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An Early Modern Encounter with Anicka Yi

By Lizzie Marx - 28. February 2022
The conceptual artist's gravity-defying aerobes inspired Lizzie Marx to investigate their connections with the past.
Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. For this installment, we invited art historian Lizzie Marx to look at the work of Anicka Yi, recently on view at Tate Modern. 

Twelve years ago, Ai Weiwei filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, with a carpet of porcelain sunflower seed husks. Visitors were welcomed to tread over the work and immerse themselves in a landscape where millions of miniature forms made a vast whole. However, each step that trod on the little sculptures abraded the porcelain, producing a fine dust. Overexposure risked filling the visitors’ lungs with harmful particles, and so it was decided that the husks should be left untouched, to be observed from a distance at the work’s threshold.

The airborne porcelain was an inadvertent prelude to the latest Hyundai Commission In Love With The World by the New York City-based artist Anicka Yi, where visitors are encouraged to see and inhale her work in the Turbine Hall (figs. 1–2). Softly shaped inflated beings, which Yi terms aerobes, float through the air, conflating with the steel surrounds. There are six transparent aerobes with undulating tentacles akin to jellyfish, and three fleshy ones with vellum-like skins covered with a soft down of hair. They are affable creatures, as they politely glide between each other, and peer into the upper-level viewing galleries. The aerobes seem as curious about us as much as we are about them. In this sense, their human qualities cannot go unnoticed; the steady motions of the tentacles emulate breathing, and the wires that span their skins and connect to their control system could be mistaken for networks of veins. Yi also activates the air of the entire space with scents, whose compositions vary, over the course of the show, from being emblematic of time periods spanning pre-history to the fossil-fuelled machine age.

Header: fig. 1 Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021, Tate Modern, London. Photo by Joe Humphrys © Tate 2021. fig. 2 Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021, Tate Modern, London. Photo by Will Burrard-Lucas © Tate 2021.

These gravity-defying aerobes could easily lead towards futuristic thinking. To my mind, however, the associations are quintessentially Early Modern. In that period, scents were believed to be minute entities that streamed from matter, and whose potency could significantly influence the body. A person who collapsed through fainting and fits could therefore be reanimated through smelling salts, vinegar, and other sharp odours. Smells were also considered to be nourishing, as tobacco smoke was thought to sustain the appetite. Additionally, its hot and dry qualities were believed to return the body to a sense of equilibrium if it was rendered excessively wet by too much drinking. On account of his loosened trousers, and ungainly pose, the smoker that Adriaen Brouwer depicts has taken his fill of drink, and now, with his clay pipe in hand, he exhales the tobacco smoke to restore his body (fig. 3). In the Turbine Hall, unusual and varying scents linger. They compel us to interrogate the air in a similar manner, by considering how they might impact the body.

fig. 3 Adriaen Brouwer, The Smoker, ca. 1635–40, oil on panel, 29.7 x 21.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Among the odours pervading the space are evocations from ancient eras of the Precambrian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. They have marine, grassy scents, as well as the fragrance of rainstorms, jasmine, and cypress. Yi’s use of prehistoric scents recalls what would have once been regarded as the scents of the Garden of Eden, which the Early Modern imagination perceived as abundantly fragranced. In their impression of Eden, Pieter Paul Rubens paints the luscious flesh of Adam and Eve, and Jan Brueghel the Elder punctuates the scene with flora and fauna (fig. 4). Brueghel also accounts for the fragrance of Eden, through the perfectly ripe peaches, wild strawberries, and plums. Among the varying flowers at Eden’s bed are butterflies and a bee who light on the assorted flowers, attracted to their fragrance (fig. 5).

fig. 4 Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, 1615, oil on panel, 114.7 x 74.3 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague
fig. 5 Detail of fig. 4

As the Turbine Hall’s scents fill the lungs, they draw attention to the significance of breathing. The rhythmic movements of the aerobes emulate the drawing in and out of breath, and create a synthesis with our own cycles of breath. They recall the biblical story of Creation, where, after God had made the fragranced land, He created Adam in a particular manner: ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). Curious as it was to specify that it was through the nostrils that life was instilled, Early Modern artists also seemed to have made the connection between the vivifying breath and the Sense of Smell. Breathing in potent odours was, after all, once relied on to revive the body. In a series of the Senses by Nicolaes de Bruyn after Maerten de Vos, female personifications enact their designated Sense with object and animal attributes, with a corresponding biblical scene in the background. For the Sense of Smell, the personification holds an amply filled vase including a daffodil and lily, and she brandishes a bunch of roses to smell (fig. 6).

fig. 6 Nicolaes de Bruyn after Maerten de Vos, Olfactus, 1581–1656, engraving, 91 x 118 mm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Her dog is eager to sniff the flowers as he leaps towards the bouquet. In the background, the Creation story plays out where God rouses Adam from the ground. Through splayed lines, his breath projects towards Adam’s nose, and he is animated with life (fig. 7). The text beneath reads in Latin,

How sweet is this God / He infuses the man of salt with his own great gift of life.
fig. 7 Detail of fig. 6

Set before the allegory of Smell, the sweetness must surely have a double meaning. It speaks of God’s benevolence to His creations, and perhaps also the sweetness of His fragrant breath. The significance of breathing cannot be underestimated, when Adam was believed to have been created through a gulp of fragranced breath. Yi’s aerobes echo the sentiments by foregrounding breathing in the scented space. They revive the special connection between smell and respiration that were thought to be present since humankind’s first breath.

In Love With The World suggests that air can no longer be regarded as a negative space of nothingness, but the dwelling in which invisible but potent forces are at play. By accenting the Turbine Hall with scent, Yi recovers a relationship with air that our Early Modern counterparts were well acquainted. With each breath, little fragments of the world are consumed, and at Tate Modern it means imbibing art itself.❖

Lizzie Marx, 2022


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Installation view of Hyundai Commission, Anicka Yi. Photo by Will Burrard-Lucas © Tate 2021
Lizzie Marx is an Art Historian at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, where she recently submitted her PhD thesis, Visualising, Perceiving, and Interpreting Smell in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. She is also a member of Odeuropa, a Horizon 2020 project that uses AI to research Europe’s olfactory history. In 2018–2019 she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and in 2019–2021 she was the Research and Exhibition Assistant of Fleeting – Scents in Colour, an exhibition at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, about smell in seventeenth-century art. She is also the co-author of the exhibition publication.
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