the turbine room of Anicka Yi; Sutapa Biswas: Lumen – review | Art and design

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Ttranslucent sea creatures drift through Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, moving through this great gulf like elegant swimmers. Some have tentacles, golden and graceful. Others have antennae that float like miniature fins. Rising and falling, pulsing and swaying, these giant organisms pass among the rays of the sun in magical benches – turning all that empty space into a colossal aquarium.

These “aerobes,” as she calls them, are the work of Korean-American conceptual artist Anicka Yi (born 1971), helped by various AI experts, programmers and neurobiologists. It is immediately evident that science has to be involved in some way or another. For these shiny entities – some like radiant jellyfish, others more like shiny pufferfish – never descend low enough that we can reach them. And they never collide either.

Their movements are as fascinating (and impenetrable) as the murmur of starlings or ants on an olfactory trail. Electrifying to watch, these bodies are, of course, electrified themselves. Each is programmed to float towards heat, especially the body heat of humanity, without ever touching an actual visitor. Everyone has a rallying instinct, eventually returning to a “pool” of busy technicians to recharge their batteries, before returning to the ocean of air.

The experience is slow, peaceful and non-abrasive. Since the golden sun of Olafur Eliasson, there had not been such a quiet and humane Turbine commission. Either way – and their play on the building’s historical associations with water, power, and motion are as appealing as their gravitation to heat – these are old-fashioned kinetic sculptures, which only rest on a sense of wonder.

Or that’s what it seemed. In fact, Yi wants us to think of the idea of ​​machines as (literally) floating entities; no longer slaves to the technocratic mastery of mankind, nor sinister adversaries ready to overwhelm the human race. We must consider the Savage of machines; machines like creatures we could live with.

But of course, these aerobes aren’t wild at all, as much as tightly controlled by human ingenuity. Better to think of them as beautiful creations, 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 that it is totally unsuccessful. Where previous artists filled the place with sound (Bruce Nauman), light (Eliasson) or bubbling darkness (Miroslaw Balka), Yi opted for his trademark: perfume. Specifically, we should be able to smell certain spices believed to counter the Black Death in the 14th century, or the stench of Cretaceous vegetation, or the coal once used to heat the Hall turbine in the 20th century. But no one could smell anything the morning I was there; we all wore masks.

A long wall panel makes a prodigious mention of air policy and how it is changed by social inequalities and ecological awareness, without any reference to the airborne pandemic. This is crazy speech in the days of Covid.

The artist of Indian origin Sutapa Biswas (b.1962) is a vital figure in British anti-racist culture, particularly the intersection of black feminism and the black arts movement of the 1980s. His wise and powerful retrospective at Kettle’s Yard opens with arguably his most recent work. most famous. Housewives with steak-Knives (1985-86) features a bright red Kali – the 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. Definitely British; perhaps a Raj totem. A large picture, leaning abruptly on the wall, it bristles with a political force.

Housewives with Steak Knives, 1985 by Sutapa Biswas. Photography: Sutapa Biswas

Next to it are two larger-than-life portraits of Biswas protecting his younger sister, a weapon in her hand raised. All three paintings were made when Biswas lived and studied in the north of England; a brown body, according to his formula, threatened by local neo-Nazis.

Since then, Biswas has made many different types of art. This exhibition includes several of her incredibly mysterious monochrome photographs of living women lying on ancient sculptures of goddesses, where it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the two female forms or to distinguish art from reality. The living woman is Biswas herself, plunged into a faded shadow.

And hanging from the ceiling are three absolutely haunting visions – negative transparencies of an Indian woman holding her daughter, magnified almost to life size. The light passes through them so that you can see both their shadows on the wall and how they have lost their identity. Clear black eyes, white black hair, these are ghosts from the past, trapped in glass plates. Memories of people a long time ago, skimmed over by life but altered by time, fading with their photographs.

Biswas has a poetic gift for these contemplative echoes and metaphors. So much so that the last work of this show, the specially commissioned film Lumen, takes the form of images interspersed with a prose poem performed by an actress, recounting sea voyages and the lives of Indian servants and British masters in colonized India.

A photo by Lumen from Sutapa Biswas, 2020.
A photo from Lumen, 2020. Photograph: © Sutapa Biswas. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo: Carlotta Cardana

There are exquisite juxtapositions of old and new sequences. British ladies walk around in white lace, while their husbands play croquet, served by unnoticed brown bodies. Roots are starting to grow on abandoned Raj buildings. But the acrobat still rides the tightrope of poverty on a tin hoop moved with his nimble foot, and fishermen continue to cast their nets for a living, then and now.

Alas, the actress fiercely insists on bad words, almost from the first to the last. But the visions of Biswas rise above all in all their sad beauty. Color seeps into black and white, and vice versa; and the faces of the dead keep returning, fragments of colonial history blossoming in our time, the ever-encircled presence of the past.

Ratings (out of five)
Anicka Yi: In love with the world ??
Sutapa Biswas: Lumen ??


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