There’s a reason museum-goers pause at the entrance to Life Is Cheap, Anicka Yi’s current show at the Guggenheim. A faint scent greets them, emanating at intervals from a set of metal canisters positioned next to the gated entryway. It’s slightly antiseptic but sweet—not enough to be disruptive, but disorienting nonetheless. And so, the day I visited, it was common to see casual viewers take a moment to acclimate themselves, to figure out whether they were turned off by the perfumed odor hanging in the air, or charmed. Either way, to see the exhibit, you need to inhale.
The scent is, in fact, an artwork called Immigrant Caucus, and is made, according to the wall text, from “chemical compounds derived from Asian American women and carpenter ants.” If the description sounds odd or nonsensical, consider its creator. Yi, a Seoul-born, Queens-based artist who is crafting some of today’s most intriguing experimental art, is interested in the common psychology of smells: the sort of appointment viewing that unifies people in a space, while allowing for myriad interpretations. In the past few years, the artist has worked with a synthetic biologist to create a pungent piece made of microbial samples (swabbed from the cheeks and vaginas of women artists), filled a gallery with the scent of menthol, and fried up inedible flowers coated in tempura batter. With each project, Yi appears to be intrigued by olfaction’s ability to manipulate how people discern the things in front of them—by, in effect, the subtle invasiveness of smell.