Translucent sea creatures drift through the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern and move through the great gorge like elegant swimmers. Some have tentacles, gilded and graceful. Others have antennas that flutter like miniature fins. These giant organisms rise and fall, pulsate and sway and pass among the sun’s rays in magical shoals – and transform all the empty space into a colossal aquarium.
These “aerobics,” as she calls them, are the work of the Korean American conceptual artist Anicka Yi (born 1971), assisted by various AI experts, programmers and neurobiologists. It is immediately obvious that science must be involved in some way. For these shiny devices – some like brilliant jellyfish, others more like glowing puffer fish – never fall low enough for us to reach. And they never encounter either.
Their movements are as fascinating (and opaque) as a murmur of starlings or ants on a scent trail. These organisms are electrifying to look at and are, of course, self-electrified. Each is programmed to flow towards heat, specifically the bodily warmth of mankind, however without ever touching an actual visitor. Each has a domestic instinct and eventually returns to a “pool” of busy technicians to recharge their batteries before returning to the ocean of air.
The experience is slow, peaceful and tiring. Not since Olafur Eliasson’s golden sun has there been such a calm and humane Turbine Commission. Whatever they may be — and their play on the building’s historical associations with water, power, and movement is as appealing as their gravity against heat — it is old-fashioned kinetic sculptures that rely only on the exception of a sense of wonder.
Or so it seemed. In fact, Yi wants us to consider the idea of machines as (literally) free-floating devices; no longer slaves to the technocratic domination of mankind or sinister opponents who are ready to overwhelm mankind. We need to consider wild of machinery; machines as fellow animals we could live next door.
But of course, these aerobics are not wild at all, as much as tightly controlled by human ingenuity. Best to think of them as beautiful figures, dream machines from another world arriving as art in this one.
There is another part of Yi’s installation and it is so imperceptible that it completely fails. Where past artists have filled the place with sound (Bruce Nauman), light (Eliasson) or sweaty darkness (Miroslaw Balka), Yi has gone after his trademark: fragrance. Specifically, we should be able to smell certain spices that are believed to counteract the black death of the 14th century, or the stench of chalk vegetation, or the coal that was once used to fire the Turbine Hall in the 20th century. But no one could smell anything the morning I was there; we all wore masks.
A long wall panel mentions Portuguese air policy and how it is changing by social inequality and ecological awareness, without any reference to the airborne pandemic. This is pointless talk in the days of Covid.
The Indian-born artist Sutapa Biswas (born 1962) is a vital figure in British anti-racist culture, specifically the intersection of black feminism and the 1980s Black Arts Movement. Her clever and powerful retrospective on Kettle’s Yard opens with without a doubt her most famous work. Housewives with steakKnives (1985-86) presents a dazzling red Kali-Hindu goddess of time and death — with a meat clover in one of her several hands and a necklace of severed heads. One belongs to a white man. Probably British; possibly a totem by Raj. A large painting abruptly leaning against the wall bristles with political force.
Next to it, two larger portraits of Biswas protecting her younger sister are a weapon in her raised hand. All three paintings were made when Biswas lived and studied in the north of England; a brown body, in her phrase, threatened by local neo-Nazis.
Since then, Biswas has created many different kinds of art. This show features several of her stunningly mysterious monochrome photographs of living women lying on ancient goddess sculptures where it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the two female forms or to tell art from reality. The living woman is Biswas herself, deep in self-effacing shadow.
And suspended from the ceiling are three absolutely haunting visions – negative transparencies of an Indian woman holding her daughter, magnified almost to the size of life. Light passes through them, so you see both their shadows on the wall and the way they have lost their identity. Dark eyes bright, black hair white, they are the ghosts of the past, trapped in glass plates. Memories of people long ago, foamed from life but changed over time, faded with their photographs.
Biswas has a poet’s gift for these contemplative echoes and metaphors. So much so that the latest work in this show, the specially commissioned film Lumen, take the form of intersecting images with a prosaic performance by an actress recounting the voyages and lives of Indian servants and British masters in colonized India.
There are exquisite juxtapositions between old and new footage. British ladies drift around in white lace while their husbands play somewhere with croquet awaited by unnoticed brown bodies. Roots begin to grow over abandoned Raj buildings. But still the acrobat rides the leash of poverty on a tin hoop, moved with his agile foot, and the fishermen continue to cast their nets for a meager livelihood, in the days as now.
Alas, the actor insistently emphasizes the wrong words, almost only at the end. But Biswa’s visions rise above all in all their sad beauty. The color seeps into black and white, and vice versa; and the faces of the dead keep returning, fragments of colonial history winding into our time, the eternally circulating presence of the past.
Star rating (out of five)
Anicka Yi: In love with the world ★★★★
Sutapa Biswas: Lumen ★★★★