This particular species, Giese says, hails from the desert of southern Utah, so they’re rather hardy. After the run of the exhibition they’ll be donated to local schools or laboratories—the law prohibits returning the ants to their original home, since that would run the risk of introducing foreign diseases to the native ecosystem.
Why ants, exactly? Partly it’s because of Yi’s fondness for how they organize their fiercely matriarchal communities. “Male ants become drones,” she says. “Their sole purpose is to inseminate and then, shortly after…to die.”
Does Yi see a possible model for humans to emulate there, I wondered? “It’s working for the ants!” she laughs. “I’ve jokingly said to some of my straight, white, male friends—in light of our dastardly times—‘Why don’t you guys just sit out a few generations and see how it goes? We can handle things!’ I’d be interested in exploring those options.”
The final work in the show is Force Majeure, for which Yi has constructed a large room behind glass, somewhere between a bathhouse and a hospital clinic. The space’s walls and floor are covered in white tiles that have been turned into a breeding ground for various bacteria, which—fed on agar and allowed to sprawl and evolve—turn each tile into unpredictable abstract paintings. Each berry-bright smear or stain has its own gross allure.
“We sequenced the bacteria, and selected certain ones for their aesthetic quality,” Yi says. “As our nutritional biologist would tell you, each bacteria has a color, and that color has a function. There’s a reason for that purple in a purple bacteria.”
The bacteria also has a smell, which some people found hard to take during the planning stages. “Any intrusive, threatening smell—it really destabilizes people and creates a very hostile, tense environment,” Yi says. “That’s the hardest part: dealing with people’s prejudice and intolerance for what they consider foul odors.”