Anicka Yi’s miasmatic art.
In nineteenth-century England, it was believed that the poor, foul-smelling parts of cities were points of origin for disease. The word malaria is from the Italian mal’aria: “bad air.” Cholera was believed to come from decayed organic matter, miasmata. Adherents of miasma theory followed their noses: bad odors, they thought, carried infectious disease. In The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population, published in 1842, the British social reformer Edwin Chadwick proclaimed that smell “generally gives certain warning of the presence of malaria or gases noxious to the health.”
The artist Anicka Yi plays with this amorphous, olfactory fear in her show “You Can Call Me F,” a meditation on contagion and femininity up through April 11 at The Kitchen. Yi’s media are bacteria and smell, and a sense of bodily invasion pervades the exhibition. She worked with cheek swabs from a hundred women—her creative peers, artists, collectors, curators, and the like—to form a bacteria collective that will grow for the duration of the show. It’s a sort of feminist ecosystem, powerful but fragile. Quarantine tents dot the dark, barren space, and the scent that permeates it is at once perfumed and antiseptic, redolent of a doctor’s office operating out of a woman’s bedroom. It’s almost pleasant, but it carries an undercurrent of danger: Where does this smell come from, exactly, and where is it going? Read More