Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi opened on 16th July 2020 at Somerset House, London. This exhibition explores how “Innovative designers experiment with the sustainable material of mushrooms in fashion, homewares and architecture” and makes the subject matter more prescient, as lockdown has restricted us to our own four walls. The exhibition, curated by Francesca Gavin is displayed in a traditional setting, in light airy rooms and the online version takes us on a guided tour.
The exhibition includes drawings, watercolours, oils, textiles, ceramics, mixed media, and installations by major artists with diverse interpretations of the subject matter.
They range from, Beatrix Potter’s early illustrations of fungi which shows her interest in mycology, prior to publication of her famous books about Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Benjamin Bunny, to the surreal world of Seana Gavin’s “Land of the Midnight Mushrooms” (2019) and “Mindful Mushroom,” (2017). I was particularly intrigued by Carston Holler’s “Mushroom Suitcase” (2008), a metal case with models of motorized mushrooms spinning around.
How fungal networks connect is addressed in Lana Ogel’s collage “In the Nursery”( 2017), perhaps reflecting the human brain’s synaptic network.
Amanda Corbet, textural artist, has used papier mache and embroidery in her sculptural three dimensional work. A large hat worn by David Fenster, is his version of the vivid red Fly Amanita mushroom. On one wall is a display of eight prints, a series of airy collages “No1 -No X” (1974) by Cy Twombly. Alex Morrison’s Contemporary paintings in black and ochre and umber and rust are mushroom motifs in a William Morris style. Another wall is of stamps from around the world featuring beautifully executed mushroom images.
We move on to a room labelled Magic Mushrooms featuring John Cage, Lois Long and Alexander H. Smith whose rare “Mushroom Book” (1972), is displayed in a cabinet showing hand written text and drawings of various mushrooms as if it were in a natural history museum.
Mushrooms once thought of as just vegetation are now understood by Scientists as very important to life on Earth and a vital part of its evolution. In the 19th Century, in Europe, mushrooms were feared as part of witchcraft, poisoning and decay. Mushrooms have played an important part of art, design, music, and spirituality in human relationships for thousands of years and promises to be an essential part in future development of scientific research for medicines and sustainability for the future. This is a far cry from Andy Warhol’s painting Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup tin of 1968 when it was presented as a commodity.
Fungi are used to soak up waste products such as oil slicks and as biodegradable materials for burials. Decades after the Chernobyl Nuclear radiation release black fungi containing melanin have been found to destroy radiation in the ground. There are many facts to be learned about fungi, for instance there is a 965 hectare (2,384 acre) underground fungal network mapped out in North Oregon, which is considered the world’s biggest and oldest organism.
People are most familiar with the mushrooms they love to eat, but mushrooms have been loved in art throughout the centuries and will continue to be loved in the future for ecological reasons to help save the planet.
Fig. 1 Potter, B (1983) Lipiota procera or Shabby Parasol Mushroom [Watercolour] At: https://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/education/news/beatr (Accessed 03/03/2021)
Fig. 2 Potter, B (1895) Lepiota friesic [Watercolour] At: https://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/education/news/beatr (Accessed 03/03/2021)
Biello, D (2007) ‘Do fungi Feast on Radiation?’ In: Scientific American At: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/radiation-helps-fungi-grow/ (Accessed 03/03/2021)
Brown, M (2020) ‘Everyone loves a mushroom’ The Guardian 25/12/2019 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/dec/25/somerset-house-london-mushroom-art-fungi-exhibition (Accessed 02/03/2021)
Mushroom: The art, design, and future of fungi (2020) [Online Exhibition] London: Somerset House, .31/01/200-26/04/2020 At: https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/blog/virtual-tour-mushrooms (Accessed 02/03/2021)