If you have an even slightly raised temperature – a mild fever or a reaction to the flu jab – I’d advise against a trip to In Love With the World, Anicka Yi’s Hyundai Commission in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Homing in on human heat, her giant airborne cephalopods, with their long, squidlike arms swimming in the air, will get you. Or, if not them, a second species of bulbous biomorphs, more kids’ party than Hieronymus Bosch or Jules Verne, drifting on the air currents, rising and falling with unknowable purpose, might sidle up and suck you in. The Korean-born artist’s translucent creatures have the ability to home in on the hot and the sweaty, attracted by human warmth. But, like circus animals, they’re trained to keep a certain distance. Every so often, they float off to a docking area at the rear of the Turbine Hall, where their batteries are recharged.
We were promised artificial intelligence, alien life, smellscapes sculpted in the air. And what do we get? Drone-powered, heat-sensitive balloons. Yi’s helium-filled pond life – rather too meagre in number to either truly amaze or to threaten – is all a bit ho-hum, however lifelike their invertebrate articulations. We are also led to expect the aroma of spices (once used, erroneously, to ward off the medieval Black Death), along with Precambrian period marine scents, prehistoric vegetal decay and the stench of the Industrial Age, ozone and coal smoke. I caught a whiff of armpit with a trace of Lynx Africa deodorant, but of Yi’s invisible, olfactory artwork – zilch. Maybe the smell-o-vision needs more time to warm up, or our face masks are buffering the evocative scents. Perhaps we should be grateful. The most memorable artworks using smell I have ever encountered have been California artist Mike Bouchet’s day’s worth of compressed human faeces which once filled a gallery building in Zurich, and Colombian artist Oswaldo Maciá’s fountain, which once filled a street in a Catalan village with the unmistakable tang of semen, sending the local cats into a frenzy.
The immaterial and the intangible, the gravity-defying and the animatronic all have a long history in art, and the Turbine Hall has seen its share of all these gambits. Philippe Parreno gave us a depleted shoal of helium-filled fish in his complex Turbine Hall installation. Olafur Eliasson gave us indoor weather. Bruce Nauman filled the air with voices and Ai Weiwei accidentally polluted the atmosphere with ceramic dust (it was fun while it lasted). I have wondered, for a long time, who would be the first artist to flood the Turbine Hall with Mother Thames but I suppose Health and Safety might balk at that. You’ve got to really go for it now to make a difference. Yi’s art is just a tad too subtle.
But wait – just as the smells will change over the course of the commission, so her human-engineered creatures, which she calls aerobes, shall apparently alter their behaviour over time. Will they grow restive, or learn how to breed? Shall they develop the ability not just to procreate, but to curate, or make their own art, or shall they organise and take over, in the time-honoured pulp-fiction sci-fi manner? Will they take their vengeance on the footling human creatures who have despoiled the planet? Watch this space. Watch any space. They’re coming.
Anicka Yi’s In Love With the World is at Tate Modern, London, from 12 October to 16 January.