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Anicka Yi’s Latest Work Is a Line of Feminist, Futuristic Perfumes

Anicka Yi's line of custom fragrances titled “Biography.” Courtesy of the artist.

Anicka Yi's line of custom fragrances titled “Biography.” Courtesy of the artist.

Next month, will launch a line of perfumes titled “Biography.” The project is a natural outgrowth of the artist’s longtime obsession with smell. She recently explained the new scents at her Bushwick studio, over a plate of cheese—Isle of Mull cheddar, oma, and Camembert fermier, to be exact. “To smell this cheese on the table, you have to participate,” she said. “The scent molecules have to enter your body in order for you to experience it. There’s a collaboration that takes place.”
Works by Anicka Yi
Works by Anicka Yi
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Yi thinks about perfume as similarly symbiotic and participatory. With the help of master perfumer Barnabé Fillion, she produced three scents intended to evoke three strong female characters. The perfumes will be on sale from November 21st to 28th at Dover Street Market in New York and Los Angeles, in limited edition, for $250 each (and available online after that week). In Radical Hopelessness (2019), she attempts to conjure Hatshepsut—a long-reigning female pharaoh in ancient Egypt—with a base of sandalwood and patchouli, plus pink pepper top notes. In Shigenobu Twilight (2019), yuzu, shiso, and cedar commingle in Yi’s reconception of Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the Japanese Red Army. A final perfume, Beyond Skin (2019), imagines an unnamed female artificial-intelligence entity through a blend of rose, seaweed, and suede notes. Olfaction connects the wearer with these historical and futuristic personas.
Video still from one of Anicka Yi's short films made to accompany her line of “Biography” perfumes. Courtesy of the artist.

Video still from one of Anicka Yi's short films made to accompany her line of “Biography” perfumes. Courtesy of the artist.

“I wanted to tackle this very stale narrative in the commercial fragrance industry, which has a very limiting idea of what femininity is,” Yi explained. Her new perfumes challenge the perception, long established by major brands such as Thierry Mugler and Chanel, that all women just want to smell like ingenues, actresses, and pop stars. Yet Yi’s work goes far beyond undermining female stereotypes. She also connects “Biography” to concepts such as genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence. What would it mean, you might wonder as you spritz Beyond Skin, to smell like a bot?
Since she began mixing her own scents with peppercorns, chocolate, alcohol, roots, and herbs over 10 years ago, Yi has made some of contemporary art’s most pungent pieces. She’s fried flowers in tempura batter; cultured swab samples of 100 women’s orifices and painted with the resulting, musty growth; and installed two dryer doors, which each open to reveal a different fragrance, into a gallery wall. Yi made the first iteration of her Shigenobu Twilight perfume back in 2007, after months of experimenting with fragrances in her own kitchen; she describes “Biography” as 12 years in the works. The new version of Shigenobu Twilight, according to Yi, is lighter, more balanced, and less nutty.
Yi has also created three short film “trailers” to accompany the perfumes. Set against a soundtrack of drips and light percussive beats, they feature shots of snails crawling on her sculpture, a tattooed arm emerging from sand, and computer-generated, robotic arms manufacturing perfume. The videos add to what Yi calls the “cosmology” of her project: Throughout her practice, different multimedia components intersect to create an enveloping, hypnotic Gesamtkunstwerk. Yet she still believes that “you can tell a story through aroma chemicals. Something that isn’t predicated on verbal or visual language.” The other elements simply enrich her enchanting, scent-based tale.
“Biography” will also riff upon sculpture. Yi has embedded the plastic, prismic perfume bottles with real, dead bugs. Working with a fabricator in Hong Kong, she asked for the plumpest flies and ladybugs possible.
Video still from one of Anicka Yi's short films made to accompany her line of “Biography” perfumes. Courtesy of the artist.

Video still from one of Anicka Yi's short films made to accompany her line of “Biography” perfumes. Courtesy of the artist.

“I’ve always anticipated where we can go with olfaction,” Yi said. “Like the day we can smell a JPEG. The day that we can text each other the cheese on the plate, and you can smell my lunch and I can smell your dinner.” The olfactometer itself may even aid significant medical advances. Yi noted that one day, our phones may be able to sniff us and detect cancer and other maladies—with complex ethical ramifications.
Collaboration is vital to Yi’s practice, at both a macro and micro level. Her work reduces hierarchies among media and scents themselves, demystifying the concept of the lone artistic genius along the way. And in addition to working with perfumers, past projects have involved partnering with scientists. She recently befriended Ferran Adrià, the world-famous chef of the now-defunct Costa Brava restaurant, elBulli.
Yi’s artwork literally seeps into viewers—whether they like it or not. Scent itself, according to the artist, “is not this kind of isolated experience.” When we smell, Yi said in the gently unsettling and darkly funny, sensual tone she’s perfected throughout her work, we can no longer separate “the self versus what is penetrating the self.”
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.

Clarification: A previous version of this article referenced a performance with an olfactometer that will coincide with the perfume launch. The event is not confirmed.