Feature Image: Feminist Mycology, 2021, by Paulina Olowski.
We are in the age of the mushroom. These mysterious and magnificent organisms are found almost everywhere –in the woods, fields, forests, gardens, flower beds, and public parks. You don’t have to be a mycologist to notice how fungi have risen to stardom status. And, though in most places mushroom foraging season/time has come and gone, ‘tis in fact their perpetual season –their moment.
Fungi are ancient organisms, existing in a world of tremendous diversity. For over 4000 years many cultures have sought mushrooms for both physical and spiritual purposes, for medicinal and ritual.
Fungi were distinguished with their own taxonomic kingdom in 1969, belonging to the Eukaryotic, one of three domains of biological classification. Estimates vary, but there could be between 2.2 and 2.8 million species of fungi across all temperate zones of the earth with diverse flora and fauna.
Thanks to Paul Stamet and the movie, “The Fantastic Fungi,” there is growing fascination and respect for how mushrooms benefit our health and well-being. After all, their reproductive spores exist in the air we breathe, on the surfaces, and in the soil under our feet. They are everywhere!
In addition, fungi play an essential part of the Earth’s degeneration and regeneration. They decompose organic debris, enriching surrounding soil and exchange nutrients with plants, thus allowing all living organisms to thrive. We, as a human species can learn from this mutually beneficial and organic exchange, sharing in earth’s infinite wisdom.
Artists share in this wisdom and what they create reflects philosophical attitudes, political currents, and scientific knowledge of our times –our zeitgeist. Arts are not a diversion from reality, they are another way of seeing the reality, the nature of life. Art communicates in its own language reflecting on and illuminating our culture. With rising visibility and popularity of mushrooms in scientific, spiritual, health and wellness communities, and culinary circles it is not surprising to see artists drawing inspiration from the forms, uses, and power of mushrooms. Mushrooms, like art, can widen our perspective on ‘true’ reality.
For example, the 20th century American avant-garde composer, writer, and artist John Cage (1912 -1992) was an avid, curious, amateur mushroom forager whose enthusiasm led to recording a sound piece on fungi, and published The Mushroom Book (1972) co-authored with Alexander H. Smith and in artistic collaboration with Lois Long. It was expanded and reissued as a boxed set in 2020.
Artist Roxy Paine approaches his sculptures as an equally attentive naturalist, emulating natural history museum displays. Beginning with casts from organic specimens, often replicas of replicas, his process yields deceptively life like form that merge the natural and the artificial.
Roxy Paine, New Fungus Crop, 1999.
Before and ever since the popular reception of Michael Pollen’s book How to Change Your Mind there has been an increasing interest in and study of psilocybin, a natural occurring psychedelic prodrug compound produced by more than 200 species of fungi. Healing practitioners and centers are fully aware of its multitude of beneficial uses in treatments for addiction, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more. In and outside medical contexts, many people claim its use induces vivid recall of long forgotten memories, as well as an enhanced perceptivity and sense of belonging to nature.
GAMA, Zucht (Thriving), 2016.
The work of Mongolian born artist GAMA embodies this deep connection, invoking his Shamanic roots. Mushroom imagery bridges the natural and the spirit worlds in surrealistic, dreamlike, expansive landscapes. In Thriving, two men stand below a field of stars and in a field of vibrant mushrooms in electrifying colors –as if to say, when connected to the universe and the earth we, too, shall thrive.
April Dawn Parker, Circle Around Me, 2021
April Dawn Parker’s triptych, Circle Around Me, from her “Cathedral” series is inspired by 15th century altarpiece paintings. Her aspiration is to illuminate the viewer to behold nature in the same high esteem and reverence as religious figures were in the altarpiece paintings of the Middle Ages, elevating our natural environment to the most sacred. In her words, Circle Around Me, “is inspired by the work of Suzanne Simard and the rain forest of Southeast Alaska. In evolution, fungi developed alongside primitive plant forms while trees came later as a more complex plant form; mushrooms and their roots are given central prominence here. The underground mycelium network (i.e. the roots of the mushrooms) functions as an “underground superhighway” for information, food, and water that they transport between trees.”
With sharp-wit and wry humor, Nina Katchadourian might take us closer to earth while still stressing the fun in fungi. Her renovated mushrooms are decorated with polka dots reminiscent of the Twister game originating in the psychedelic era of the 60s.
Nina Katchadourian, Renovated Mushroom (Tip-Top Tire Rubber Patch Kit), 1998.
Carsten Holler, The Upside-Down Mushroom Room, circa 2000
Upside Down Room with children
Carsten Holler, Giant Triple Mushrooms, 2010
The Giant Mushroom Sculptures by Carsten Holler synthesizes many artistic incorporations of fungi. His oversized sculptures are modeled true to life and are playful at the same time. For more than two decades, mushrooms have been a recurring subject in is creative investigation. His imaginative installations take the viewer into an ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ state of mind. Training as a scientist with a doctorate in biology attuned Holler to the human species proprioception and interconnectedness to nature.
Seana Gavin, Galactic mushroom highway, 2019.
Seana Gavin’s colorful collages embrace the psychedelic aspects of fungi. The viewer can suspend place and time to an imagined magical mushroom trip. We join her inner journeys to mythical paradises, an otherworldly, interconnected universe where all beings embrace and communicate through a positive energetic network.
Sean Gavin, Mushrooms at the end of the rainbow, 2020.
Contemporary uses of mycelium keep proliferating. Fungi have become instrumental in creating both artistic and structural materials from pigments to paper to leather to bricks.
Visionary scientist and artist Phil Ross sees fungi as beyond an inspirational subject to his art. He grows and transforms mycological organisms into sculptural and architectural materials. His furniture and sculpture are not only edible (and super cool!), they are biodegradable and flame-retardant. His myco-masterpieces that began with one brick led to building a sculptural ‘teahouse.’ Participants sit inside and drink cups of tea made from the ‘mycotectural’ building itself. Eventually the entire structure is ingested by its audience.
An endless imagination and curious mind propelled Ross to explore further potential for this innovative and sustainable material and he founded MycoWorks. It has appealed to the fashion industry. Stella McCartney and Hermes design high couture made from mycelium ‘leather’ (a product engineered by Ross’s company.)
Phil Ross, (MycoWorks Myco’leather’)
Phil Ross, Mycotectural Alpha (2009) A teahouse made of reishi mushroom.
Nicki Green, ‘n (chai), 2016.
The art of mycology is more serious for Nicki Green, an artist whose work connects a personal symbolism between Judaism and queer culture and the persecution that has plagued both. Her ceramic poisonous and prosthetic mushroom sculptures may resemble grotesque and devouring aliens or deformed, wounded creatures, alluding to dark stereotypes and atrocities. In form and title, one work refers to The Poisonous Mushroom, a book from the canon of Nazi propaganda that likens Jews to poisonous mushrooms hiding surreptitiously in society. Green’s mushroom imagery can also function decoratively. Linear depictions of chantrelles grace the surfaces of her clay bricks, serving as queer replacement for flowers. Paralleling the natural degenerative and regenerative process of fungi, Green’s works are signifiers of history forgotten and resurrected to retell.
Morel Figure with Prosthesis
The Peruvian artist Lucia Monge and the FIBRE Colectivo created the mycelium installation, Desbosque, a fungi broadcast of the deforestation in Ucayali, Peru. This project combines both science and art and technology to illustrate the destruction deforestation causes to the environment.
As visualized by these artists, we see that mushrooms can create delirium, delight, and death. Wild and cultivated they are both delicious and healthy. The search and discovery in the wild that is part of foraging echoes the magic and surprise conveyed through the minds, hands, and eyes of the artists.
I sometimes imagine what it would be like to live in the imagined realms of works of art. What reverie and euphoria to exist in the world of, for example, Seana Gavin’s collages where harmony, magic, mysticism and tranquility abide.
Seana Gavin, Fairyville: Homage to Richard Dadd, 2010.
Postscript – Interesting factoids:
H.G. Wells and Jules Verne both wrote of fantasy giant mushroom forests in the center of the earth.
Mushrooms have hundreds of ‘sexes’ and reproduce by fusing together.
Images like this by EP Bouverie (c 1875) took inspiration from the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland (Credit: The George Eastman Museum)