Mould in the Museum

Contemporary artists are making use of fungus as a pointed form of institutional critique

Esmeralda Valencia Linström, Bacteria sample (Untitled: smallholder, 2019, Phyllida Barlow), 2019, petri dish, agar and growths. Image courtesy the artist

A petri dish sits on a small plastic shelf jutting out from the wall. The translucent, beige-tinted gel that fills the bottom of the circular dish is dotted with a few bright yellow spots, several pinkish stains and a fuzzy purplish circle: a quite fetching combination of colours, given that it’s a growth of various moulds. The dish was a temporary component of artist Esmeralda Valencia Lindström’s exhibition ‘Move away from the aubergine’ in the Royal Academy’s Weston Studios in late 2019. The show consisted primarily of a set of oblong, minimal sculptures, video and minute gestures such as half-painted walls which, together, drew inspiration from the phenomenon of dry rot: a fungal infection of wood that can draw its needed moisture through tiny tendrils that are metres long, which is often unseen until well established. Lindström didn’t – as the RA was very keen to make clear in events around the exhibition – find any evidence of dry rot in the building itself, but she was drawn to the idea of a potential cohabitation with the structure, or as she described it to me, ‘an alternative system to the others at work within the institution’. This led to the series of petri dishes, a new one each week over the four weeks of the exhibition, whose growths were cultures of swabs taken from a range of artworks in the RA’s collection. The cheerful pink-purple growths described above were grown from spores taken from Phyllida Barlow’s sculpture untitled: smallholder, 2019. It is hard not to see the mould patterns that emerged as reflecting some innate aspect of the artworks from which they derived: Barlow’s as playful and balanced; the culture of Anthony Caro’s Mouchoir, 1990, was yellowing, with a jag of dots and a blob shape that seems to echo to sculpture’s tumbling components; the resulting pattern from a swab of Antony Gormley’s Lost Horizon, 2008, was, perhaps usurpingly, a few simple lines and quite dull. But overarching all this is the simple, offending presence of the mould itself, as something commonly discouraged and actively banished from art institutions. Each petri dish was also a commentary on the institution itself, bringing to light what’s growing unseen in the corners and on its artworks. Lindström is just one of several artists who have been making use of fungi and their mycelial tendrils to explore the limits of the preserve of the art institution as a supposed haven for the art object by exploring what actually is being preserved and propagated within its structures. Such fungal works also, in turn, raise questions about what we are looking at and why, fuzzing hierarchies of attention and the boundaries of aesthetics and disgust. There is an easy metaphor here: that, yes, something is rotten in today’s art institutions. Implicit in that, however, is a worldview in which rot, decay and such transformations are bad things that must be be halted or destroyed, rather than being a simple fact of life and something that is already happening anyway. What, we might ask instead, is being communicated by mould in the museum?

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Bianca Hlwya: Residual Yeast

Gossamer Fog, London

3 September – 3 October 2022

Bianca Hlwya, Thermaloop, 2022, detail. Image courtesy the artist and Gossamer Fog.

The whiff hits you before anything else, on the way down the stairs into the gallery: sharp, vinegary, suggestively pungent like rotting fruit. An insistent low, whining hum can be heard. Fruit flies fill the air. The source of all of these, and the monumental centrepiece of Bianca Hlywa’s exhibition ‘Residual Yeast’, is Thermaloop, 2022: a large, clear plastic vat on the floor, partially filled with a murky, deep amber-coloured liquid, and floating within it a fleshy, gelatinous mass. The mass, a similarly muddy shade of yellowed-brown, is perfectly rectangular, fitting exactly to the vat, while its surface is a terrain of endless wrinkles and patches of dark mould. Perched over the vat at the far end is a metal frame with a motor that winds up cloth straps to which the mass is stitched. The mass is slowly pulled up, dragged dripping out of the water and rolled into a sopping mess over a period of seven minutes, before rolling it back down again.

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Gala Porras-Kim: Out of an instance of expiration comes a perrennial showing

Gasworks, London, 27 January – 27 March 2022

Gala Porras-Kim, A terminal escape from the place that binds us, 2021. Ink on paper, and document. Image courtesy the artist and Gasworks; photograph Andy Keate.

Imagine being a ghost, hanging out in an afterlife all meticulously planned and set up for your comfort, with dried foods, pets in urns to keep you company, some jewellery and a few model boats. Then things start disappearing from your spectral sitting room, and all of a sudden you find yourself stuck in an anodyne, over-lit hallway somewhere in the middle of the British Museum for the rest of your undead life. Such are the problems explored here by Colombian artist Gala Porras-Kim through a set of drawings and installations which prod at the unthinking outcomes of museum conventions around collection and storage. Ancient Egyptians had many ideas about what happened after death, though anthropological display in far off lands was not one of them. Several of Porras-Kim’s works offer solutions of sorts: the large pencil drawing Sights beyond the grave, 2022, depicts a desert landscape, creased in such a way that would enable it to sit propped up around a small funerary statue of a nobleman named Nenkheftka, currently on display at the British Museum. In his spectral disorientation, the drawing is meant to provide the small gesture of comfort of a familiar view. The sculpture Sunrise for 5th-dynasty Sarcophagus from Giza at the British Museum, 2022, is a full-size Styrofoam replica of the coffin, with a semi-circle marked out on the ground indicating a roughly 50º rotation. Ancient Egyptians buried their dead facing the rising run in the East; Porras-Kim’s work simply proposes that the museum take this into account in its display – at the very least, as a gesture towards the context from which it was taken, but perhaps even as a matter of access to some kind of afterlife.

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Candice Lin: Pigs and Poison

Spike Island, Bristol, 5 February – 8 May

Candice Lin, Pigs and Poison (2022). Installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy the artist, Spike Island and François Ghebaly. Photograph by Max McClure

Twice a day, a trebuchet bombards the gallery. Solemnly set up by an invigilator donning a bacteria-patterned hooded cloak, the oversized weighted catapult is loaded with a small sphere consisting of lard, wax and a black pigment made with animal bones. On release, the lard-bone ball is slung in a lazy arc over a barrier bisecting the room, with a chained metal gate in the shape of large, staring eyes and topped with barbed wire. The ball thuds into the opposite wall and splats to the ground, leaving a dark, diarrhetic mess. This spectacular action at the start of Candice Lin’s ‘Pigs and Poison’ is just the most overt battlefield at play in the exhibition, which stages a fractured web of conflicting histories, ideologies and lifeforms. The unlikely causalities of these conflicts litter the show: in the painting Pig Carcass in the Arizona Desert, 2020, the titular pig lying in a damp clearing is swollen, rotten and grey, but is also dressed in shoes, jeans and a T-shirt. Dotted through the hallway are three Flesh Lumps, 2020, misshapen, pink and veiny blobs that at points sprout ears or half-formed limbs, lined with scabrous wounds. They might seem dead, but here, Lin seems to suggest, is where other lives begin.

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Jöelle Tuerlinckx: PLAN B – série b

Large Glass, London, 29 October 2021 – 29 January 2022

Joëlle Tuerlinckx, 4 carrés sur sol (‘d’après ‘4 carrés, ombre, soleil’ ou ‘premières photographies, 1979 – 2018’), 2021. Image courtesy the artist and Large Glass, photo: Stephen White and Co

A grid of paper sits in the middle of the floor, four squares each made up sheets of A4 paper with a variety of weights sitting on top: an old, mottled cylindrical weight, a smooth shiny silver one, a rock. This temporary sculpture taking up the floor of the front room, 4 carrés sur sol (4 squares on ground), 2021, is the first thing encountered in Jöelle Tuerlinckx’s small, unassumingly packed show ‘PLAN B – série b’ at Large Glass. Tellingly, though, the immediate impact is offset by a constellation of images and clippings that sit on a wall nearby: a sequence of five small images document four pieces of paper laid out on a flat rooftop, starting as a square and progressively moving further away from each other. The image sequence is repeated as a postcard version nearby and in a framed 2008 newspaper article on Tuerlinckx’s work (next to a drawing planning an earlier version of the work), as well as on a piece of paper detailing instructions on how to make the piece. Each is, apparently, a different iteration of Plan B série b (#1), 2021, carried out, repeated and replicated right in front of us, whilst also trailing off into the past suggesting that it might yet change again.

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Freelancer’s Delight

Rosa Aiello’s Caryatid Encounters

Rosa Aiello, Caryatod Encounters, 2021, installation view of digital video. Image courtesy the artist, and Arcadia Missa.

There are bloody thumb prints dotting the desk, with dark drips on a Post-it note and crimson smudges on the photocopied images of architectural caryatids that cover the desk’s surface. A woman clutches at her thumb, alternately covering it with her fingers to quell the bleeding, then nervously biting and picking at it to make it worse. “Of course I want to make you happy,” she placates an irate client over the phone, “I know you have other deadlines”. The bleeding isn’t stopping. “Look,” she emphasises. “I really want this. Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes, I can do that. I want to give you what you want. OK, tomorrow, I’ll get it to you tomorrow.” She ends the call, hangs her head and curses.

This is Helen: she’s a freelance advertising producer of some sort, who likes pastel blazers and button-up silk shirts, and lives in a light and airy first floor apartment in Berlin. And she likes cooking, in the pitifully small convection-oven that sits on a counter in her grimy kitchen; she once cooked a whole chicken in it, lasagne, birthday cakes and… cookies. She made cookies, would you like a cookie? This is the incessant refrain throughout Rosa Aiello’s taut and nerve-wracking 47-minute video Caryatid Encounters (2021), as Helen repeatedly practices and delivers her spiel for a series of prospective flatmates: “The wallpaper is all original, and we get lovely light in here in the mornings”; “I absolutely love the views here, you should see it at sunset, it’s just magic”; and on.

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Signs Taken for Wonders

London Roundup, October 2021

Torkwase Dyson: Liquid A Place, installation view, Pace Gallery London, photography by Damian Griffiths, image courtesy the artist

“No one / expects the violence of glances, of offices, / of walkways and train stations, of bathroom mirrors,” a woman states. I am standing in a dark basement, the small room filled out with the bulk of three identical black sculptures, something like oversized, stylized Us, that make up the setting for Torkwase Dyson’s performance Liquid a Place: A. Encounters (2021) at Pace Gallery. Standing in the shadowy gallery with these swelling, Minimalist behemoths feels unmoored, as if I’m zooming out from the minutiae of life for a moment. But the poem punctures that sensation with a precise description of casual dissolution, of “wingless days” and smiles of “aluminum teeth,” that seems meant for the renewed weirdness of standing solemnly with a group of strangers in a small indoor space. I listen for a good five minutes before a shadow moves on the floor from under one of the rounded corners of the sculpture, and I realize that what I thought was a recording was actually the Canadian poet Dionne Brand, right there, reading her poem “Ossuary I” (2010).

The mistake—misplacing liveness or just not registering what was right in front of me—was an unintentionally apt start for my attempts at exhibition-going. It turns out that the majority of art on display this autumn across London isn’t about subtlety, but presence, bald and puckered. From grandiose gestures that at this point feel grotesque or just tone-deaf (like Marina Abramović’s endless deaths at Lisson, or George Condo’s mildly deconstructed horny paintings at Hauser and Wirth), to Frieze London’s return after two years with a heavy preponderance of fey abstract paintings, to more pointed appearances (like the four women in the painting Republic #2 [2021] who disinterestedly oversee Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings’s Disgrace, a quietly epic dissection of conservative feminism at Arcadia Missa; or Claudette Johnson’s crackling and direct self-portraits at Hollybush Gardens) it seems a moment for galleries and artists to raise a hand, to note that they are, as Johnson’s show is appropriately titled, “Still Here.” Though stepping out, or indeed going into rooms and giant tents amidst the latest wave of the pandemic in the UK, is not without its dangers. Aside from the obvious health implications, there’s also a metaphorical risk, where gestures are taken to mean more they can bear, objects are given more authority than they are due, and signs, as Homi K. Bhabha long ago put it, are taken for wonders.

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Gelare Khoshgozaran

documentary, fantasy and dreamers as activists of our time

Gelare Khoshgozaran, Medina Wasl: Connecting Town (still), 2018, 16mm film transferred to video, sound, colour, 31 min

In late October last year, a neon-yellow envelope came through my letterbox. Inside was a thick black card embossed with the sentence, ‘The gradients of fascism are diverse in their predictable dullness’. On the other side was a business-card-size USB drive, printed with a patchy green pattern of what might be an ivy-covered wall, punctuated by a figure covering their face with a black-and-white mask printed with the features of director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The sentence and the image both appear in the nine-minute film contained on the drive, Men of My Dreams (2020), by Los Angeles-based Iranian artist and writer Gelare Khoshgozaran. It’s a patchwork of dream impressions and pointed observations, opening with a passenger’s view of a drive down a street in LA. Armoured vehicles and rubbish trucks line the road, while shopfronts are graffitied with ‘ACAB’, ‘BLM’; a bank on one street corner has ‘George Floyd’ written across its window. Subtitles describe the artist’s move from Iran to the city years earlier. ‘I miss my home, but everywhere is so ruined on this planet I feel at home anywhere.’ What follows is a set of a vignettes, the artist sporting a range of masks depicting the titular men that appear in her dreams: poet Federico García Lorca, singer Farhad Mehrad. In one scene, she sits by the sea holding a mask of theorist Edward Said in front of her face, her hand covering his mouth as if stifling a giggle. In another, she mimes playing a game of tennis, the mask she wears remaining an unidentifiable blur.

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Between the Gaps

Ines Schaber’s projects look at the realities of how archives are used, and ask how we might consider our own habits of looking amid the presence of traumatic photography

Stefan Pente, Ines Schaber, Unnamed Series, 2008, installation view in Ines Schaber: Notes on Archives, 2018 (Camera Austria, Graz). Photo: Markus Krottendorfer. Courtesy the artist and Camera Austria, Graz

This is a story with many beginnings, and many possible endings. One starting point might be the Hopi people and their culture, who have for thousands of years been part of the arid southwest of what became known as the North American continent: a culture of oral histories and traditions based around stewardship of the land. Another starting point might be the European and Anglo settlers and homesteaders moving West across the continent during the nineteenth century to claim land, and the accompanying treaties and betrayals that saw Native Americans pushed into reservation silos and forced into assimilating with these newcomers, and their sense of property and propriety. Or it might begin more specifically in December 1895, when a young German man was brought to Hopiland by a Mennonite missionary. The German brought with him a handheld camera, taking a few dozen hurried and out-of-focus shots of what he saw in the villages, including several of the Hopi’s dances and seasonal rituals. By the 1930s, in response to the commercial exploitation and wide publication of sacred imagery, the Hopi had banned visitors from taking photographs entirely; and though the German man never publicised his photos from that trip – and asked that they never be published – after his death, in 1926, they were printed in books, in 1939, 1988 and 1995; and even after requests from the Hopi to cease their publication, they were published again in 1998, and yet again in 2018.

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