Anicka Yi

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Anicka Yi
Seoul, South Korea
Known forconceptual art

Anicka Yi (born 1971 in Seoul, South Korea) is a conceptual artist whose work lies at the intersection of fragrance, cuisine, and science. She is known for installations that engage the senses, especially the sense of smell, and for her collaborations with biologists and chemists.[1] The scholar Caroline A. Jones uses the term "bio-fiction" to describe Yi's work.[1] She describes her works as exploring "a biopolitics of the senses."[2] Yi lives and works in New York, and is represented by 47 Canal.

Early life[edit]

Aged two, Yi's family moved from Korea to Alabama then California. She has described that she grew up in a Korean-American home.[3] Her father is a Protestant minister and her mother works at a biomedical corporation.[3]

After she graduated from Hunter College, she lived in London, where she freelanced for several years doing work as a fashion stylist and copywriter.[3] It was at the age of 30 that she began to experiment with art as she explored her interests in perfumery and science.[1] Her first art works were produced in 2008 when she was a member of Circular File, an art collective, along with Josh Kline and Jon Santos.[3]


In her practice, Yi uses scent, tactility and perishability as a means to reconfigure the epistemological and sensorial terms of a predominantly visual art world.[4]

Her work has been compared to that of Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober and Darren Bader.[1][5]


Yi is known for her use of unorthodox, often living and perishable materials, including: tempura-fried flowers, canvases fashioned from soap, stainless steel shower heads, fish oil pills, shredded Teva sandals boiled in recalled powdered milk, and bacteria. David Everitt Howe writes that this "incongruous mix of media" is “arranged into something elegantly allegorical about the various industries that constitute our identity."[6]


Yi often manipulates these unconventional materials, sometimes completely transforming them, as in the case of kombucha she fermented into leather-like material.[1] For a work titled verbatem? verbatom? 4 created in 2014 for her exhibit "Divorce" at 47 Canal, she injected live snails with oxytocin.

Yi cites writing as a primary element of her practice. In an interview with Ross Simonini, she explained, "Writing is one of my primary tools. I often discover my thoughts about the work through writing. Syntax, sentence structure . . . these things really help. I write a lot of backstory for my sculptures, as if they’re characters in a novel or screenplay. I share this writing with friends, but no one else sees it. I’m not really a visual person. I don’t think in images. I don’t sketch things. I don’t use visual references as much as I should. It’s a huge handicap for me. My writing doesn’t capture the idea for the work as a sketch would. So maybe I’m not working in the most productive way. My starting point is verbal."[3]

She has also described her process as similar but an inverted version of the scientific process as employed in science laboratories. "Scientists have their hypothesis and then spend the next 20 or 30 years of their career trying to prove it, whereas artists won’t really understand what their hypothesis was until the end of their career."[1]

Select Works and Exhibitions[edit]

You Can Call Me F at The Kitchen[edit]

In her 2015 show at The Kitchen in New York City, You Can Call Me F, Yi took swabs from 100 women and with the help of MIT synthetic biologist Tal Danino cultivated the bacteria in an agar billboard that “assaults visitors” to help answer the question “What does feminism smell like?"[7] She and Danino developed this work through "The Art and Science of Bacteria" a workshop they led during her residency at MIT.[8] Yi described that she wanted this work to explore the "patriarchal fear" surrounding hygiene and the female body.[9]

"Life is Cheap" at the Guggenheim Museum[edit]

Yi was the winner of the biannual 2016 Hugo Boss Prize presented by the Guggenheim.[10] In 2017, Yi debuted at the Guggenheim with the exhibition Life Is Cheap, which explores her "sociopolitical interest in the olfactive."[11]

In the entrance of this exhibit, visitors encountered an aroma designed by the artist to be a hybrid scent of ants and Asian American women and named Immigrant Cactus.[12] The central gallery space has two works facing each other with distinct, contained biospheres. One work, enclosed in a temperature-regulated space, Force Majeure features plexiglass tiles covered in agar on which bacteria, sourced from Chinatown and Koreatown in Manhattan, grows. The other work, Lifestyle Wars contains a colony of ants on a structure that resembles a circuit board, referencing the organization of society and the relationship of technology to this ordering.[2]

A detail of Anicka Yi's work Lifestyle Wars in her 2017 exhibit entitled "Life is Cheap" at the Guggenheim

In a video produced by the Guggenheim, Yi explains that "You're dealing with a society that is overly obsessed with cleanliness. And that's partially why I do work with bacteria as a material. Especially in the west, we have this morbid fear of pungent aromas, of bacteria. I'm giving a kind of visualization to people's anxieties about all the germs and bacteria that are proliferating all around us."[13]

The Flavor Genome at the Whitney Biennial[edit]

Her piece included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial was a 22-minute 3D video titled The Flavor Genome that followed a chemist searching through the Brazilian Amazon for a special plant.[12] In the story, this plant is thought to have medicinal properties, so it is appealing to the pharmaceutical industry.[14] The film considers themes ranging from bioengineering to imperialism.

Other Disciplines[edit]


Yi works very closely with researchers at universities, including Columbia University and MIT.[1] She worked especially closely with MIT Postdoctoral Fellow Tal Danino during her residency at MIT. The pair developed new biological materials together.[8]


In many interviews, Yi has explained that she considers her work in smell to be a feminist response to visually-centered work that is designed around the male gaze.[15] She has also commented on the gendered hierarchies of the senses, arguing for the revaluation of the sense of smell.[1] As a self-taught connoisseur of perfumery, she seeks to elevate smell from its relegation to the beauty industry.[16]

Critic Jane Yong Kim wrote about her 2015 show at The Kitchen, which included a piece displaying the organic matter from cheek swabs taken from over hundred women. Kim explains that these bacteria represent how women's bodies can pose threats from the potential for such bacteria to cause infections.[15]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

Solo exhibitions[edit]

  • 2011:Excuse Me, Your Necklace Is Leaking, Green Gallery, Milwaukee[16]
  • 2011:SOUS-VIDE, 47 Canal, New York[6]
  • 2013:Denial, Lars Friedrich, Berlin[17]
  • 2014:Divorce, 47 Canal, New York[18]
  • 2015:7,070,430K of Digital Spit,Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland[19]
  • 2017:Life Is Cheap, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York[2]

Group exhibitions[edit]

Awards & Honors[edit]



  • 2015: 'Anicka Yi: 6,070,430K of Digital Spit' [21]


  • 2014: 'Lonely Samurai'[22]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Alice Gregory, "Anicka Yi Is Inventing a New Kind of Conceptual Art", The New York Times, February 14, 2017
  2. ^ a b c d "The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life Is Cheap". Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Ross Simonini, "In the Studio: Anicka Yi", Art in America, March 24, 2017
  4. ^ “Anicka Yi” Archived 2015-12-08 at the Wayback Machine Focus, frieze, January 2014]
  5. ^ Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Anicka Yi”, Interview, 2014]
  6. ^ a b David Everitt Howe, “Anicka Yi”, 2014 FutureGreat”, ArtReview, March 2014]
  7. ^ Lauren O'Neill-Butler, “Anicka Yi – The Kitchen”, Artforum, March 2015]
  8. ^ a b [1] "The Art and Science of Bacteria",
  9. ^ Hilarie M. Sheets,"At M.I.T., Science Embraces a New Chaos Theory: Art" [2]New York Times, March 4, 2016
  10. ^ "Anicka Yi Wins $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize 2016". artnet News. 2016-10-21. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  11. ^ "Artist Anicka Yi's Scents and Sensibilities". Vogue. Condé Nast. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  12. ^ a b Karen Rosenberg, [3], The New York Times, May 11, 2017
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Object Label from 2017 Whitney Biennial,
  15. ^ a b Jane Yong Kim,"Feminist Fumes', The Paris Review, April 6, 2015
  16. ^ a b Kari Rittenbach, "Anicka Yi: Narratives of Scent and Material Decay" [4]Frieze, 11 January 2013
  17. ^ Daniel Horn [5], Art Forum
  18. ^ [6]
  19. ^ Casey Quackenbush, "An 'Olfactory Art Installation' By MIT-Trained Artist" [7] New York Observer, 30 July 2015
  20. ^ "Transformer Station".
  21. ^ Yi, Anicka (2015). Upitis, Alise, ed. Anicka Yi: 6,070,430K of Visual Spit. Cambridge / Milano: MIT List Visual Arts Center / Mousse Publications. ISBN 978-88-6749-131-5.
  22. ^ "Lonely Samurai",, 2014