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Contextualising the book .....


This journal entry is leaning towards a more academic/critical analysis style as this is something I have become used to due to my time in academia and is to lesser or greater extents now my natural way of writing. To further explain, the continuation of the growth of the book has provoked a re-visiting of artists studied during both undergraduate and postgraduate academia in order to re-invigorate my usage of mood-boards and mind-maps as an intrinsic part of my artistic process: these 'tools' serve to create a focus within my neurodiverse artistic space by stilling the mind - I seek to worth with, rather than fighting against, my easily distracted brain. An example of what I mean is seen within Amy Sillman's Artist's Choice installation, The Shape of Shape, as its impact has been an insight into her curatorial and artistic choices surrounding shape within one specific galleried/museum; hence for me personally this work invites a consideration of who, and what has and will continue to influence my work particularly as I find myself within a liminal space once more. This space consists of, and is as a result of, awaiting final MA results, the continued editing of my PhD proposal and the evolution of my artistic work both outside of and within potential ongoing academic boundaries - its liminality is unsettling, disruptive and discombobulating. However, I am finding myself actively wanting to, and thriving on, a continuation of critical thinking and analysis of theoretical and artistic texts of my own choosing that may inform the proposal further and/or will seek to inform the evolution of my ongoing work. I am a researcher, not just an artist and this journal is, in its own right, becoming part of my creative process and the writing part of the art itself.

I therefore, now pull myself back to those previously studied artists starting firstly with the work of Xiaojing Yan and more specifically her Lingzhi Girl sculptures.

I originally encountered Yan's work during the final year of my undergraduate degree as I originally sought to use mushrooms as metaphors to speak of the decay of the human body due to chronic illness. However, the projects evolution resolved into one which sought to narrate female body dysmorphia of the post-menopausal era - my own menopausal journal encompassed the duration of the degree itself. A further metaphor employed the gilded cage of aristocratic women and the purported restrictions of their undergarments, and in particular the corsetry itself, hence providing a framework upon which I could depict the breaking down of historic stereotypes of how our womanly figures are depicted: fungi became representative not of decay, but of regeneration and renewal. The photograph shown, taken for my undergraduate and practice portfolio, is one which I look upon with fresh eyes as I see a softness in the organic forms as they grow upon, or rest against, the feminine undergarments. I undressed the past to consider the perceptions of our female figures in the contemporary era as I considered the breaking down of historic, and frustratingly persistent, stereotypes and in doing created work that I now understand spoke of our maternal histories. This body of work, on reflection, could be situated within contemporary fine art alongside Yan's work which often incorporates "a bust depicting a fictive figure, a mash-up of the artist herself and the many women who often power folklore, such as the female protagonist of the origin story The Mountain and the Sea: a young woman whose soul becomes a mushroom—again a symbol of immortality. " (Watlington, 2021). At the point of writing I want to find the remaining textile fungal-corset pieces and place them once more upon the small mannequins - many were recently discarded due to having an excess accumulation of sketches, textiles and books that are the inevitable consequence of a combined artistic and academic practice over a period of time: this does bring to mind however, issues of the consideration of archiving and longevity at the point of creation and how my practice can become more sustainable with little wastage. It was horrifying I no longer had use for or felt I wanted to keep although as much as possible was recycled .... but this is a subject that I will discuss within the next blog. To get back to the subject in hand ..... Fungal mythology was investigated and researched, both visually and theoretically, within the final course of the MA but I later questioned whether it was in fact a red herring creating a distraction from an alternative, and yet unknown, potential more defined narrative - I knew I wanted my audience to reconsider their perspective of the fungal kingdom but not how or why. I had no specific resolved outcome and no specific direction even at that comparatively late stage. Consequentially, it was not until almost the end of the course that I accepted the deep, almost primeval connectivity that had developed and which I now continue to feel within my soft pastel work. This emotional relatedness almost literally grew out of the growing fungal forms within my studio and could be perceived as one of spirituality. The result of critically analysing my work enabled me to further understand how the original mythological research was simply part of a broader rhizomatic thinking process (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) wherein all of my work was connected with each branch of the rhizome being part of the continued evolutionary visual/artistic process. However, I do also strongly also feel that my current and ongoing body of work is as a result of intra-active (Barad, 2007) becoming through a collaboration that exists between myself and the mycelium and the resulting fruiting bodies (mushrooms): the work had ultimately evolved from the aforementioned usage of fungi as metaphors to that of understanding them as a companion species (Haraway, 2008). Henceforth, I want to consider Yan's own process which I directly quote below:


"After an idea takes hold of my imagination, the action plan can begin with the installation space, or the subject matter, or a personal element from my interior world. As the process unfolds, each step becomes an open-ended experiment where the material or method leads and I follow. I’m fascinated with the way technological advancement gives humans the illusion of power over naure. Now I’m playing with a range of collaborations between the human element and the natural element by designing a controlled, human environment that, over time, gives way to an organic process. When I create my lingzhi sculptures, I first put woodchips and lingzhi spore mixtures into the mold I created. With the control of humidity, temperature and light, lingzhi mycelium starts to grow. Once the lingzhi mycelium had bound the wood chips into the mold’s shape, I removed the mold and put the bonded mixture into a small greenhouse to let it keep growing. After a few weeks, the body of the roots began to grow and created their own transformative sculpture. The beginning of this hybrid science, art, and nature experiment satisfies me. I am no longer in control, nature is. For me it’s important that each side of this equation has a chance to shine." (Yan, 2020)

My concern with Yan's writing is how she describes nature taking control of the growing process but that control is within human care and 'unnatural' false growing conditions - human control is at the core of the creation of the lingzhe mushroom/mycelial sculptures as she herself acknowledges. Moreover, I would argue Yan herself retains overall control as she decides not just the start of the project but also the point of the mycelial demise in order to create her sculptures - in the same way that I made a conscious decision to preserve the original fungal book rather than compost it thus enabling its potential regeneration. I further argue that the artistic collaboration between human and fungi is one that is primarily commensalistic rather than mutually symbiotic as the fungi receive little or no benefit from the relationship other than its growth - but that growth is halted at a point of my choosing, if I choose to kill it (a phrase that leaves me deeply unsettled), with no further regeneration enabled due to its consequent preservation: the benefit is to me as an artist and researcher as the book itself becomes 'art'. Henceforth .....


"....is it odd to call mushrooms in a gallery “art” simply because the artist frames them as a metaphor, imposing human meaning onto organisms that have no say in the matter? At the same time, is it antithetical to intervene and tightly control their behavior (or, in Yan’s case, to kill them) for the sake of producing a more interesting form? Most artists collaborating with other species wrack their brains as to how much intervention is appropriate, since their goal, to varying degrees, is to honor and showcase the species they’re working with. It doesn’t help that we have no tools for communicating with fungi. This tension is wholly unresolvable, but the many stories and principles fungi evoke are so potent that artists keep trying nevertheless." (Watlington 2021). Watlington's statement vocalises and validates my above-mentioned concerns without further need of explanation. However, I also include the statement due to her words about communicating with fungi as in 2022 were written a scientific paper revealed that fungi have a language that consists of up to 50 words - but here I use the word 'language' within a human construct as the 'words' are spikes of electrical activity that "is a manifestation of the information communicated between distant parts of the fungal colonies." (Adamatsky, 2022). This does lead to a speculative future potential for human-fungal communication if ongoing research can translate this fungal vocabulary therefore opening up the possibility, and I speak purely subjectively of understanding whether in fact, or to what extent, fungi are aware of our presence and in what form - and here I am thinking of whether the mycelium growing over the book , once removed from its humidity bag, would be consciously aware of my human physicality? However, here I fear my humanness once again speaks of my own Anthropocentric behaviour and the primacy that Haraway argues against in her philosophical speculative futures of a multi-species Chthulucene epoch; or indeed my own consideration of an alternative fungal companion species (Haraway, 2008) Mycocene. The concept of language also potentially could redefines the human concept of the brain which Sheldrake discussed when describing the decision making capacity of mycelial networks (2021) - this is a concept that I wish to revisit and no doubt invites a re-reading of Sheldrake's book once more. It will be interesting to see how my understanding of his writing has changed as it was first read at the early suggestion of my MA tutor almost 2 years ago - watch this space for a my analysis!


However, I digress once more .... ... Undoubtedly, Yan's processes "continue the lineage of process-oriented art-making, which involves setting up a system and then ceding some control to chance. More than a creative method, though, this system reflects on the role of humankind within a larger ecosystem, highlighting the value of collaboration with other species." (Watlington, 2021). This is further demonstrated by how her work also utilizes the spores produced by the lingzhi mushrooms themselves to produce pigments that are later used in watercolour depictions of the sculptures thus creating a further connectivity to her Chinese roots. My own visual research sought to make use of the spores of ethically harvested fruiting bodies to create prints during the autumn of 2022 - the harvested forms were artistically studied during the printing process enabling close anatomical observation that informed the ongoing testing and experimentation that is part of my artistic process. If I feel I can work within personal ethical and moral boundaries, a small selection of spore prints will be done this year .... but here I must state that I am continually re-evaluating the ethics of care that create the foundation for WOA. However, these considerations may be negated due to the growth of the current fungal book .....


..... and mycelial growth has now undeniably happened. I thought 6 days ago this project was doomed to failure due to possible evidence of bacterial or alternative fungal contamination. However, during the writing of this blog I decided to check the cupboard and am astounded at the speed and extent of the mycelial growth within the last few days - and also the weight as it is noticeably heavier: I neglected to weigh the book at the point of its creation but today it is now 888 grams. As a point of note the humidity is 67° and temperature a steady 20°C - something I am now monitoring particularly as we head towards e September.

As I sit here writing this journal I am getting the most lovely wafts of pure mushroom - the plastic bag is not quite sealed which I am quietly rather happy about at this point in time! The smell has become something of a comfort such is its familiarity due to my previous investigations - it is reminiscent of autumnal woodland environments with a faint damp muskiness and yes the delightful mushroom smell you inhale when stand near bountiful fruiting bodies (mushrooms) or are stood in the centre of fairy rings (if you dare ..... but that depends upon your mythological beliefs or whether your knowledge is purely scientific!). I am, more than happily, sat next to what will become my studio companion within the coming weeks quietly observing the mycelial prints on the plastic bag as I have lifted it gently away from the pages - I am beginning to care and emotionally invest myself within this organism for which I alone am responsible for its health and continued growth: it is reliant on me providing the humidity and temperature in which it can thrive but I am also aware I control its demise should I not continue with a cycle of book growing kits or trialing alternative substrates thus inducing ethical and moral concerns into this project: I stated above I was uncomfortable about stating that I may potential kill this living organism - it sits uneasily morally and emotionally. For now I feel these concerns are put in a corner as it is living, it is growing and I want to encourage its life - the chances of it being preserved in the manner of the primary book are reducing as I feel the deserves to be continued but that continuation could simply also be in the placement of the book within my garden thus taking it back to nature and encouraging the fungal eco-system to thrive and enrich plant-fungi symbiotic relationships. I need to make a curatorial decision but this is not one that I can make during its creation - not at this moment .... not now ... I'm not ready ....

.... meaning I find myself spending time observing the mycelium growing within the humidity bag as there is clear evidence of the knitting together of the pages of the book as seen below - they are no longer separated by the torn remnants of fruiting bodies and the previous mycelial covered book. The pages from the point of insertion of the mushroom strips and the previous book incantation did not lay flat but still retained their singularity as each could be turned but now they are part of a larger more complex structure: the front edges alone can be moved as the book is become abstracted and distorted - disrupted from its original realism as it takes on a new organic form that pays homage to the fruiting bodies of whose spores created the prints. As I write I start to question whether in fact the mycelium that is growing is that of the pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom) that grew over edible book that is within the page leaves or whether it could be either macrolepiota procera (parasol mushroom) or the coprinopsis atramentaria (common inkcap) both of which were ethically gathered within my local urban environment? only time and observation will give the answer.

My observations note that the growth of the mycelium is no longer under my control and I understand why Yan stated nature is now in control but is it? the mycelium is confined within an ecologically damaging plastic bag that will take maybe 20 years to decay - there are uncomfortable juxtapositions between an ancient living organism and the plastic that could be deemed representative of the Anthropocene epoch but my personal environment forces the bags usage creating ongoing ethical considerations of care. As I glance towards this growing fungi I am aware that is not nature in control - it is me as I have restricted it, confined it and enslaved it for my own usage: this is the very thing that I am so aghast and against at but I also acknowledge I am letting it do what it wants too - there is an argument that within the wider natural environment it would also be restricted by other organisms. The fungi is also within an environment that is safe from trampling, foraging and eaten and if its growth is continued as an ongoing project there is the potential for parts of it to be returned to the soil as I suggest above to live out its natural life cycle. The enslavement could be argued to be negated and instead replaced with a mutually beneficial symbiosis as although I am gathering data whilst observing and responding to the fungi through visual research the fungi are also benefiting from my care and the shelter it is gaining particularly if at the point of maturity I let it continue its growth in an environment whereby its spores can be naturally dispersed, even if only temporarily.

I find myself intrigued by the fact that there is no defined clear answer to many of the arguments I pose - my opinion is highly subjective even if founded in objective reasoning. Henceforth, what is clear from this journal is that I am continuing to critically analyse and evaluate my work and also therefore the ethical foundations of my work. The study of other artists enables me to interrogate what I am doing and why whilst suggesting processes and new ways of working. The annotating of imagery in notebooks, the working of mind-maps or mood-boards created from my own small version of Artist's Choice will continue to inform and evolve the work I do. Much to my relief writing this journal has also suggested the next three blogs:


  1. Sustainability within my work

  2. Jamila MacEwan and also Jane Fox - the latter is an artist new to me so will be researched with great interest.

  3. The issue of taxonomic classification - to identify or not to identify?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Adamatzky, A. (2022) 'Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity' In: Royal Society Open Science 9 (4) p.211926. Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape | MoMA (s.d.) At: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5175 (Accessed 26/08/2023). Arts ·, L. C. · C. (2022) This artist creates ethereal mushroom sculptures like something out of a fairy dream | CBC Arts. At: https://www.cbc.ca/arts/this-artist-creates-ethereal-mushroom-sculptures-like-something-out-of-a-fairy-dream-1.6639886 (Accessed 22/08/2023). Barad, K. (2007) Meeting The Universe Halfway. Durham & London: Duke University Press. Caillon, S., Cullman, G., Verschuuren, B. and Sterling, E. J. (2017) 'Moving beyond the human–nature dichotomy through biocultural approaches: including ecological well-being in resilience indicators' In: Ecology and Society 22 (4) At: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26799021 (Accessed 26/08/2023). Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. Ep. 107: Lingzhi Girl - Uniting East & West, Nature & Modernity, Death & Immortality (feat. Xiaojing Yan) (2022) At: https://www.welcometomushroomhour.com/blogs/podcasts/ep-107-lingzhi-girl-uniting-east-west-nature-modernity-death-immortality-feat-xiaojing-yan (Accessed 22/08/2023). Haila, Y. (2000) 'Beyond the Nature-Culture Dualism' In: Biology and Philosophy 15 (2) pp.155–175. Haraway, D. J. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press. Haraway, D. J. (2016) Staying with the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press. Lingzhi Girl Time Lapse (s.d.) At: https://yanxiaojing.com/works/lingzhi-girl-time-lapse/ (Accessed 22/08/2023). Malone, N. and Ovenden, K. (2016) 'Natureculture' In: The International Encyclopedia of Primatology. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp.1–2. At: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781119179313.wbprim0135 (Accessed 26/08/2023). Ollos, H. (2021) The old human-nature dualism: Are we part of nature?. At: https://wilderness-society.org/the-old-human-nature-dualism-are-we-part-of-nature/ (Accessed 26/08/2023). Sheldrake, M. (2021) Entangled Life. London: Penguin Random House UK. These Sculptors Use Mushrooms as Metaphors and Materials – ARTnews.com (s.d.) At: https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/mushrooms-as-metaphors-urbonas-studio-tj-shin-xiaojing-jan-1234614585/ (Accessed 22/08/2023).

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