Has the dialogue between art and science undergone a paradigm shift? Compare Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, and Anicka Yi’s In Love with the World, 2021–22, two commissions for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, London, undertaken by artists known for treating their studios as research laboratories. The orchestration of mist, mirrors, and artificial light in The Weather Project entranced audiences—so much so that a generation of critics steeped in Guy Debord and Fredric Jameson immediately regarded it as the culmination of spectacle in the late-capitalist museum. Underneath all the whizbang ingenuity was Eliasson’s desire to activate an experience of what he calls “seeing yourself seeing,” a technically sophisticated spin on early Minimalism’s effort to heighten the viewer’s awareness of their own embodied perception. By contrast, Yi choreographed an uneasy pas de deux between visitors and a swarm of floating inflatable machines she dubbed “aerobes.” Resembling oversize amoebas or jellyfish, the aerobes moved in response to the same atmospheric variables that enveloped their human counterparts, including a repertoire of custom scents periodically released into the air. Though initiated prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Yi’s installation presciently modeled a world where the myth of individual autonomy gave way to the reality of mutual dependency across multiple scales of life.
A question for Yi’s solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery, her first major outing since In Love with the World, was whether she could achieve a comparable situation through the decidedly more conventional medium of painting. A quick stroll through any gallery district would confirm that a great deal of canvas got stretched during lockdown, when the romance of being alone in the studio coincided so serendipitously with the privilege of preserving one’s health. Now that the pandemic has entered its loitering phase, how might painting wriggle free of its long-standing associations with individualism to encompass a more fluid, discrepant understanding of life’s boundaries? Yi’s solution to this quandary involved a unique conjunction of process and subject matter. To create the sixteen “paintings” in the exhibition, Yi compiled the imagery that her studio had accumulated through years of laboratory-style research and fed the files into a machine-learning generative adversarial network (GAN). This cannibalization of past intellectual labor became the GAN’s basis for creating new compositions suitable for printing at more than five feet tall. Like the aerobes in Turbine Hall, these images had no direct referent in the natural world, but variously suggested gargantuan versions of several phenomena at once: dead skin cells, psychedelic mold, invasive parasites.
Each work appeared as a thick slab of acrylic with depressions, ridges, and subtle markings that played off the idiosyncrasies of its imagery. These imperfections enhanced the sensation of peering at a specimen through a microscope, while also activating a distinctly haptic engagement with pictorial depth and surface texture. The paintings thus appealed to more than the eye, breaking down what art historian Caroline A. Jones has called modernism’s “bureaucratization of the senses,” but hardly with the same visceral intensity as Yi’s earlier experiments with such unorthodox materials as tofu or bacteria. Yet whatever these works may have lacked in pungency, metaphoric or otherwise, they made up for with historical resonance. Yi’s employment of image sets and machine learning bears an unmistakable structural resemblance to the overpainting and grattage methods that Surrealist painters devised to create pictures that, in the words of André Breton, were “as strange to you as they are to anyone else.” Yi’s tools are more technologically robust, and molecular biology has supplanted psychoanalysis, but the aim remains the same: to rupture the psychic and somatic integrity that artworks like The Weather Project once sought to shore up. This, I suspect, is what Yi’s paintings are telling us, even if she herself would not. When, at a panel hosted by SculptureCenter in 2012, an art historian asked Yi whether she drew influence from Surrealism, she responded, “Only subconsciously.”