On a recent evening at the Guggenheim Museum, I was crouched in a dark corner, sniffing like a truffle hog. With my eyes closed to maximize nasal cognition, I was inhaling so deeply that I was sure those around me could hear the air rush through my nostrils. The museum doesn’t typically have a strong scent, but there was a legitimate reason for my behavior. A foreign aroma currently wafts through one of its galleries, concocted from the least expected sources: carpenter ants and sweat samples from Asian American women.
Its creator is Anicka Yi, who worked closely with a professional nez to produce the curious composition for her solo show Life Is Cheap, the result of her winning the Hugo Boss Prize in 2016. Organized by Guggenheim curators Katherine Brinson and Susan Thompson, the show consists of just three installations: a group of canisters diffusing the fragrance and two enclosed dioramas that showcase very different types of colonies. One contains real ants — 10,000 crawling black dots — and the other, blooming strains of bacteria, originally swabbed from surfaces in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Koreatown. To establish these living installations, Yi also enlisted the help of three PhD students in biology at Columbia University.