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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