Imperialist Metabolism: The Anti-Colonial and Microbial Occupations of Anicka Yi
This talk is part of the Critical Ethnic and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies' 2018 Speaker Series, "ORIENTATIONS: On Empire, Settler Colonialism, and Occupation."
The signature style of Korean-born, NY based artist Anicka Yi—winner of the 2016-17 Hugo Boss Award—involves repurposing materials associated with feminine domesticity--cooking paraphilia, edible ingredients, bath and vanity products—and coassembling them alongside industrial polymers, fiberboard, and metallic components. She has gained some notoriety as a smell portraitist due to her collaborations with perfumers and her incorporation into her work of molds and bacteria often sourced specifically from women’s mouths, armpits and vaginas. In this lecture, I attend to the anti-colonial critique threaded through key pieces of her oeuvre. For instance, in a collaboration with architect Maggie Peng, Shigenobu Twilight (2007), Yi mixed a handcrafted perfume as an homage to the Japanese communist female revolutionary Fusako Shigenobu, a former factory worker for Kikkoman, who lived in Lebanon for three decades doing political work for the cause of Palestine, and who now currently resides in a prison hospital in Japan. In another work, Skype Sweater (2010), Yi repurposes an army parachute as a dominant element, with “the parachute not only serv[ing] as a means of passage, but also a metaphor for imperialism, forced displacement, and culture clashes.” By using odors and scents in her work, Yi—I argue—makes compulsory for the gallery goer a type of “cannibalism”—they ingest the vitalities from which these fragrances are sourced. (One might even say that Yi stages a guerilla invasion of the bodily terrain of her audiences.) Through this olfactory cannibalism, Yi exposes the relation of elite Anglo-American consumers in the global North to those in formerly occupied colonial territories (of Asian and Africa), even as her smuggled revelations negotiate with the infrastructures of empire that still disavow their ongoing consumption of labor and resources from “peripheral” regions, i.e., those harnessed toward the expansion and thriving of populations at the imperial core.