Anicka Yi’s Turbine Hall commission; Sutapa Biswas, Lumen – review

Tate Modern, London; Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
The Turbine Hall has been turned into a mesmerising giant aquarium by Anicka Yi. And the steak knives are out in Sutapa Biswas’s wise, poetic response to colonial history

Translucent sea creatures drift through the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, moving through that great gulf like elegant swimmers. Some have tentacles, gilded and graceful. Others have antennae that flutter like miniature fins. Rising and falling, pulsing and swaying, these giant organisms pass among the sunbeams in magical shoals – turning all that empty space into one colossal aquarium.

These “aerobes”, as she calls them, are the work of the Korean American conceptual artist Anicka Yi (born 1971), aided by sundry AI experts, programmers and neurobiologists. It is immediately obvious that science must be somehow involved. For these shining entities – some like radiant jellyfish, others more like glowing puffer fish – never descend low enough for us to reach. And nor do they ever collide.

Their movements are as mesmerising (and inscrutable) as a murmur of starlings or ants on a scent trail. Electrifying to watch, these organisms are, of course, themselves electrified. Each is programmed to float towards heat, specifically mankind’s bodily warmth, though without ever touching an actual visitor. Each has a homing instinct, eventually returning to a “pool” of busy technicians for the recharging of batteries, before returning to the ocean of air.

The experience is slow, peaceful and unabrasive. Not since Olafur Eliasson’s golden sun has there been such a tranquil and humane Turbine commission. Whatever else they may be – and their play on the building’s historic associations with water, power and movement are as appealing as their gravitation towards warmth – these are old-fashioned kinetic sculptures, reliant on little except a sense of wonder.

Or so it seemed. In fact, Yi wants us to consider the idea of machines as (literally) free-floating entities; no longer slaves to mankind’s technocratic mastery, nor sinister adversaries ready to overwhelm the human race. We are to consider the wilding of machines; machines as fellow creatures we could live alongside.

But of course these aerobes are not wild at all, so much as tightly controlled by human ingenuity. Best to think of them as beautiful figments, dream machines from another world arriving as art in this one.

There is a second part to Yi’s installation, and it is so imperceptible as to be wholly unsuccessful. Where earlier artists have filled the place with sound (Bruce Nauman), light (Eliasson) or seething darkness (Miroslaw Balka), Yi has gone for her trademark: scent. Specifically, we should be able to smell certain spices thought to counteract the Black Death in the 14th century, or the stench of Cretaceous vegetation, or the coal once used to fire the Turbine Hall in the 20th century. But nobody could smell anything the morning I was there; we were all wearing masks.

A lengthy wall panel makes portentous mention of the politics of air and how they are changed by social inequality and ecological awareness, without any reference to the airborne pandemic. This is meaningless talk in the time of Covid.

The Indian-born artist Sutapa Biswas (born 1962) is a vital figure in British anti-racist culture, specifically the intersection of black feminism and the 1980s Black Arts Movement. Her wise and powerful retrospective at Kettle’s Yard opens with arguably her most famous work. Housewives with Steak-Knives (1985-86) presents a glaring red Kali – Hindu goddess of time and death – with a meat cleaver in one of her several hands and a necklace of severed heads. One belongs to a white man. Surely British; possibly a totem of the Raj. A big painting, leaning abruptly out from the wall, it bristles with political force.

Housewives with Steak-Knives, 1985, by Sutapa Biswas.
Housewives with Steak-Knives, 1985 by Sutapa Biswas. Photograph: Sutapa Biswas

Alongside are two larger-than-life portraits of Biswas protecting her younger sister, a weapon in her raised hand. All three paintings were made when Biswas was living and studying in the north of England; a brown body, in her phrase, menaced by local neo-Nazis.

Since then, Biswas has made many different kinds of art. This show includes several of her fantastically mysterious monochrome photographs of living women lying on ancient goddess sculptures, where it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the two female forms, or to tell art from reality. The living woman is Biswas herself, deep in self-effacing shadow.

And suspended from the ceiling are three absolutely haunting visions – negative transparencies of an Indian woman holding her daughter, magnified almost to the size of life. Light passes through them so that you see both their shadows on the wall and the way that they have lost their identities. Dark eyes light, black hair white, they are ghosts of the past, trapped in sheets of glass. Memories of people long ago, skimmed from life but altered by time, fading along with their photographs.

Biswas has a poet’s gift for these contemplative echoes and metaphors. So much so that the latest work in this show, the specially commissioned film Lumen, takes the form of images intersecting with a prose poem performed by an actress, telling of sea journeys and the lives of Indian servants and British masters in colonised India.

A still from Sutapa Biswas’s Lumen, 2020.
A still from Lumen, 2020. Photograph: © Sutapa Biswas. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo: Carlotta Cardana

There are exquisite juxtapositions of old and new footage. British ladies drift about in white lace, while their husbands play a spot of croquet, waited upon by unnoticed brown bodies. Roots start to grow over abandoned Raj buildings. But still the acrobat rides the tightrope of poverty on a tin hoop, moved with his agile foot, and fishermen continue to cast their nets for a scant livelihood, in those days as now.

Alas, the actress strenuously emphasises the wrong words, almost first to last. But Biswas’s visions rise above everything in all their sad beauty. Colour seeps into black and white, and vice versa; and the faces of the dead keep returning, fragments of colonial history spooling into our times, the ever-circling presence of the past.

Star ratings (out of five)
Anicka Yi: In Love with the World ★★★★
Sutapa Biswas: Lumen ★★★★


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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