The giant, airborne water sculptures of Yi’s ‘In Love with the World’ have a utopian quality that goes back to less cynical times
The start of Anicka Yi’s new order for the turbine hall was literally a starting shot. The artist’s airborne sculptures – some resemble zooplankton, others fungal spores – reached departure on Monday morning. They float and move, bobbing up and down as elegantly speckled tentacles pulsate.
These fascinating airships are powered by software that simulates the reaction patterns of living organisms. Sensors warn you of body heat or odor particles in the air. When visitors gather, the helium-filled drones – referred to by the artist as aerobes – gather overhead as if curiously.
The plankton-like species are clear, as if formed from watery jelly, with colored domes. If you look up while floating, the wires inside appear like veins in an eyeball. It’s uncomfortable like being monitored.
Yi is interested in big questions about the way biology and technology intersect. She often works with perishable, scented materials that add an element of odor and unpredictability to what are usually aseptic art spaces.
It shapes the environment through smell and reminds the audience that air is real matter, not just empty space, and that its composition has an impact on the quality (and length) of life.
Here the olfactory element is secondary – perhaps absolutely necessary in times of masks and post-Covid impairment.
Yi apparently installed a changing scent landscape that evoked aromas from this geographic location over billions of years, from the hot, gaseous stone soup of the Precambrian to the flat tropical ocean of the Cretaceous to bundles of spices that are transported to ward off black death in the 14th century and a touch of the industrial age.
Before it was an art space, the Turbine Hall housed the Bankside Power Station. Its scale is alienating – designed for machines, not people. It’s a challenging space for artists. Previous assignments have filled it with new means: through sound, human movement, fog and light.
Yi’s work brings machines back into space, but it also reminds us of invisible particles that power the world’s living engines, mycelial networks, and ocean waters.
Will the visitors think about major existential questions or sit back and enjoy the tentacle spectacle? While its technology is up to date, In love with the world has a utopian quality that feels like a less cynical period.
I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, in which he envisioned a cybernetic future in which computers and animals coexist in harmony, all “guarded by machines of loving grace”.
Anicka Yi, in love with the world, Tate Modern, London, 12 October 2021-16. January 2022