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?
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
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.
The bruise is a purple knot. We put arnica cream on it, though I’m never quite sure if that’s to help with the ache or to minimise how violet-brown it gets. We chase her up and down the corridor in the flat, for a bit excitement and exercise, only this time she tripped on a toe and went headlong into the side of a cupboard door. We had been going to the field nearby to kick a ball around and chase each other around the broken glass and cigarette butts, until the field is lopped in half by a high wooden fence, and the next day several large white temporary tents go up behind. The parent WhatsApp groups are abuzz a day later, after the jokes about it being a craft fair or music festival, who knows what chemicals they will use, infected bodies coming through the area, the ground will be tainted, they didn’t even ask us if it was ok to put up a temporary mortuary. Continue reading →
Once unwrapped, the surface is diffusely shiny, reflecting only a dull haze. Millions of this minimalist, monochrome sculpture exist across the globe: a thin, floppy bright-orange square, almost eight centimetres across, representing a race against the sun, a denial of time. It is made up of around 97 per cent dairy, or more accurately solid materials that were once dairy: whey protein concentrate, anhydrous milk fat and dried milk powder. The other three per cent is a cocktail of hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, preservatives, additives and dozens of other intermediary ingredients that don’t legally need to be listed, including a vitamin D supplement derived from Australian wool.[i] This consumable ready-made is the true icon of our era: the processed cheese slice. Continue reading →
Detroit airport is a long, skinny tube that takes around half an hour to cross end to end at a curious stroll. There’s no shortage of food for the hungry: newsagents with bags of flavoured pretzels, bumped-out coffee shops with stacks of sandwiches, and more than a few sports bar-cum-restaurants.
I pass by the steakhouse and the fast-food court with pizzas, hot dogs and fried chicken, eventually doubling back to one; it had a hockey theme, and the smallest thing I could order was a serving of nachos topped with the requisite orange-tinted cheddar on a plate about an arm long.
It was, as it turns out, exactly what I wanted. The first flight had been booked in an unthinking rush to try to get to St. Louis in time to see my grandmother. Up until a week earlier, she had been a non-stop chatterbox with a sly sweet tooth and taste for Irish whiskey, who would lead her care home on day trips out and try and spike the weak juice at ‘cocktail hour’ when no one was looking. The nachos were a comforting re-centring through the familiar tangle of gummied corn crisps bearing dollops of tinny salsa and unnaturally thick sour cream.
The last time I had visited, we had gone to my grandmother’s favourite restaurant where she went at least once a week. Crusoe’s is a ‘family restaurant’, that American invention and gastronomic catch-all, with pancakes to burgers to cheesecake, as if this is the standards of a continent rather than a specific interpretation of Dutch, German and Italian dishes percolated down through cities, suburbs and highways over a few short generations. The weighty beige of starch hovers in the air: trays of garlic bread, breaded mushrooms, and in St Louis, crumb-coated toasted ravioli. Food arrives crowding of those oversized trays equivalent to another table. I think I ordered a fish filet, my aunt some type of creamy pasta and Grandma a Reuben sandwich; all were liberally topped with white shreds of Provel cheese. Continue reading →
We all too frequently seek to save the emotional content of past epochs, without first thinking what use it is to us.
Hans Poelzig, “Fermentation in Architecture”, 1906
A young girl sits in the back seat, staring sideways out of the golden Volvo at the highway and landscape going by. She’s developed a game of sorts to amuse herself, watching the electricity wires that run parallel to the highway bob up and down from pole to pole. The game is simply imagining a line, or beam, projecting from the string of wires out into the landscape, a line that would cut into any tree or hill that it encountered. It would take elliptical slices out of tall houses, trim the tops of pines, and remove semi-circular chunks from outcropping land. Continue reading →
Rolf Nowotny, ‘Sur Pollen’ installation view, Tranen Contemporary Art Centre, 2015. Image courtesy the artist.
A man contracts an unknown illness: rainbow-coloured, rotting boils begin to cover his face and body. Afraid of being infected, his neighbours cast him out of the village, to live alone in a hut in the nearby forest. There, he swells and mutates into a reeking, globular mass, his distended form almost seeming to merge with the mushrooms and moulds that have grown in his fetid dwelling, as he spends his days painting flowers and animals. Hideshi Hino’s manga fable Zoroko no Kibyou (Zoroku’s Strange Disease, 1969) culminates in the villagers marching into the woods to kill the deformed man. What they find in his stead is a giant turtle with a magnificently bright shell – the colours of which match Zoroku’s psychedelic pustules – who then disappears. All that remains is a series of luminous landscape paintings made with blood and pus. Continue reading →