But does it smell like art? The exhibition that aims to pass the sniff test

Visitors to the Tate Modern’s latest Turbine Hall installation will need to use the sense perhaps least associated with art galleries: smell. 

Upon entering the hall, where helium-filed robots drift overhead, they will be exposed to historic “scentscapes” that take them back to a pre-human world and the former power-station’s industrial history. They will not, however, be able to take off their masks to do so.

In Love With the World, by Anicka Yi, a Korean-American artist, consists of floating jellyfish and amoeba-like drones, dubbed “aerobes”, that drift around the cavernous space following flight paths generated by an “artificial life programmme”.

While observing these floating jellies, visitors are exposed to “scentscapes” created by Ms Yi which remind the visitors that they are all sharing a space with the aerobes and link the work to the history of the Tate’s Bankside location, from the age of dinosaurs through to the Romans, the Tudors and the power station’s recent industrial past.

Despite the centrality of smells to the installation, the Tate Modern is maintaining a policy of requiring masks to be worn while in the gallery, although on Monday there was little sign of enforcement, with many visitors in the Turbine Hall unmasked. 

A Tate official said the scentscapes had been “created with [the mask policy] in mind”.

Visitors inspect the "aerobes" at the Tate Modern's latest exhibition, In Love With The World …

Credit: Yui Mok/PA

… which is the work of South Korean-born artist Anicka Yi

Credit: Neil Hall/Shutterstock

Among the scentscapes are the machine age, consisting of coal and ozone fragrances, the Precambrian period, with marine scents, and the Cretaceous period, with a vegetal bouquet.

Ms Yi said at a press conference on Monday that she wished to “break free of the binary of [pleasant or unpleasant] and the social conditioning we have around smell”. 

While the scentscapes will change from week to week, on Monday visitors were welcomed by Ms Yi’s approximation of the era of cholera’s odour, including “leafy grass and horse sweat”.

Ms Yi, who frequently incorporates olfactory elements into her work, has leaned into the context of the pandemic. 

Speaking on Monday, she said, “I think it’s a very rich material to unpack, this heightened tension we have around the air we are inhaling.”

Another scentscape consists of the spices used by doctors in the 14th century to ward off the Black Death. 

Scentscapes

The floating aerobes – whose flight paths are dictated by programming designed to simulate life and which reacts to environmental stimuli such as the heat generated by visitors – are meant to represent independent machine life and are intended to spark a debate over how human beings might relate to “living” machines. 

“They are here to hopefully open up that dialectic and expand the conversation, that machines don’t necessarily have to serve us or scare us, in order to coexist with us,” Ms Yi said, adding that there was still time, before artificial intelligence becomes too advanced, for humanity to “align our goals with machines”. 

The pre-human scentscapes, such as that from the Jurassic period, are also there, Ms Yi explained, to give the aerobes a sense of ancientness and to “break from our anthropocentric solipsism that’s it’s all about us”.

Her creations take two forms, “xenojellies”, which resemble transparent balloons with coloured tops and gently pulsating tentacles, and “planulae”, a kind of hairy yellow amoeba. 

Ms Yi said the original germ of her idea was an “aquarium of machines” filling the hall and that she had opted to give them soft, sea-creature like bodies to counter the traditional view of cold and metallic robots.

The Seoul-born artist, who grew up in the United States, has previously experimented with bacteria and odours. In 2015, as a response to public fear over the West African Ebola crisis, she took bacteria from 100 women and grew them in giant petri dishes for an exhibition. She also developed a scent from the samples, which was dispersed at the gallery.

In 2017, her piece Immigrant Caucus involved insecticide canisters releasing the scent of “Asian women and carpenter ants.”

In Love With The World, part of the Tate’s Hyundai Commissions, runs from October 12 to January 16.

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