Contemporary artists are making use of fungus as a pointed form of institutional critique
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?
Mushrooms and the fungal imaginary are hard to miss at the moment. Biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life, 2020, was an unlikely bestseller, introducing readers to the hidden connections of fungus and its key roles in many aspects of natural history that were previously unknown. Some readers might be more familiar with its ideas in science fiction: the space-hopping mechanism for the starship of Star Trek: Discovery, 2017–, is enabled by the ‘mycelial network’, with one character being named after mycologist Paul Stamets. In the art world, we can find the fruiting bodies of fungi sprouting, both as imagery and literally, from artworks by Rachel Adams, Adham Faramaway, Lilah Fowler, Marie Lexmond, Nour Mobarak, Seung-Hwan Oh, Bones Tan Jones and Kiyan Williams, to name just a few; or we could point to the artist duo Fertile Ground’s London event ‘Fungi Fest’ in 2019, or 2020’s more literal ‘Mushrooms’ group exhibition at Somerset House. All of these indicate the far-reaching spread of fungi as primarily a conceptual prop of sorts, a gesture invoking complex, largely unseen processes of communication and change. What interests me here, though, is not just fanciful or oversized depictions of mushrooms or works tangentially inspired by the infinite branching of mycelia, but the more practical and structural problems raised by cultivating and growing fungi within art spaces: the growths as a revelation of a realpolitik of contemporary culture.
In 2019, one wing of the KW Institute in Berlin was lined floor-to-ceiling with plastic sheeting. The title for Steve Bishop’s exhibition ‘Deliquescing’ referred to something becoming liquid, used when a fruiting mushroom breaks down. Down a hallway, made eerily dreamlike by the light diffused through the plastic, was a room kept at 15°C and at 95% humidity, one wall lined with shelves holding dozens of small, plastic-wrapped lumps. Out of some of these grew irregular white puffy globes: lion’s mane, an edible mushroom that has also long been used in traditional Chinese medicines because it is purported to have a positive effect on the growth of brain cells. Another part of the show involved a video depicting an abandoned mining town in Canada which, alongside the continual sprouting of the mushrooms, seemed to suggest a sort of resignation to decay, but the potential for regrowth as well, albeit in highly controlled circumstances: the sheeting was tightly sealed to prevent any moisture or mould spores from affecting the building. Each week, however, gallery staff were able to take home and cook the overabundant mushrooms grown in the exhibition.
Lion’s mane mushrooms make another appearance in the current group exhibition ‘Symbionts’ at the MIT List Visual Arts Center as part of the sculpture Memory (Study #2), 2016, by Candice Lin. A small, vibrant red coral-like lattice structure holds within it a plastic bag out of which sprout the mushrooms. Here, though, it is not the mushrooms feeding the staff, but some kind of inverse: the list of materials for the work includes ‘communal piss of the people hosting the work’, their combined urine hydrating the fungi that grows during the show. While Lin has staged this work in small gallery spaces, the presence in a larger institution invokes more implicit questions of power: how such urine is gathered isn’t detailed, but I would doubt that the curators or directors are the ones regularly pissing in a pot to add to a vat for the work; more likely it is the invigilators and assistants who are doing the work.
Such quiet commentary perhaps highlights the potential of this current strain of artistically encouraged fungal occupation, in that it invokes the ecological questions posed by artists like Annika Yi and Pierre Huyghe, but perhaps with a more pointed and political intent, drawing on the ecology and microbiome of the institution itself as a source for the work. Such work might have more in common with the more contemporary takes on institutional critique found in practices such as the trails of complicity created by Cameron Rowland, or the ritualistic ‘healing the museum’ events of Grace Ndiritu: now that previous forms of critique have been fully absorbed by the art institution, when questioning display techniques or funders’ ethics achieves little, these different forms of occupation can draw out, test and stretch the institution and its uses in new ways. The growth of mould here taps into the regimes of hygiene and ‘health & safety’ that guide these institutions, where the barrier that defines them isn’t just one of admitting the right objects, in defining what is art, but also keeping dirt, bacteria, fungi ostensibly outside their walls too. In an essay for the book accompanying the 2021 exhibition ‘Sex Ecologies’ at Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway, academic Mel Y Chen asks, ‘What agencies are made to (dis)appear under the deadening illusions of colonial cultural production, occluding what is very much there, alive and febrile?’ These moulds are one multi-filamented response to that question, asking us to pay attention to what we might allow to thrive.
A series of display refrigeration units were spread out in one room in Goldsmiths as part of its MA degree show in 2019, a fuggy, pungent smell filling the air: on each shelf was a squat, grey round of cheese. The wheels appeared edible enough, perhaps similar to a Caerphilly or Tomme de Savoie with their dusty rinds. Accompanying Avril Corroon’s installation Spoiled Spores, 2019, was a series of posters, designed like an advert in a luxury food shop, complete with tastefully arranged grapes and crackers, detailing the cheese’s quality ingredients, including ‘stachybotrys black mould from a three-bedroom tenement, rented at twelve thousand six hundred pounds per annum’. A video on a TV monitor in a nearby fridge backs this up, with imagery of the damp basements where the mould has been found, and then a bowl of creamy-white curd with black flecks being stirred in. Corroon’s mock-luxury goods weren’t made to be eaten, but the implication – and smell – gives the work its impact. Crucial to the project are the sources of the mould for the cheeses: rental houses and working environments left in a state of damp, spaces that are meant to be maintained by their proprietors as safe to live and work inside. Corroon reanimated the mould by using it to culture the cheeses, posing it instead as something that is culturally and sensually coveted and disclosing proximities of disgust and desire. But the work also managed to raise more bureaucratic issues: at the first installation of this work in Goldsmiths, the smell diffusing to other floors led to building managers suddenly installing ventilation in the room, while the work’s reprisal later in 2019 at the LAB Gallery in Dublin, a council-run space, was nearly cancelled when the council feared that the work would implicate council-managed houses as mould-infested. (Corroon hadn’t, in that instance, made use of council houses for the work.) Corroon’s work with black mould has continued in her current project Got Damp, which began with the artist collecting dehumidifier water from residents of the Thamesmead estate, developing into a series of exhibitions in 2023. (The artist is currently looking for participants from across London, so those readers with damp housing should get in touch via TACO!, the artist-led organisation that commissioned Corroon.)
Perhaps one of Corroon’s damp-donors could be the British Museum, if we take the evidence that was on display in Gasworks earlier this year: across one wall of the gallery was a large sheet covered in intricate circular patterns of black, green and grey mould. Mould extraction, 2022, in Gala Porras-Kim’s exhibition ‘Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing’ (Review AM455), sat alongside several other parallel works suggesting adjustments to artefacts held by the British Museum, from which the mould itself derived. In interviews, Porras-Kim has described this work as the ‘extraction’ from the title, where the mould on display might contain digested molecules from the object on which it was found, smuggling it outside the museum. (What objects were swabbed wasn’t disclosed.) Porras-Kim’s wider practice asks us to consider museums as potential spiritual spaces and houses for a broader range of things than just old stuff to be maintained in the state in which it came. ‘Why do we think that mould and moths don’t have rights?’, she has asked in an interview. ‘Conservators are trying to kill them.’ Mould extraction struck me more as a form of accurate portraiture, similar to Lindström’s petri-artwork-translations, reflecting honestly on what was actually being maintained by this national museum. The work highlighted the simple state of things: that all museums and buildings are already fungaria, they just don’t want to acknowledge themselves as such because it threatens their self-definition as maintainers of culture, with culture as something solid, passive, finite. But the language of swabs and petri dishes discloses the open secret: mould is culture too.
In these mould growths we might read a form of ideological terroir, to see what is passively created and promoted through the art institution’s ecology. They map how institutions grow, diffuse and disseminate, even without their own awareness. That, perhaps, is one way to read mould: as a metaphor for the institution’s power and how we accept its hierarchies – something we breathe into our lungs without even realising, something that inhabits and replicates within us. I believe mould is something more fundamentally anarchic, however, a form of occupation that could help reprogram what art institutions might be, a part of accepting their already integrated existence with the world against which they define themselves.After all, artworks’ crevices and the dark storage boxes found in basements are ideal locations for fungal spores to, if not thrive, then at least hang out, dormant for centuries and waiting for suitable conditions to propagate again. We humans, perhaps, aren’t the custodians, or even the intended audience. After humans are gone, all that will be left is the mould museum.
Orignally published in Art Monthly, no. 462, December 2022 – January 2023