Jae Rhim Lee is describing what she would like to happen to her body after she dies. No simple coffin or cremation for her. Instead, the South Korean artist is keen to be devoured – which is why she has designed a burial suit that, in her own words, looks like “ninja pyjamas”. Covering every part of her body, the outfit is black with white, branch-like patterns forking down it. The lining, she goes on to explain in an intriguing video posted online in 2011, will be filled with mushroom spores that have been “trained” to recognise her as food, thanks to having being fed bits of Lee’s shed skin, hair and nails. After she dies, she will be placed in the suit and these cultivated mushrooms will – hopefully – eat her. As she says: “For some of you, this might be really, really out there.”
Well, yes. But no more out there than a lot of the strange things on display at Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, a new exhibition at Somerset House, London, that aims to show how, over the last few decades, mushrooms have become muses for artists, as well as useful tools for them to work with. “Mushrooms are playful,” says Francesca Gavin, who curated the show and runs the Instagram page @theartofmushrooms. “They’re colourful. They remind us of childhood. They’re also delightfully phallic, which is always a pleasure.”
“They are neither plants nor animals,” says Anne Ratti, a London-based artist who turned her studio into a laboratory to grow magic mushrooms. “They belong to a strange kingdom of their own. They have their own way to grow and to reproduce in – and in between – everything. Mushrooms have no borders!”
The show certainly serves up mushrooms in an impressive variety of ways. British designer Tom Dixon is making a prototype chair out of mycelium, the mass of thin threads that make up the body of a fungus. German conceptual artist Carsten Höller has come up with a solar-powered mushroom suitcase. And there will be plenty of trippy, psilocybin-inspired visions from the likes of Jeremy Shaw, though Gavin stresses that psychedelia is just one small part of what the mushroom kingdom can offer the art world. Even the typeface used on the gallery walls was “grown” using an algorithm that mimics fungal growth.
You might think that finding so many mushroom-influenced artists would take quite a bit of foraging, but Gavin says it couldn’t have been easier. In fact, this is her second mushroom-themed exhibition, a smaller one having already been a success in Paris. She says she could have made this show much bigger had she wished: “Type in the name of any artist of the last five years with the word ‘mushroom’ and you’ll find plenty of work.”
One of those artists is David Fenster, who likes mushrooms so much he sometimes dresses as one. His friend, the costume designer EB Brooks, made him an outfit based on the fly amanita (the red toadstool with white speckles that’s always cropping up in children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland) using a bicycle helmet and insulating wrap.
“I wear the costume as often as possible,” says Fenster. “Like mushrooms themselves, it seems to attract or repel depending on the individual. It definitely gets people’s attention – and I think mushrooms deserve our attention. They’re overlooked, especially in fungiphobic cultures like ours, which is probably why artists are so interested in them.”
Fenster is a film-maker and the costume features in one of his pieces, Fly Amanita, in which the mushroom reflects on the way it’s been treated by human beings over the years. “People used to mix my ancestors in a bowl with milk and put the mixture out to kill flies,” it says at one point, before bemoaning the way pop culture has warped its public image. “People don’t realise that this thing they see in a Mario Bros game is a representation of a real mushroom that actually exists!” As Fenster puts it: “I thought it would be funny to make a film about an anthropomorphised mushroom complaining about how humans have anthropomorphised nature.”
Mushrooms have long fascinated artists. There are all sorts of examples, from 17th-century Flemish and German baroque art to Victorian fairy paintings, on the North American Mycological Association website. But fungi have perhaps never been seen as a key muse. A new book, Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800, doesn’t even give them a mention in its index.
Over the last half a century, however, they’ve provided much nourishment for artistic minds. Cy Twombly painted them; Andy Warhol filmed painter Robert Indiana chomping on one in his 1963 film Eat; John Cage even co-wrote a book about them, Mushroom Book (1972), which now resides in MoMA’s collection. Cage was particularly obsessed – writing mushroom poems, creating mushroom ketchup recipes for Vogue magazine and, in 1962, even founding the most recent incarnation of the New York Mycological Society. “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom,” Cage explained in the Music Lovers’ Field Companion (1954).
Around the turn of the century, I even had my own mushroom mania moment when, writing in the NME, I coined the term shroomadelica: a short-lived genre for such bands as the Delays and the Zutons, whose light psychedelia chimed with the legal loophole that allowed people to ingest magic mushrooms in the UK. But these examples are mere spores compared with the current boom in mushroom-related art.
Gavin says that books by Michael Pollan and anthropologist Anna Tsing have been key to turning artists into fungiphiles. Fenster, meanwhile, says he was hooked when he saw the cover to David Arora’s 1991 mushroom foraging guide All That the Rain Promises and More. This shows a bearded, slightly crazed-looking man wearing a tuxedo standing in a field holding a trumpet and a bunch of mushrooms. The text mixes traditional field guide information with jokes and poetry – and it so enraptured Fenster that he made a film about its author called, fabulously, The Michael Jordan of Mycology (confusingly, there is also a British mycologist called … Michael Jordan).
The show will also feature The Mycological Twist, AKA Eloïse Bonneviot and Anne de Boer, who were drawn into the world of mushrooms after reading an article that suggested fungi could break down the waste caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It inspired the pair to look into doing the same in a patch of garden at the London exhibition space JupiterWoods. More recent fungal projects include Respawn, a science-fiction movie told from the perspective of mushrooms; and Foraging Bags, an attempt to create portraits of a space’s local ecology using thin fabric bags, mushroom spores and edibles gathered from parks.
“The urgency of the climate crisis is more palpable every day,” say the pair over email. “It’s hard for an artist to create any other work. There’s a growing interest in veganism, Extinction Rebellion and cutting back single-plastic use, and foraging for mushrooms definitely belongs in this list. Because they are so entangled into ecosystems, they have a potential to be subversives. They remain mysterious, resisting labelling and understanding. They are something you collaborate with rather than simply use.”
Lee’s burial suit was conceived along the same lines. She wanted to be eaten by mushrooms because she was concerned about the many toxins left in our body after we die, from BPA (bisphenol A) picked up from plastic packaging to the mercury in fillings. The funeral industry is incredibly polluting, delivering toxins back into the environment, yet mushrooms have the power to cleanse. Anyone wearing Lee’s suit would achieve a genuinely green way of dying.
The more you read about mushrooms, the more wormholes you fall down and the more you can see why artists are falling in love with them. Gavin talks enthusiastically about the similarity between mushrooms and the human brain, and how we have DNA related to them. The Mycological Twist rave about the way mushrooms create networks that allow trees and plants to talk to each other, something known in mycological circles as the Wood Wide Web. “That tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush several metres away, thanks to mycelia,” they say. “These threads act as a kind of underground internet.”
Meanwhile, Fenster tells me about the world’s largest organism – a mycelial mat that covers more than 2,000 acres of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest – and explains how mushroom spores can survive even in space. The mind-blowing facts just keep on coming for these fascinating organisms that can be both beautiful and ugly, nourishing and deadly, intriguing and unknowable.
“What can we learn from them?” says Fenster. “Basically everything. How to be better humans. How to talk to non-human nature. And how to love ourselves – and the rest of the organisms on the planet.”
• Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is at Somerset House, London, from 30 January to 26 April.