WHEN ANICKA YI began making art in her late thirties with no formal training, her entry point was unusual: a self-directed study of science. She doesn’t fully identify with the term “artist.” The art world was not her destination but simply a receptive venue for her ideas, which she culls from the experimental corners of cuisine, biology, and perfumery.
The Korean-born Yi, who studied at Hunter College in New York, produced her first artworks in 2008 with a collective called Circular File, numbering among its members artist Josh Kline and designer Jon Santos. Around the same time, she took an interest in natural fragrances, which led to early, self-directed tests with tinctures and olfactory art. One of her first projects in this vein was a scent named Shigenobu Twilight, after Fusako Shigenobu, leader of the radical left faction Japanese Red Army. The fragrance blended cedar, violet leaf, yuzu, shiso, and black pepper.
Yi’s work is characterized by unorthodox combinations of esoteric ingredients. She often uses materials that are—or were recently—alive, which can make her sculpture volatile and difficult to archive. She deep-fries flowers, displays live snails, grows a leathery fiber from the film produced by brewing kombucha, and cultivates human-borne bacteria. For her 2015 exhibition “You Can Call Me F” at the Kitchen in New York, Yi asked one hundred women to swab their microbe-rich orifices, cultured the samples, and used the resulting green-brown growth to paint and write on an agar-coated surface set in a glowing vitrine. The final work had an overwhelming smell, with notes of cheese and decay, both corporeally familiar and sensorially challenging. The equally noisome sculpture Convox Dialer Double Distance of a Shining Path (2011) is a boiled stew of recalled powdered milk, antidepressants, palm tree essence, shaved sea lice, and ground Teva rubber dust, among other ingredients. The scent suggests a psychological narrative of off-the-grid seaside living.
In an age of long-distance digital exchanges, Yi works with scent to sensitize herself to the oldest, most animal forms of communication, and she hopes her art encourages us to do the same. We are a conservative culture when it comes to the nose, a limitation that mutes our experiences and our interactions. Yi wants to provoke us, but she also wants us to inhale more deeply, to experience smells before judging them offensive, and to consider the social role of disgust.
Yi fabricates her smelly objects in multiple sites. Her base studio in Bushwick is a small, no-nonsense space where she develops prototypes, but much of the production happens in laboratories and through the mail, as she exchanges vials with forensic chemists and Parisian perfumers. She was also a 2014–15 visiting artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In the last year, Yi’s work has received a significant spike in attention. The 2017 Whitney Biennial includes her new video, The Flavor Genome, an episodic narrative informed by science fiction, cultural ideas of taste, and the anthropological beliefs of indigenous Amazonians. As the recipient of the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize, she has a solo exhibition opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on April 21. When I spoke with her in January, she discussed the conceptual framework of the exhibition as “ethnicity and the perception of odors,” but declined to reveal anything specific about the physical form the work would take, since it was likely to change. Her experiments often fail, she explained, so while her ideas are consistent, their manifestations are unpredictable.
ROSS SIMONINI You’ve said that the most radical artistic statements are being made in the world of cuisine.
ANICKA YI Cuisine is the amalgamation of performance, sculpture, painting. It has everything. And what it has to do, consistently, is appeal to our sense of taste. It’s uncharted territory for art. There’s a time pressure. A work on your plate might last only a few minutes. It’s ephemeral. And it’s mutually transformative. It gets transformed physically, in the way it’s masticated, metabolized, and expelled from the body. But as the person who is sampling the work, you are also transformed. That’s how it becomes activated. That, to me, is radical.
SIMONINI Have any culinary experiences transformed you?
YI It was a dream of mine to go to the restaurant El Bulli in Spain. I went in 2009, two years before it closed. I don’t think I’ve ever really come down from that meal, and I hope I never do. It was so startling. You had to drive forty-five minutes through grape vineyards and up a mountain. Or you could take a yacht. And then you walked into this richly textured setting, like something from a Luis Buñuel film, and you knew you were going to have an experience that would change your chemicals in irreversible ways.
There were forty-two courses. It was a seven-hour meal. A staggering orchestra of research and composition went into creating each dish. But the thing is, it wasn’t all pleasure. That’s what I really appreciated about it. People don’t always talk about this in polite circles, but molecular gastronomy can be downright painful. Because the food was not intuitive. It wasn’t bread and butter. It was highly avant-garde conceptual food, and, ten courses in, you start feeling that. Most bodies experience a degree of incompatibility metabolizing this stuff. And that’s what I loved about it. It was kind of torture, as mellifluous and diaphanous and beautiful as it may have tasted. The texture, the ocular experience, the haptic, the sonic. . . . Your body had to reconcile all these concepts, and my body, in particular, was not very receptive to it.
SIMONINI You got sick?
YI I had stomach pains halfway through the meal. I was eating a lot of chemical-based flavorings. There were so many new textures and forms. (But you can also get stomach pains from too much pizza, so it’s not just a hazard of avant-garde cuisine.) It was all-consuming. I can now divide my life into two periods: before and after El Bulli. It changed my relationship to food, to art, to how I dined with other people. It was a performance, and as a diner you didn’t have much agency. There was a set menu. You couldn’t make substitutions. You couldn’t just use the restroom when you wanted to. There was a flow and a rhythm to it. I’d never experienced anything like it before, and I don’t really want to again.
SIMONINI Have you had any other experiences with other art forms that matched the intensity of dining at El Bulli?
YI Well, I don’t know that I could qualify any visual art as all-consuming, in a way that encompasses the metabolic and the physical. So in that sense, no, I haven’t. But I’ve experienced that kind of demonic possession of all the senses with certain films and with fiction. But cuisine is its own category.
SIMONINI Is it a goal of yours to insert your art into someone?
YI Well, using smell is a way to take communication a little further. Smell can prompt a transference of environment, of time, of memory. And that’s part of my intention.
SIMONINI Did you have any training as a perfumer?
YI I did not go to perfume school. I’m completely self-taught.
I just had the audacity to try it. It certainly helps to have a knowledge of chemistry and strong command of notes and scents, but I had no training.
SIMONINI How did you begin?
YI Around 2008 I started making tinctures. I didn’t even buy anything. I just put everything around me in alcohol for three months to see what would happen. I read everything I could on the subject. I had a friend who worked for one of the largest perfume companies in the world, and we’d smell things together. Later on, a friend in the fashion industry asked me to create natural perfumes for her. I invited my friend Maggie Peng, an architect, to the event and she got excited about the perfumes, so we created Shigenobu Twilight together. We wanted to create a series of biographical fragrances based on living women. I wanted to challenge the culture around perfume, which is very stodgy and quite unimaginative in terms of the images it offers: the fashion house, the actor, the pop star, the athlete. They all promote conventional aspirational lifestyles. After millennia of human beings exchanging oils and fragrances, it’s disappointing that the perfume industry is limited to this paltry set of narratives.
SIMONINI Is there a large culture of avant-garde olfaction?
YI Completely. A young perfumer called Zoologist just sent me a group of scents based on animals: Panda, Bat, Beaver. I tend to like extreme scents. But it’s a hard area to be experimental, because people won’t wear unfamiliar smells. And that says a lot about our society. We haven’t gone very far outside of polite smell, which has everything to do with social constructs around smell and power relations. People are afraid to smell strange. It’s a problem that we refer to smells only as good or bad. We don’t have a sophisticated language around it. We have a limited palate.
SIMONINI Are we averse to smell because it’s more animalistic than other senses?
YI There’s a larger social context. I grew up in a Korean-American home and my mother cooked Korean food. Our house was labeled by other kids as the stinky home. If you talk to Korean-Americans about smell, many of them associate early memories of smell with shame and rejection. And now Korean food is everywhere. There’s less of a stigma. I wish there were more tolerance and openness to smells. Any person who eats curry smells like curry. Turmeric will seep out of anyone’s pores. We have a mythology around ethnic smells, that certain people smell a certain way, but really the main factors are diet, environment, and an individual’s unique, genetic smell. A lot of that uniqueness has to do with how much bacteria you produce in your gut. Economics is also a factor. If someone eats McDonald’s all the time, that affects his body odor.
SIMONINI There’s racism and classism in smells.
YI Each person has a unique olfactive identity, determined by genetics. Chemists call it the human bar code—a reference to the biometric technology that is used to identify individuals. Generalizations about the odor of an ethnic group can’t be supported with evidence.
SIMONINI Do you have a heightened sense of smell?
YI I think so. But it comes from a will and desire to develop my perception. I don’t close myself off to new smells. I go on smelling journeys. When something smells strong, I don’t reject it. I try to get past my initial reaction and take in the subtlety of the smell. I may have shown a little promise with smell, but I’ve really had to cultivate and practice it. So much of who we are is made through sheer discipline.
SIMONINI Making art is all about developing a sensitivity.
YI It’s a self-education, a special ability to get rigorous and be in the world. Through art, I’ve learned more about my body, my relationship to other organisms, and that’s part of my job: to engage myself with intensity.
SIMONINI Your video The Flavor Genome deals with the complicated ramifications of flavor. How do you approach that through the medium?
YI The work is all about perception. There’s a fictional aspect that drives the narrative. A flavor chemist goes to the Amazon in search of a mythical flower in order to extract a compound and synthesize a new drug from it. And if you take this drug you can perceive what it’s like to be a pink dolphin or an angry teenager. It’s not a technology we have yet, but it relates to virtual reality, which is becoming more prevalent in contemporary art and in culture more broadly. But my idea is not about placing myself in a coral reef, as I would with VR, but actually feeling what coral feels, and creating empathy.
SIMONINI Do you write fictional narratives around your sculptures?
YI 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.
SIMONINI You think of your art as fiction?
YI To use a term coined by Caroline Jones, a scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my work is bio-fiction. I want to fuse the writing of life—the notion that all living things have their own stories, contexts, perspectives, and histories—with the study of life, which also now includes an embrace of nonhuman perspectives. The concept of nonhuman persons is found in the indigenous Achuar people in the Amazon, who believe that all life is a person, whether a plant person, an animal person, or a human person. This way of thinking is also shared by other Amazonian tribes, as well as by the Inuit and other native peoples of North America. Humans aren’t necessarily at the top of the hierarchy of life in these belief systems.
SIMONINI You adapt the theories of science to art.
YI I loosely sample scientific procedure in my work. But my science is not one that’s of value to anyone, not that I think something has to be useful to be science. I don’t want to be disrespectful to science. Fiction can be true.
SIMONINI Your work is like science fiction.
YI Making the work is a kind of world-building. I’m always thinking about where my objects fit into the world I’m creating. And usually, I need to create the world first before I can give the objects movement, context, function, identity. Without that, sculpture seems rather empty to me.
SIMONINI Do you have a model for the linguistic and visual worlds you’re building?
YI I think film is a really good medium for that. Certainly the canonical science-fiction films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey  and Tarkovsky’s Solaris . Chris Marker’s films are hugely successful at merging his language with images to create a world. His Sans Soleil  was a major inspiration for The Flavor Genome. It’s a masterpiece of the film essay. Adrian Piper is also really great at generating written language around her work.
SIMONINI Earlier you mentioned literature as one of the more potent art forms for you. Do you read much nonfiction?
YI My love is definitely fiction but I fortify myself with non-fiction. I read books about scientific theories in biology and anthropology, because they support the work that I make and the fiction that I read. In the last few months I have read Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics and Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture and Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature. I read The Last of the Tribe by Monte Reel and A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans by the biosemiologist Jakob von Uexküll. I read a lot, and I read many books at once. I like to cross-pollinate discourses. I’m lucky that my job allows me to read.
SIMONINI Do you think about art as a job? Do you have a nine-to-five schedule?
YI I would love to have a nine-to-five schedule. I usually work twelve to sixteen hours a day. I haven’t had a day off in months. I have a punishing work schedule. Forty hours a week is a very light week for me. After you and I speak, I will go watch the Blu-rays for The Flavor Genome, to make sure everything is calibrated. Then I have to write proposals for new projects. It’s a large mound of work to sift through.
SIMONINI This is quite recent for you, the professional art life.
YI I repressed it for a long time. I didn’t go to art school. My goal in life was to be a vagabond. I wanted the opposite of a credentialed existence, much to the chagrin of my parents. I belong to Generation X and our goal was to drop out.
SIMONINI Did you succeed at that?
YI I survived, but it was absolute torture. It’s not for everybody. You have to have a tremendous amount of fortitude. The world we live in is so focused on vocation. If you don’t have that business-card attitude, people don’t want to talk to you, especially in New York. You’re invisible. A plague. And for a really long time, it was lonely and alienating. My education was just the texture of life.
SIMONINI And you ended up as an artist because . . .
YI I say that I’m an artist only for logistical reasons. I have anxiety around identifying as an artist. Art just happens to be the medium I can use to say what I want to say. I was familiar with the community and it embraced me because I had a lot of friends within it. I always thought I’d find my voice in film. I worked as a fashion stylist and copywriter.
SIMONINI Because you came to art in your late thirties, do you think you had a clearer sense of what you wanted from it than you would have if you had started in your twenties?
YI I forget who said it, but there’s this phrase: nothing ever really happens until you’re forty. And I feel that way. I love being in my forties. You’re still young enough to do what you want, but you have experience and a sense of humor around what you do. You don’t take everything so seriously. I don’t have the anxiety about my age that many people I know feel, maybe because I’m still a young artist. It energizes me. It keeps me light on my feet.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW Work by Anicka Yi in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through June 11.
COMING SOON “The Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Apr. 21–July 5.
ROSS SIMONINI is a writer and artist based in Muir Beach, Calif.