Artists have allowed their imaginations to run riot for the prestigious Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission: Ai Weiwei installed millions of porcelain sunflower seeds; Doris Salcedo opened a gigantic crack in the floor; Rachel Whiteread created a mountainous arctic landscape of polyethylene boxes; and Olafur Eliasson created an artificial sun indoors. But Anicka Yi’s In Love With The World (on view through February 6, 2022) marks the first time that anyone has used flying machines in the vast, post-industrial space. Large translucent jellyfish swim through the air, gracefully flapping their tentacles, alongside hairy globular “creatures,” giving visitors the impression of being inside a giant aquarium or a science fiction movie set. It is impossible not to marvel at these floating entities—Yi calls them “aerobes”—programmed using Artificial Life software, which employs biologically inspired processes to give machines perception, motivations, and decision-making tools that allow them to respond independently to changes in their surroundings. Like huge balloons, the helium-filled, kinetic sculptures gently glide through the space, driven by mini-rotors, never colliding with each other, walls, or viewers thanks to sensors around the hall. Occasionally they descend to a walled-off area peopled by technicians with laptops and gadgets, where they are quickly fitted with new batteries and launched back upward.
Korean-born Yi is renowned for multidisciplinary, multisensory, collaborative works encompassing cooking, perfumery, biochemistry, and biology and involving the use of myriad weird materials such as tempura-fried flowers, fermented kombucha, and live snails. Her two-part installation Biologizing The Machine, created for the 2019 Venice Biennale, consisted of giant, incandescent kelp cocoons holding fluttering animatronic moths; a separate space was hung with panels containing Venetian soil mixed with an odor-emitting bacteria that transformed according to changes in temperature, light, and water level, all controlled by artificial intelligence. Like Yi’s Tate installation, Biologizing The Machine pondered the possibility of sensory communication one day being established between machines and organic life forms.
In Love With The World also has an olfactory element, though it is less successful than the spectacular visuals. Yi created changing “scentscapes,” tailored to the area’s history. One marine scent apparently relates to the Precambrian period, another to the 20th-century Machine Age, and yet another conjures spices used to ward off the Black Death in the 14th century. The fragrances are so subtle however, that they are all but indiscernible beyond a faintly sweet general aroma. Yi is interested in smell as a sense traditionally associated with the feminine, often neglected at the expense of the supposedly masculine, rational sense of sight. Her concern with the “politics of air” and focus on airborne sculptures and smells has taken on heightened resonance at a time when the issue of how we share the air has become highly charged—ironically, the masks required because of the pandemic diminish the ability to appreciate the work’s scent aspect.
Yi’s installation recalls the ideas of feminist scholar Donna Haraway, whose influential 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” similarly embraces the dissolution of boundaries between machines and organisms. “A cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines,” Haraway writes. Yi’s utopian vision proposes that we might conceive a “new ecosystem” in which machines are entities with which to share knowledge rather than something subjugated to our needs. These ideas run counter to much dystopian science fiction about technology taking over—for instance, the intelligent machine-run world of the Matrix films or Hal 9000, the sentient computer that tries to kill its spaceship crew in the film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. By contrast, Yi intends her installation to pose questions about how we might coexist harmoniously with life forms other than human, plant, and animal. Her benign machines act as calming presences in the space, spreading awe and prompting delight at their balletic fluidity. Still, I couldn’t stop a perverse part of me from secretly hoping that one aerobe would turn rogue and shake things up.