Anicka Yi talks personal taste

The South Korean artist’s multisensory work draws together feminism, fragrance, sculpture and biology, and she loves renegade tech podcasts and lashings of pearls. Portraits by Weston Wells

Anicka Yi in her New York apartment
Anicka Yi in her New York apartment | Image: Weston Wells

My personal style signifier is a set of pearls. I have a fairly maximalist approach to my style, with some edge – but always with pearls. My current go-to is a necklace of tiny seed pearls from a New York shop called Catbird. I also have a Christopher Kane purse that’s dripping with pearls – I love it for its unique “orifice” shape. $425 for similar; £745 for similar;

The last thing I bought and loved was Santal liquid soap by Lightwell Co, which smells like a camphorous pine but less sharp – it’s one of my favourite woody scents. $22 for 350ml;

The Christopher Nemeth store in Tokyo’s Aoyama district
The Christopher Nemeth store in Tokyo’s Aoyama district

On my wish list is a mini-compound for a studio/lab/house, probably in upstate New York, where I could have a laboratory with a lot of natural light; grow my own food; and have one of those great composting toilets. That would be my dream.

I have a collection of test tubes and petri dishes filled with bacteria on agar – samples for my work. I also have quite a bit of deer urine in my fridge, but we won’t go into that.


The best book I’ve read in the past year is After Ethnos by Tobias Rees. He’s mapped out the evolutionary transformation of humans and I think it’s an important book for the next stages of our species.

I wish I’d invented the olfactometer created by a scientist named Joel Mainland, a deeply fascinating machine that can essentially digitise smell. He punches the word “strawberries” into his iPhone and the olfactometer transmits that smell. The same with grass, or hay, or chocolate. Joel did a performance at the launch of my new perfume series, Biography, at Dover Street Market last month. I think his machine is truly groundbreaking. For instance, most cancers have a distinct aroma, and scientists at MIT are trying to get AI to smell you. Imagine – you could be having your coffee and your phone tells you: “You might want to get this checked out; you are exhibiting odours similar to stage-one skin cancer.” $250 for 10ml EDP;;

Yi relaxing at home
Yi relaxing at home | Image: Weston Wells

The podcast I’m listening to is Future Thinkers. It’s about new technologies, but it’s primarily philosophy-based – about how these big ideas are impacting our civilisation. It’s hosted by these two young tech renegades.

The grooming staple I’m never without is a silk scrunchie from Slip. I have to repress my very sad hair. I never wear it down; it’s always got to be up somewhere. £39 for six;

After Ethnos by Tobias Rees
After Ethnos by Tobias Rees

The last music I downloaded was by Teodor Currentzis – his Essentials. He’s a contemporary Greek conductor who has just rearranged Verdi’s Requiem for The Shed arts centre in New York. He’s a real maverick who has upended classical music.

My style icon is Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. I think she is one of the most important theorists from the 20th and 21st centuries. One of her quotes that resonates with me is that she always wears black because black is the colour of refusal. That’s good enough for me.

Her Christopher Kane purse
Her Christopher Kane purse | Image: Weston Wells

An unforgettable place I’ve travelled to in the past year is Roses in Spain. I went there to visit the elBulliFoundation, on the site of the former restaurant. The place is just stunning. There’s a beautiful little beach and you drive through a national park to get there. Ferran Adrià is building a museum of innovation and creativity and he has asked me to contribute a permanent installation. I’m thinking about genetically engineering some mushrooms. I’m hoping to somehow merge the concept of a fungal internet with our human internet. But these are very early stages, so we don’t know if we can pull it off.

The best souvenir I’ve brought home is inspiration. I brought masses of undulating inspiration back with me from Roses and it’s been carrying me for months. I also have a figurine depicting a gynaecological examination between doctor and patient, from Corcovado gift shop in Rio de Janeiro.

Bose 700 headphones, £350
Bose 700 headphones, £350 | Image: Weston Wells

The best gift I’ve given recently was a 3D-printed mushroom perfume bottle, which I made in my studio. It looks like a veiled lady mushroom with a white lacy skirt. It was for Ferran Adrià and his wife Isabel Pérez, because they were intrigued by an 8ft-tall version of this mushroom in my 2017 Guggenheim show.

And the best gift I’ve received recently is an invitation to meet the director of the filmParasite, Bong Joon-ho, at the Hammer Museum’s Gala. I appreciate his meticulous filmmaking methodology and the grandeur of style. His is a bombastic, booming cinematic voice. The gift was from Miky Lee, the vice chair of CJ Entertainment, the film’s producer.

Her 10-year-old fig tree
Her 10-year-old fig tree | Image: Weston Wells

The tech innovation I’m most excited by is a new gene-editing tool called prime editing. It purports to be better than the CRISPR technique, which is enabled and facilitated by bacteria. It’s not something I use directly in my work, but I’m hoping to move in that direction, working with a synthetic biologist. It might help us with the mushroom cultivation.

The gadget I couldn’t do without is headphones – a noise-cancelling pair by Bose. I’ve had mine for about five years; they are almost stuck to my ears. They’ll serve me well in the apocalypse… drown out all the screams. Bose 700, £350;

Lightwell Co Santal Hand Wash, $22 for 350ml
Lightwell Co Santal Hand Wash, $22 for 350ml | Image: Weston Wells

An indulgence I would never forgo is eye cream. I’m pretty promiscuous with products. I’m currently using one by Nourish, which glides on like a chapstick. Before that I was using Drunk Elephant eye cream. The greasier, the more emollient, the better. Drunk Elephant Eye Cream, £54 for 15ml; Nourish Eye Cream, £30 for 10ml;

If I didn’t live in New York, I’d live in Tokyo. I love it because as a common inhabitant, you get so much more in return for your participation than other big cities. There’s an ethos of collective pleasure and enjoyment, not just for selfish individual tastes. For example, I went to a bar that doesn’t allow speaking loudly or cackling, so that the noise level of the space allows for all conversations to be heard among its patrons.

Yi’s freshwater pearl necklace
Yi’s freshwater pearl necklace | Image: Weston Wells

The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a black organza skirt by Danish designer Cecilie Bahnsen. I love the volume; it’s shamelessly girly, from another era – an update on Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It has a beautiful silhouette. £1,655 for similar;;

I would never part with my house plants. They are part of my extended family. I’ve had a fig tree for about 10 years. People are always astonished that it’s so healthy in a New York apartment, but it’s one of my most faithful companions.

Yi’s test tubes
Yi’s test tubes | Image: Weston Wells

The last meal that truly impressed me was in Barcelona at Dos Palillos. The food is a fusion of Japanese and Spanish – a sort of “molecular tapas”. The meal started with a sake cocktail infused with pine and served in a wooden box with a raw Marcona almond on top. It was exquisite, but then I had these piney resinous burps. Contemporary cuisine often shares values with modernism – it’s cuisine for cuisine’s sake, intellectual food that doesn’t factor in how it makes us feel later. But at Dos Palillos, the metabolic interjection was very positive.

The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Rosemarie Trockel. I’ve been influenced by her practice from a very early age; when I first encountered her work, that’s when it dawned on me what art is. I love her late ceramic pieces. She has been practising for decades and keeps getting better.

Rei Kawakubo – Yi’s style icon
Rei Kawakubo – Yi’s style icon | Image: Paolo Roversi

My favourite room is my bedroom. I like the morning light in there and all the nice textures – my Turkish rug, the Danish dresser and the lamps I bought from the Noguchi Museum in New York. I refer to it as my “bed office”, as it’s where I send emails and do my Spanish studies. It gives me the illusion that I’m relaxing while I’m working. I hate relaxing. I don’t like it at all. I reject it. So working in bed is a compromise.

If I weren’t an artist, I would be a synthetic biologist, designing life right now in a petri dish. Some might say they are playing God, which is debatable, but in my experience synthetic biologists are very careful not to come across as too grandiose or nefarious.

Kiss My Aura by artist Rosemarie Trockel
Kiss My Aura by artist Rosemarie Trockel | Image: Tom VanEynde, © Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019 courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

If I had to limit my shopping to one neighbourhood in one city, I’d choose Aoyama in Tokyo. It reminds me of a cosy cul-de-sac in a tiny suburb, nestled in a big, bustling city. There’s Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Christopher Nemeth – the late English designer who relocated about 30 years ago and made these incredible clothes from what looks like a hallucination of a cobbler’s workshop. Christopher Nemeth, +813-3401 2123;

My wellbeing guru is Pilates instructor Jessie Zalla. She has taught me how important the feet are; they are all-connecting – the legs, the back, the neck, the head. We do amazing foot exercises.


My big prediction for 2020 is a depressing one. It’s American presidency related… I have a very strong sense that there is going to be some disastrous outcome. But in terms of art, we are going to see a lot more work that doesn’t look like art or announce itself as art. A lot of young artists are experimenting with more volatile, rogue materials, which aren’t part of an archival canon. It’s a new genre that I would call metabolic art, and includes artists like Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

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