Synthesizing Anicka Yi’s ‘You Can Call Me F’

“So every day, I exfoliate and shower with my Resurfacing Microbrasion System—it’s a tiny granule, and I file it with a very rich hydronic serum that has pigment. It also has mulberry, bearberry, and chamomile. Your skin will actually look more soft and less pink afterward. Then I also wash my face with my Universal Anti-Aging Cleanser With Olive Oil—it takes off makeup, too. Never go to bed with makeup on. It could be 3am—even if it’s just three hours of sleep—I never go to bed with my makeup on. It’s got pollution and free radicals in it from the environment so you should be taking that off and using an antioxidant to combat those effects.

When I’m out of the shower, the first thing I put on my skin is Patricia Wexler Acnescription Overnight Acne Repair Lotion [ed note: currently unavailable]. I use a retinol three times a week—right now it’s the Natura Bissé Diamond Extreme. I think that it’s great, but you have to know how much your skin can tolerate. I have a lot of red in my face, so I’m careful. If you’re not so red, you can use it a little more, especially because a lot of the new formulas are non-irritating. I also love the Natura Bissé Diamond Ice-Lift. A day before a red carpet event, you put it all over your face, leave it on for 10 minutes to dry, and it peels off like cellophane. It looks like you had a facelift. I try to keep two jars around at all times. If you have puffy eyes or lip lines, it’s like a miracle…

But at the same time, I’m also very lazy.” [emphasis added]— Dr. Patricia Wexler, Dermatologist, Into the Gloss

As Oscar Wilde once quipped, America’s “youth is now one of her oldest and most hallowed traditions.” This is a truth hardly unacknowledged. Look at the headlines in the Huffington Post: “America’s Perspective on Aging in a Youth-Obsessed Culture,” “Here’s Everything That’s Wrong With Our ‘Under 30’ Obsession,” “Millennials’ Youth Obsession is Stressing Them Out!” It is taken for granted that we obsessively value the young. But what is it about youth that so captures our imaginations?

We want clean and smooth surfaces, unmarred by wrinkly ridges or hyperpig- mentation. We want the endurance and the maximal oxygen uptake of a young adult. We clean, exfoliate, tone, dab serum, apply a mask, drink green juice. We embalm our youthful look in retinols and hyaluronic acid and preserve our features by plumping up with collagen. Maybe she was born with it. Maybe she #wokeuplikethat. Maybe, instead, she labors day in and day out, with the notion that if she works hard enough, some natural and essential womanly self will emerge: clean, tight, refreshed, and pure. It will seem as if she is “lazy;” as if no work has been put in at all.

But this ideal woman is an illusion. She is a body without organs, a Form that masks female biology. What seems to be the preservation of a feminine essence is actually the containment of our female humanity. It is the opposition of the ideal to the actuality, the woman to the female. The irony of this aesthetic is that it doesn’t want the natural. It restrains nature, even as we fetishize her: witness the Bobbi Brown (no-makeup makeup) look or the ubiquity of surf spray.

The aesthetic is defined by containment. It is about scraping away our rough, pore-ridden exterior to reveal fresh, baby-soft skin, while lathering ourselves with creams and pitera essences to protect us. From what? From the sun, from the air, from the cold, from the heat, from air-conditioned dehydration and tropical humidity, from time.

In Truman Capote’s words, “real beauty… [is] the scrupulous method of plain good taste and scientific groom- ing.” Capote’s “real beauty” contains, and thus erases, the female through a violent regimentation of the body. It’s an asceticism disguised by the language of indulgence. It doesn’t feel austere to rip the hair out of your skin; it costs $75 and your spa’s candles smell like roses.

This aesthetic is ingrained in our collective consciousness. Not only is it a social fact, but both men and women happily participate in reproducing these values. It is not imposed top-down; there is a circular process to it. Our collective consciousness sees waxing as indulgence, rather than austerity, and in so doing manufactures a desire for it. Within the discourse of female containment, violences on the body are reinterpreted as necessary, and even pleasurable, demands. Violence proliferates around the womanly body in today’s pornography. This violence parallels the self-violence necessitated by female containment. In fact, woman—the regimented and scrutinized female—finds the closest realization of her ideal in pornography.


Anicka Yi, ‘You Can Call Me F.’ Photos courtesy The Kitchen

This spring, artist Anicka Yi’s exhibition at The Kitchen, You Can Call Me F, capitalized on the tension between the female and her containment, embracing those elements of the female erased, masked, and contained by our contemporary aesthetic. The show’s two major themes, growth and scent, grapple with the erasure of the female in the collective consciousness. Far from the typical white cube, Yi’s exhibition is dark and stuffy, an incubator for bacteria, mold and smell. The entrance contains a glass vitrine holding a slab of agar, over which the work’s title is written in a spotty red smear. It resembles menstrual blood, but is in fact a kind of paint made from the distillation of bacteria collected from the cheek and vaginal swabs of 100 female artists. It spells out “You Can Call Me F.” The vitrine contains and encloses “F,” this female collective. During production, the artist could not prevent unwanted molds from the surrounding air from settling on the agar and beginning to grow. Without the vitrine, the surrounding environment advances inexorably, swallowing up the “F.” The vitrine both preserves and contains “F.” Past the entrance, five dimly lit quarantine tents stand in the space. Each contains an artificial ecology—simultaneously an object of separation, observation, and protection. Standing inside the dark, high-ceilinged gallery, the viewer is confronted with a slightly rotten, damp smell. A diffuser inside one of the quarantine tents releases a thin fog with a scent derived from the female collective bacteria used in the vitrine.Scent is difficult to contain. It unrelentingly advances and seeps into every available space. A second diffuser in the gallery releases a seemingly scentless mist. This, Yi claims, is what the Gagosian Gallery—a “patriarchal space”— smells like. Just as The Kitchen’s dark, womb-like space contrasts with the over-exposed sterility of the Gagosian, the “natural” female odor in one part of Yi’s exhibition opposes the synthetic, sterile, “patriarchal” scent of the Gagosian. The female fermenting smell repulses, while the “male” Gagosian scent remains imperceptible. Synthetic, sterile, male scents, like Yi’s Gagosian diffuser, claim to neutralize these odors, while only masking them. As recently as the 1980s, perfumeries profited off of “big” scents—YSL’s Opium or Dior’s Poison left visible trails of jasmine and incense or coriander and tuberose. In 2003, however, a brand named CLEAN was introduced, “as the antithesis to over-complicated, overpowering designer scents flooding the market.” Their line includes several fragrances: Air, Skin, Rain, Fresh Laundry, and Shower Fresh. From Ralph Lauren’s ‘Cool Water’ (2004) to the entire line of CB I Hate Perfume (founded in 2004), these minimalist perfumes conceal the natural scents of the female body even as they claim to be replicating them— CLEAN Perfumes’ ‘Skin’ replaces bodily odor with an idealized, synthetic representation of how a body “should” smell. One of Yi’s “ecologies” features long, rolled-out pieces of a SCOBY (Sym- biotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) used to produce kombucha, the trendy health drink. When a SCOBY is placed in black or green tea, it both ferments the tea (creating kombucha) and reproduces itself. For this reason, kombucha producers refer to their SCOBYs as “Mothers.” The “Mothers” that Yi uses echo the reproduction of “female” bacteria within the vitrine of the exhibition’s entrance. Unlike the live bacteria in the agar, however, the SCOBYs within the quarantine tent are desiccated. The confines of the quarantine tent remove the reproductive potential of the SCOBYs and leave them hung out to dry. Another tent in Yi’s exhibition holds a bucket filled with synthetic beads. They are hard and small but, when exposed to moisture (Yi occasionally comes into the gallery to water them), become full and soft. Designed to hold perfumes and slowly diffuse them as air fresheners, these beads become smoother and rounder as they expand, growing like a pregnant belly but remaining constrained by their synthetic membrane. These distended spheres will never burst open or give birth because of the sterile strength of their material. Like the SCOBYs, the reproductive potential of the beads is inhibited by their synthetic (male) confines. The outline of a woman’s body, so long as it conforms to our smooth expectations, is beautiful. We can trace it in our mind: her rounded breasts and hips, the dip of a waist, the valley of her spine against her back. This outline constrains the female body just as the synthetic casing of the beads contains their reproductive capacity. We don’t mind if the bead expands; we only care if it bursts open, revealing the fleshy confusion beneath. A woman is a circumscribed figure, like a marble statue. Her flesh is there, but she is utterly smooth and flawless, without an interior. She is a non-productive, non-reproductive, body without organs. This body without organs cannot possibly be female. We want the mons pubis without the hair and the breasts without the nipple. Everything has to be tight and clean, contained within their proper circumscription. Yi’s quarantine tents delineate spaces of female containment. In their capacity as containment vessels of the female, Yi genders the synthetic tents as male. Yet their bounds are transparent. The viewer is encouraged to examine the contents. The circumscribed woman is confined, but it is the constant monitoring of her form, both by herself and others, that reproduces her limits. She shies away from producing or releasing anything from her body; she polices her own boundaries. She conceals her periods with deodorized tampons and even stops menstruation by never taking a week off from birth control. She gets anxious about defecating in bathroom stalls. Childbirth’s outpouring of blood, the vaginal tearing, and the afterbirth of the placenta and fetal membrane transgress the boundaries between body and body, person and person. We find it disgusting. For this reason, it only acceptably occurs in the sterilized hospital room, under observation. If we have this squeamishness towards the female, how does one make sense of the abundance of graphic images of the female body? In a society where porn abounds, female genitalia hardly causes one to bat an eye. But are those vulvas—symmetrical, hyper-hygienic, and hairless—really female? Over the course of the twentieth century, armpit hair, and later leg hair, gradually became unacceptable, reflecting the increasing cultural imperative of female containment. Whereas the porn of the 1970s included female bodies, full bush and all, the mid-’90s saw the gradual elimination of pubic hair. The Internet exposed porn to the sanitizing light of mass culture and, in the newly open marketplace, it adapted itself to the demands of the consumer. The American eye molded porn, populating its imagery with the waxed, clean, tight woman. Suddenly available for mass consumption, the pornographic body was forced to contain and remove any traces of the female. Although full pubic hair was the norm earlier in Playboy’s history, “by the 1990s, more than a third of the models appeared to have removed some of their pubic hair. In the new millennium, less than 10 percent of nude models now sport the full pubic bush, while a third remove their hair partially and one-quarter remove it completely.” In Kim Kardashian’s words, women “shouldn’t have hair anywhere but their heads.” This produced a circular effect. As the aesthetic of porn changed to adapt to consumer tastes, those same consumers of porn (male and female) became more aware of this last bodily frontier, the vulva. This awareness opens the female body to new possibilities and demands. Waxing, vajacials, and labioplasty are increasingly available and increasingly normalized.

As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, today “the bad is what threatens our health and well-being,” not morality. These radically unhealthy practices disguise themselves under a rhetoric of health and well-being. Rather than an ethic of health through moderation, it demands excess. Sleeping for only three hours is not a matter of concern, but taking off your makeup beforehand is. Foundation has free radicals in it, after all. The effacement of the female, which aspires towards the pornographic womanly ideal, necessitates violence. To shift and compartmentalize the disorder inherent to our physical life requires a dehumanization of the self. This dehumanization does not only exist in the realm of ideals, but requires a physical process of destruction. Juicing, detoxing, extracting, and waxing are all ascetic violences against the self. Beyond those “benign” regimes of beauty exist darker levels of the aesthetic’s demands: starv- ing oneself, forcing oneself to vomit, injecting synthetic materials into one’s face, cutting away the fat around one’s muscles. The more violence inflicted on the female body to conform to the womanly aesthetic, the less female and the less human she becomes. The pornographic body was always intended to satisfy a wide range of desires. Mankind has always included those who desired violent sex, anal sex, kink. But as the “ordinary” womanly body increasingly resembles the sanitized pornographic body, her dehumanization opens the body up to that same range of sexual acts. Once porn is consumed en masse, it introduces its wide range of fetishes to the public. Anything from (consensual) heterosexual anal sex to choking becomes normalized. Like a plastic doll, a woman’s body can now be used for any sex act. These newly acceptable and desired acts may serve the ostensibly “healthy” end of discharging repression, but on their face, these acts pose potential risks that are unhealthy for the body. As the pornographic body—and the womanly body in general—has become “cleaned up,” violence in sexual acts has proliferated. Aesthetics are not only part of a superstructure divorced from the materiality of experience. Through the sanitization of the body, her humanity has been effaced and she has become an object. The circumscribed woman just needs to smile, to consent enthusiastically, to keep herself tight and clean and fresh. She is happy to say “YES,” to acquiesce, to put herself in ever more degrading positions—because if she’s not female, she’s not even human.

Megan Stater is a junior at Columbia University, double majoring in Religion and Philosophy. Her interests include choral singing, endurance running, beauty blogs, and not postmodernism.