I first learned about Anicka Yi in 2014 when a friend who worked as an assistant at Chinatown's 47 Canal gallery mentioned her then-current exhibit. It was the show Divorce, about a break-up. Among cardboard boxes and text messages displayed as oversized inflated speech bubbles were live snails that existed on a diet of oxytocin. I've been a follower of her work ever since.
Anicka didn't arrive at art-making until her mid-30s, and her log of nontraditional materials — dried shrimp, temper-fried flowers, snails, kombucha leather, antidepressants — reflects that. Ten years into her practice (and without an art-school pedigree), the artist has found her voice through an unexpected, scientific approach. Anicka explores themes of identity (gender, ethnicity, and even genus) most notably through biological samples and scents.
Now Anicka has a new show up at New York's Guggenheim Museum, the result of her winning the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize this past October. Called Life Is Cheap, the show is just as alive and conceptual as you'd expect. Two window-display-style installations are set up across the gallery: One is a vibrant presentation of bacteria growth (the diorama is a self-contained refrigerator allowing the bright purple and yellow bacteria to evolve through the show's run), and the other is a mirrored-Plexiglas maze filled with live ants. There are three canisters that, as you enter and exit the space, wash you with a stale, but not unpleasant scent derived from Asian-American women and carpenter ants.
Her new show deals with the issue of intolerance, and what it would mean if we could understand the experiences of other humans, other species. Our meeting happened on the same day that the president (whom Anicka referred to as the "mango Mussolini") was visiting town for the first time since his inauguration. Although we hardly acknowledged his presence beyond the traffic that led to Anicka's lateness, the event was a fitting frame for our conversation.
Molly Elizalde: You create a backstory before you begin new work. What was the original premise of this show?
Anicka Yi: I wanted to create a drug that would allow for humans or whoever took the drug to experience the perception of another living being, whether that is the perception of another human or a dolphin or a plant or a monkey. I was interested in the idea of tolerance and empathy. It is actually a riff on this contemporary moment of virtual reality. I wanted to extend it even further, to experience a coral reef's pain, for example.