel, digital clocks, silicone and silk flowers, Force Majeure presents an environment in which bacteria bloom and shape-shift across pale, luminous grids of agar. Into Lifestyle Wars go two-way mirrored glass, ethernet cables, aquarium gravel, imitation pearls and more ants. It looks like the internal circuitry of a super-computer or the interior of a spacecraft, but closer inspection reveals ants crawling industriously through its wiring system. (Ants, it was recently discovered, have around 400 distinct odorant receptors – more than any other insect – which they use for navigation and communication.) Reading the list of materials that go into an artwork by Yi can make you feel as though you’ve slipped into a science-fiction movie in which art is understood to be an holistic body experience. Yi offers a vision of a future in which we are literate in the symbolism of senses, understanding touch or taste as semiotic codes rather than as physical experiences that prompt only inchoate responses.
Yi’s unusual choice of (often organic) materials can be read as an attempt to bio-engineer a new language through which to think about society: a ‘biopolitics of the senses’, as she describes it. With this in mind, we commissioned science-fiction writer Joanna Ruocco to respond to Yi’s work. In her resulting short story, ‘Multi-Course Small Plates, Craft Lofts, Prix Fixe’, Ruocco’s prose dragoons verbs for new uses: she recalibrates adjectives and disorients nouns in ways that resonate with Yi’s physically sophisticated explorations of gender, race, economics and health.
Multi-Course Small Plates, Craft Lofts, Prix Fixe
I never sleep well, I think because my cervical spine is crooked and detours messages from my brain to my left ear. When I’m awake, I don’t try to breathe through my left ear, I don’t, at work, if I pick up a microwaved ramekin, contract my ear reflexively like get off the ceramics, ear, hot! and keep ahold of the ramekin. I understand it’s my hand, that it’s like ouch, hand, boiling butter sauce bad, hot, no! I hurl the ramekin. In fact, I don’t work anymore at my work because of hurling a ramekin. It’s different when I’m sleeping. I think because I’m less conscious. I live with five other people in a loft apartment at the top of a structurally compromised building that was once a warehouse for industrial brining supplies, such as salt, mostly salt. Saline lingers, as a vapour. It means, when I sleep, my left ear is always parching, so dry and thirsty. It means, when I sleep, my left ear can smell itself shrivelling. The smell is: bellybutton extrudes a corn nut. The smell is so strong that I feel them everywhere – in the sheets, in the pillowcase, bellybutton corn nuts. Of course, I can’t sleep well. I keep a water dropper beside my mattress on the sleeping platform, to moisten my left ear. Then, the smell is: paste of bellybutton corn nut. I imagine hurling it, hot, in a ramekin, not a paste, but a sauce of bellybutton corn nut. There are no walls in our loft apartment. I can hurl anything at anything. I have the highest spot, up by the ceiling behind a peach-coloured vinyl curtain. Florian, the German vlogger who knows Laurie Anderson from a rave in Thessaloniki, made his room directly beneath my sleeping platform. He vlogs all night but wearing a noise-absorbing helmet with a visor. To the rest of us, he is very quiet. Also, he is the most protected from ramekins. The half-Basque boys who came to America for jazzcore are not protected. Their room is the middle of the loft, where they sleep piled on amps padded by garbage bags of Korean newspapers. They are not quiet. I’ve tried to sleep with earplugs but my brain signals to my left ear: initiate digestion of earplug. My ear cramps. It gets gassy because it lacks enzyme-producing intestinal microbes and this leads to depression. I wake up without lustre. I used to develop a sort of sheen throughout the day, a sexual aura, not in a genital sense. The half-Basque boys had a bassline about it. Now, no sheen. No bassline. The half-Basque boys don’t even come home at night. Okay. Hard times. What this might be, I think, is my youth disbanding.
Then, one morning, Florian is waiting at the bottom of my ladder, helmeted, with his visor pushed up. He takes off his leatherette jacket and points to his mesh shirt.
‘Oh my god,’ I say. ‘You have so many nipples.’ He pulls up the mesh shirt. He’s got at most two and a half nipples. So, the other things aren’t nipples. The other things are bedbug bites. I remember that all last night my left ear was itching. I open my robe. I am covered in bedbug bites. It doesn’t seem fair because we don’t really have beds.
I microwave an instant oatmeal plaster for my bedbug bites. My clothing isn’t tight enough to hold the plaster in place so I take some half-Basque boy clothing out of a bass drum. I am bigger than all the half-Basques. Their clothing is small and sticky. I walk along the canal to the building management company feeling small and sticky. The building manager lives in Florida but Masha, the secretary, lives in the office. She answers the door in her pyjamas. I tell her about the bedbugs while she boils water in an electric kettle and pours it into a mug with some cough syrup.
‘Did you get a holiday card from Bruce?’ she asks. Bruce is the building manager. I think about the holidays. I was still working at my work, serving borscht.
‘Was it a picture of him fishing with a gun?’ I ask.
‘If you got a card, that’s how you got bedbugs,’ she says. ‘Listen, I like you. Don’t ask for fumigation. You’re playing right into his hands. Go up to the bridge and take a look. All those buildings wrapped up in tarps? That’s not for the bugs. Do you know what they’re for? The tarps?’
I shake my head, thinking hard about tarps.
‘Celebrities,’ she says.
‘Right,’ I say. Then I say, ‘Fumigating for bedbugs kills celebrities?’
‘The buildings slow cook in the tarps,’ she says. ‘I’ve been there when the tarps come down. The bricks are like tofu, like dense, diet meat, with local flavour. The celebrities love it. If the tarps go up, that’s it. The celebrities will eat your building and Bruce will sell the lot to Textron.’
‘I don’t want to play into Bruce’s hands,’ I say.
‘Tiny hands,’ she says. ‘Tiny everything.’
‘Are you bigger than Bruce?’ I ask. I’m bigger than Masha.
‘My turds are bigger than Bruce,’ she says. ‘And I only eat Advil.’
I walk to the bridge and climb up to the pedestrian walkway. I can see the whole neighbourhood. Many of the buildings are wrapped up in tarps. I shut my eyes. I can’t keep my brain signals from detouring, even though I’m awake. I smell something with my left ear that looks like a crockpot of Birkenstocks with socks. I try to imagine Laurie Anderson eating our loft. ‘Too salty,’ she says, and sends it back.
I can’t walk all the way home from the bridge without napping. I stop off at a friend’s. She lives in a loft at the top of a structurally compromised building that was once a warehouse for industrial brining supplies, such as cabbage. In fact, cabbages are still stacked on the ground floor of her building. As part of her lease, my friend can access the cabbage. She is entrepreneurial and has parlayed this access to cabbage into a high-end niche business she runs out of her loft.
It is business hours. I find my friend in her loft fitting the fingers of her clients into cabbages. She wears a hip coverall, white, with white sneakers. Her clients are sitting in all the chairs so I try to sit on the work table.
‘Can I move these drills?’ I ask.
‘Don’t touch the drills,’ says my friend. My friend’s name used to be Kim but she changed it to Quim because the future is female. It’s pronounced Kim.
‘You smell disgusting,’ says Quim. ‘You smell like a boil filled with Hostess Apple Fruit Pie.’
‘Right,’ I say. ‘It’s instant oatmeal plaster on bedbug bites, I think apple cinnamon.’
‘You can’t be here,’ says Quim. ‘You can be here but you have to shower first for ninety minutes with the water at 130 degrees.’
Quim’s shower is behind a peach-coloured vinyl curtain. In the shower, I have ideas for businesses. After the shower, I feel more aggressive, like I could really become a businessperson. The idea I remember is: a salon that does hair cloning. Instead of getting your hair styled, you get a clone of someone else’s hair.
‘Do you think I can open a hair clone salon?’ I ask Quim.
‘You can pass me a drill,’ says Quim. ‘I think.’
One of the clients, a recognizable poet, has extraordinarily large hands.
Quim drills deeper, wider finger-holes in his cabbage. Now his fingers fit in the cabbage.
I had this treatment once myself. My testimonial was: treats the whole fingertip, not just the nail.
‘You’ll start to notice increased metaphysical flow,’ Quim is saying to the recognizable poet. ‘Your typing will look like handwriting. You can use Times New Roman, but on the page the letters will have this ineffable you-ness. Times New You.’
The recognizable poet falls asleep in the chair. I am always seeing people sleep. They are sleeping but still accomplishing things, like editing video or translating spirit into matter. I can tell Quim doesn’t think I have a future in business. If I could clone anyone’s hair, I would clone her hair, except if I even tried she would drill me in the eyeball. Her hair is patented. It is sort of a bleached crew cut. She calls it Female Patented Baldness. My left ear is leaking a little. The droplets are milky but salty, acid but antacid.
Finally, the recognizable poet gets up. I take the cabbage he left in the chair and sit down. The thumbhole in the cabbage is big enough for my left ear. I drain my left ear into the cabbage until Quim needs the chair for a recognizable documentarian.
‘See how her left ear has a sheen,’ says Quim to the recognizable documentarian. ‘And how swollen it is? Sort of like an innervated balloon? An inflated inside-out anus? Look how the lobe is throbbing. The whole lobe is an infrasonic bass riff, a dirty electro flesh note.’
The recognizable documentarian takes a picture with her phone.
I imagine my brain is four half-Basque boys sending signals that make my body pop out everywhere in innervated lobes. Every lobe splits into papules. Every papule oozes a hot fulvous jelly of bedbug saliva and Staph. I am squeezing the papules into ramekins. I am hurling the ramekins at anything. I never sleep again.
I feel worse than ever when I leave Quim’s loft. This can happen when you treat a symptom instead of an underlying condition. This is always happening. Walking along the canal, I notice the mouldering barges that drip oil into the water have been converted into floating shopping malls. The oil in the water is still there but has a cleaner design. It’s all sheen. It’s all iconic and urban. On the barges, there are so many sales. I browse the boutiques. I go to the boutique on the main barge that specializes in clothing for librarians who have an auto-erotic relationship to their profession. This is a big niche. The clothing options impress me. I buy a compression turtle neck, in yellow wool. It’s so small it would strangle half-Basques. I start wearing it when I go to bed. I don’t find it auto-erotic, but it keeps my cervical spine from curving. My brain signals go up and down with no detours. I wouldn’t even know if I had a left ear, but of course I do. Something is gone. But what? I don’t know. It’s ungrievable. It’s not my left ear, although I can’t grieve for that either. My left ear is still there, I think, ungrievably. I think, like your youth all the other years of your life. Okay.
Later, after we get evicted and I move to the city limits to mercy live with a great-aunt in a medically induced coma, Florian invites me out with his very rich boyfriend. The very rich boyfriend own clubs and knows Laurie Anderson. His hair was cloned from Napoleon’s. We go back to the neighbourhood, to a restaurant on a barge in the canal. The restaurant is packed with celebrities. The oil in the fryolators is locally sourced. Our loft is on the menu. Everyone is into bedbugs now, because of insect protein, and our loft comes with bedbugs on a bed of hot coals with Basque tapas and sparkling brine. I don’t order it, because I’m not paying. I eat some other, bigger loft. I ignore the ramekin of squab pate.
Main image: Anicka Yi, Lifestyle Wars (detail), 2017, ants, mirrored Perspex, Perspex, two-way mirrored glass, LED lights, epoxy resin, glitter, aluminum racks with rackmount server cases and ethernet cables, metal wire, foam, acrylic, aquarium gravel and imitation pearls. Courtesy: the artist, 47 Canal and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; photograph: David Heald
Joanna Ruocco is the author of several books, including Field Glass (2016), a collaborative novel, written with Joanna Howard. She teaches in the English Department at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, USA.
First published in Issue 188