At Tate Modern, Anicka Yi’s Whimsical Floating Robots Question What Is Natural
Portrait of Anicka Yi with In Love with the World at Tate Modern, London, 2021. © Tate. Photo by Ben Fisher Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.
Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall isn’t an easy room to fill. The vast post-industrial space, which measures a total of 3,300 square meters (35,520 square feet), easily dwarfs most of its occupant artworks. Since the institution’s opening in 2000, it has been home to many an artistic coup de théâtre, from Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider in I Do, I Undo, I Redo (2000) to Olafur Eliasson’s glowing orange sun in The Weather Project (2003); from Carsten Höller’s winding slides in Test Site (2006) to Kara Walker’s four-tiered fountain, Fons Americanus (2019). Some of these commissions have been more successful than others.
Anicka Yi, the latest artist to take on the iconic space, has turned Turbine Hall into what she calls an “aquarium of machines” for her installation, In Love with the World. On view until January 2022, Yi’s work features a small army of so-called “aerobes”—nine jellyfish-like and three beehive-shaped floating creatures, inspired by mushrooms and aquatic life forms. They elegantly drift or joltingly sputter through the air, turning museum visitors into unwitting cohabitants of their mechanical realm. Every now and then, these aerobes return to a grey structure in the corner of the hall to recharge before being set loose again.
The trajectories of these machines are governed by complex algorithms that attract them to visitors’ body heat (don’t worry, though, they won’t come closer than a couple of meters). Alongside her amoeboid machines, Yi has also created a series of “scentscapes” which conjure the olfactory history of London’s Bankside area, from the Precambrian and late Jurassic eras to the Machine Age. Among the scents are coal and ozone from the industrial period and spices used to stave off the bubonic plague during the fourteenth-century Black Death.
Anicka Yi, installation view of In Love with the World at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Photo by Joe Humphrys. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.
Anicka Yi, installation view of In Love with the World at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Photo by Sonal Bakrania. Courtesy of the artist and Tate.
Yi, who was born in Seoul and now lives in New York, is best known for her scent-based artworks. In 2015, after a confirmed case of Ebola in New York caused widespread panic, Yi created an installation at The Kitchen in Manhattan which explored our relationship with smell and its links to gender. Gathering swab samples from the mouths and vaginas of 100 women in her network, Yi grew the accumulated bacteria in petri dishes and analyzed the scent molecules to produce a fragrance that was diffused through the exhibition space. The work was an apologia for the smelly, the perishable, and the impermanent. An extension of this practice, In Love with the World is both a celebration of the senses and a joyous, utopian vision of coexistence between humans and machines.
Soon after she became its director, Frances Morris described Tate Modern as “a university with a playground attached to it.” Yi’s display perfectly captures this fusion between the academic and the recreational. Her whimsical creatures float around like balloons at a children’s birthday party, while also making a serious intellectual comment on ecology, society, technology, and our collective future. As I stood and watched them chart their algorithmically determined paths, I observed how almost all of my fellow spectators were documenting the experience on their iPhones. This behavior tallies with Yi’s worldview— whether we like it or not, machines are part of our reality and in many ways extensions of our very bodies.