Our Sterile Future

With hovering robots and ancient scents, Anicka Yi attempts to transform the Turbine Hall at Tate into a utopian ecosystem.

Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021. Installation view, Tate Modern. Photo: Will Burard-Lucas.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern seems empty. A bare floor extends in front of me upon entering. A faint, unidentifiable scent enters my nose. But up under the roof, just above the bridge in the middle of the hall, a swarm of flying creatures can be found. Critics have remarked that exhibitions by Korean American artist Anicka Yi – who works in the intersection of scent, cuisine, and science – are not very stimulating to look at. In keeping with Yi’s overall project of shifting the established hierarchy of human senses, she frequently emphasises the often disregarded sense of smell over sight. Leaving aside the sci-fi spectacle of flying creatures taking over the Tate, this sober approach to form is also present in the exhibition In Love With The World, commissioned by Tate Modern and car manufacturer Hyundai.

Visitors are instructed that the exhibition is best experienced from up on the bridge. Still, I can discern two ‘species’ of objects from the ground floor. The first brings to mind aquatic creatures of the jellyfish or squid type. The second, a seemingly hollow fungal form, is more diffuse and difficult to place. (Yi’s exhibition was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but was delayed due to pandemic-related reasons. Since then, audiences have been sated with art’s current fascination for mycelium and cephalopods). However, more important than the question of exactly what kind of creatures we are dealing with is the fact that these are machines that have been biologised. Yi appears interested in breaking down established distinctions between technology and biology in order to negotiate new forms of relationality in the artwork – that is, how the viewer interacts with what surrounds her.

The “aerobes,” as Yi calls them, bring to mind an advanced hot-air balloon show. The technical staff assisting the aerobes at a kind of charging station located at the far end of the hall do not diminish this impression. Looking up at these objects, I feel like I am at the bottom of a container holding some element that I lack the ability to handle. But if I feel small, this is not least due to the hopelessly monumental setting, where subtlety seems futile. Previous artists featured in the Turbine Hall have tackled this issue by invoking the sublime and other phenomena related to what we previously referred to as “nature” (Olafur Eliasson’s weather project and imported sun, for example, or the seismic fissure created by Doris Salcedo). However, Yi’s helium-filled and drone-powered objects are too small to overwhelm.

Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021. Installation view, Tate Modern. Photo: Joe Humphrys.

Up close, the aerobes, pseudo-scientifically dubbed “xenojellies” and “planulae,” have a synthetic quality. The former have wires extending like blood vessels across their identical semi-transparent plastic bodies. Slight variations in colour – muted brownish-red, gold, silver, and beige – evoke an iphone palette rather than messy organisms. This may be a nod to Philippe Parreno’s helium-filled fish that appeared in the Turbine Hall in 2016, but most of all they are reminiscent of the automation company Festo’s flying jellyfish robots from 2008. The planulae, coloured like light human skin, also appear identically shaped and are covered by a thin layer of hair. Yi’s vision for a new ecosystem consists of soft machines that do not needlessly extract resources. They apparently exist only to interact with the atmosphere around them, supposedly responding to each other while being drawn to viewers’ body heat, sweat, and scent.

After an hour and a half in the hall, however, there have been no surprises or close encounters. The aerobes seem too well programmed for that. We can observe them safely at close range (from the bridge), as in a zoo. Their relative independence from the space that surrounds them, apart from the air, makes them feel less like parts of an entangled ecosystem than objects isolated for our gaze. There appears to be no risk that the aerobes will suddenly start to reproduce uncontrollably or slip out of the museum doors should the opportunity arise.

Insofar as anything in the exhibition cuts across this sterile division, it is the scent that Yi has developed for the exhibition. It sweeps past me in draughts, as if someone has tampered with the ventilation system. Yi is interested in the sculptural qualities of smell. However, the scent in the Turbine Hall is too subtle for the foreground; it is ubiquitous, but shapeless, hence calling attention to the materiality of air. This atmospheric aspect blurs the relationship between subject and object, even as smell anchors the atmosphere in the body.

The scentscape will change during the exhibition period and is based on ancient smells from the area around the Tate. The flying objects respond to the scent, thereby entering into a relationship with not only Tate’s location and the viewer, but also so-called deep time. To an untrained nose, however, the smell is more like an unconventional scented candle than the stench of coal and ozone during the Industrial Revolution, or the presumably terrifying aroma of herbs vainly used to fight Black Death as it ravaged fifteenth-century London, or the odour of algae from the Precambrian era (about 4.6 billion years ago). Although In Love With The World opens up many ideas about the decentralised viewer and the work of art as entangled in speculative techno-ecologies that theoretically reach back and forth in time, at the end of the day, I was not directly destabilised by Yi’s bio-fiction in the Turbine Hall.

Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021. Installation view, Tate Modern. Photo: Will Burard-Lucas.