Okies so this blog should have been written about a month ago ... and the month before that .... oops! The reason for the delays is simple as the work you see on the Portfolio and also the newly uploaded Shop pages has been the bigger priority and has enabled the book to do its own thing with little interference from me.
In truth, it also sat in its fly ridden bag on the kitchen table (not one we use daily but is rather an additional surface for storing and utilising the air fryer etc) and was pretty much ignored except for the occasional spray .... and do its own thing it did as suddenly on the 7th October tiny fruiting bodies emerged over both the sides, top and bottom of the book continuing until the 16th - the primary photos below are taken between those dates. Their appearance seemed quite alien, as fungi often do: they are twisted and knobbly with tiny pale-deep slate grey pin head caps with stipes creamy in colour with the beginnings of vertical textures. The caps appeared moist from the infrequent sprays with the humidity of the September-October weather combining their position both near our kitchen back door. There was also a fragility to the book itself, despite feeling firm and quite dense, as pieces of the mycelium at the book edges or the tiny growing stipes broke off in your hands as you took it out of its bag so considerable care was needed. The flies that continued to plague the structure meant the book could only be examined out of the house on dry days and preferably on our garden bench - their presence now felt unwelcome as ideally I had wanted to continue documentation within my studio environment. However, these same flies served as a reminder that this fungal form is and can be home and food for insects as a consecution of its creation which I am ultimately responsible for. However, research demonstrated they created a symbiotic relationship with their host and a quick research as it seems they may have been fungus gnats which can carry, and therefore spread, fungus spores if the structure had been within a more natural environment. The gnats, however, put me off smelling the book as much as I would do normally - but not totally thus revealing a quite delightful, and now so familiar 'mushroomy' smell which was soft, damp and brought back wonderful memories of other books grown in my studio but also of foraying trips in search of fungi to draw and study. The scent was not as strong as I have experienced but this may have been due to the humidity bag having been opened for a short period first and the book having sat on the bench for a time before being picked up and gently examined visually, texturally and olfactorily. The structure was a delight to run your fingers over the tiny fruiting bodies creating a sensory exploratory experience but there was also a sliminess to the mycelium meaning it also felt repugnant to the touch at the same time. Its soft smell was more appealing than the mycelium which resembled, on reflection, peeling paint which is covered in the soft white growth of damp mold, seen often in our homes, that is most often Penicillin or Cladosporium according to research. I suspect that due to the conditions the book was grown within and the strong potential for early contamination that there was more than Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom) species present thus creating the differing visual and textural aesthetics witnessed: but here I add, frustratingly, my documentation/research was lacking and substandard which could have revealed or sought to answer my questions over what these other species were.
I hesitate to add that at some point between the 16th and the 26th October I had also placed the book in my plastic greenhouse - the decay meaning I had all but abandoned it. I expected nothing more to occur but a random check revealed the new growth seen in the final pictures above - the unexpected had happened. The humidity of the greenhouse in combination with the removal of the bag had caused both the decay that so repulsed me but also created, clearly ideal, conditions for new growth in the mid-autumn mild weather of the time. The book on the 26th day was highly unpleasant to touch - slimy, damp, knobbly, squishy but dense, heavy but fragile and just unpleasant to the point of making me feel uncomfortable and texturally sensitive. I am aware because of my Asperger's on any given day touch becomes something to be enjoyed or repelled - some days slimy becomes appealing and others the mere sight of it causes me to stand back but on this particular day there was just something that looked abhorrent as it reeked of death or of dying - I felt the book was failing and was both upset and annoyed at my lack of care despite those small, creamy clusters that were almost shouting out that there was life yet to be seen. At this point I did not expect anything further due to the overall appearance and did not check further for a 4 more days. However, the morning and day of the 30th October threw me a surprise with an astonishing appearance of distinct young, strongly growing, fruiting bodies: these had dense, strong off-white stipes unlike those growing previously with firm but small almost black caps with hues of deep burnt umber that ranged from just 2 millimetres up to a centimetre across. I recall opening the greenhouse to the distinct fungal smell which not only was familiar, as previously stated, but also wonderfully comforting and almost inviting - it has become part of my artistic study and to say I inhale it to instill a memory sounds quite cheesy but is the best way I can describe the experience. I loved the feel of the caps as these larger bodies took on a velvety quality whilst the stipes had the distinct ridges of the soft developing gills. I did not want to disturb the primary structure and only moved it to enable its documentation as it still had the same textural repugnant appearance and feel - the yellow and black bacterial or fungal growth that does now clearly speak of the suspected contamination clearly impacting upon its aesthetic appearance but not necessarily on the primary species (i.e. the Pleurotus ostreatus). However, the book also still had the slight marshmallow consistency or appearance I had experienced with the originating version - it is soft but firm and dense, again as I have mentioned above, in areas which could be felt which in this case was primarily the edges of the book whereby the mycelial network could be clearly seen. However, the contamination caused more interesting colouration ranging from a deep, forest green through to a quite bright yellow ochre and the soft creaminess of mycelium and this in itself I found intriguing as the book itself became reminiscent, or perhaps became, its own small microcosm of a wider ecosystem. I will freely confess to a childish delight on seeing such growth although again I wanted it to be within my studio environment - I wanted to observe it more closely and more intimately than was possible due to the fungus gnats and the health and safety implications of the potential contamination. However, I also accepted the conditions of early-mid autumn were at their best in what ultimately is a cheap, but planetary damaging plastic, greenhouse which in itself I accept could take anything between 20 and 200 years to decompose thus creating an uneasy juxtaposition between the artificial and the organic that grows within it which could be seen to be reflective, or representative of our wider Anthropocentric impact upon Gaia (Earth) ..... an interesting thought that could provoke further personal reading and research (watch this space).
The 1st November, a gap of 2 days due to the fungal and celebratory delights of Halloween, again demonstrated considerable growth but here I can see the colouration of the art work beneath the mycelial growth forcing me to ask the question was it in fact my artistic media that caused contamination? is it the acrylic ink or paints used that coloured the Pleurotus fungi itself? or is it a secondary fungal or bacterial species as I continue to strongly suspect? Due to this book being grown in the non-sterile environment of both a kitchen and plastic greenhouse I do not have the scientific technology to be able to test the biological and mycological make up of the book and to a lesser or greater extent I wonder if doing so would almost take away some of my own enthrallment in this experiment? My intent was ultimately to create a second book out of slivers of a fruiting body grown from another kit with the secondary species growth being perhaps a bonus but also of lesser importance to me at this point: however, if I were to pursue PhD study perhaps I would have the opportunity of exploring this through scientific-artistic collaboration? something to consider going forward. However, I digress as what can be seen in these photographs is not just the growth, but also the continued decay of, differing clusters of fruiting bodies across the book structure. These areas I regret not photographing more clearly as their textures and overall aesthetics now capture my attention - there is something disgusting or, I repeat, abhorrent about them but which still still speak of the success and failures of this structure particularly as they are scattered between small growing clusters of fruiting bodies. The new fruiting bodies are clearly stronger for not being confined within a humidity bag with the weather at the time relatively mild but wet. Some of the smaller clusters showed signs of imminent failure with mycelial growth appearing on their small caps whilst others grew stronger with distinct gills and concave caps lightening in colour - there are softer tones of sepia, deep greys and even hints of burnt ochre and Venetian red. The stipes with the feathery gills range in tone from a soft white through to taupe as they thicken and broaden out from the base of their conjoined clusters. I may have been avoiding touching the main part of the structure but the textural appeal of those gills and caps was irresistible - their softness a delight to the touch and senses. The soft mushroomy smell also once was inhaled and enjoyed but my wariness of the unknown contaminants still prevailed meaning olfactory exploration was intentionally kept restricted to brief periods - somewhat to my annoyance thereby instilling, at the point of writing, a desire to increase my taxonomic education to promote an ever deepening understanding of my subject.
2nd November 2023 - unexpected the day of harvest as evidence of fragility can be seen in the top row as tiny clusters broke off or stipes showed signs of dying - the fleetingness of fungal fruiting body life is now seen across the landscape of the structure. Furthermore, as the greenhouse is not a sterile environment, and enables or positively invites insect and creature activity within it: a battle between myself, and admittedly with the help of the frogs from the pond just beyond its borders that sneak under the plastic edges, and slugs has been ongoing throughout the year and unexpectedly the environment created a shelter in which they could still survive despite the growing cold of the season. The largest stipe demonstrating how the fungal world is also food and shelter for other species almost perfectly: please be aware of that the perpetrator of this damage was later found and allowed to continue its feast on the remnants of what I did not harvest - its need was greater than my own. However, I digress temporarily: the caps themselves on the main clusters I felt had reached maturity and therefore were perfect for harvesting in order to both photograph and also to hopefully enable further mycelial growth in order to start a third book. The younger bodies showed both a mixture of potential for further growth and also potential failure which I found frustrating but accept as part of nature. The larger stipes and caps were a delight to handle visually and sensorially as the gills became ever more feather-like and soft upon firm, strong stipes with the caps having really taken on the aforementioned velvety appearance and feel with distinct, blunt edges that are rimmed in black. The colouration of the caps is more distinct at this stage - black, burnt umber and I detected Venetian red with softer greys creating a wonderful tonal range that is ripe for artistic study which I had intended at the time but photographic documentation instead enabling me to do so in the coming days instead. As I look upon these photographs once more the structure seems unlike anything I have experienced before - I speak again of it seeming like an alien landscape as it is both beautiful and yet horrifying as it both decays and regenerates within a single structure. There is something that appeals but is repugnant, as I have stated above, but which I want to continue to reach out and examine - my mind and body becomes conflicted between the mental and the physical, the Asperger's and the academic/artistic refusing to strike a balance or compromise in which is the stronger emotion or physical desire to touch. I know I will enter the greenhouse once more but careful to ensure health and safety is considered but to just see what this thing is in its present state .... but more of that shortly .....
4th November 2023 - much to my joy growth of fruiting bodies continued helped by the dampness of the early November weather and the sheltered conditions of the greenhouse. Interestingly in this series of photographs I had sought to capture not just the fruiting bodies themselves but also the textures across the structure including the decaying remains of earlier clusters which I believed I had neglected. I note the structure has become quite undulating in form as it has changed from a flat book of pages to something that has literally taken on a life of its own - I regret not paying more attention to how the mycelium has changed the linear elements and overall shape of the book transforming it from its original purpose (of artistic pages that documented and developed my work during my MA) to something organic and alive. The book becomes a living example of how fungi can decay not just what is dead and dying but also the very art and books that we so value as humans bringing to mind the research of Pinar and Sterflinger into "microbial deterioration of cultural heritage and works of art" (2013) and their posing of the question of whether we should accept this deterioration as a consecution of creation (2013)? This book was created to decay and perhaps deep down I was thinking of the work of Dieter Roth and his piece Gartenzwerg 1972 and his understanding of the process and beauty of composition - I understand retrospectively how his work has underpinned and influenced this exploration even if subliminally. I find myself wanting to research Roth's work in more depth as seeing it again as lit a fire within me to explore this subject again - I have stepped back from academic study to focus on simply the art but even just writing this blog re-ignites a passion for reading and research, almost unexpectedly. I thought I had buried that side of me or put it on the shelf to come back to - but now I realise it is still there, still apparent and after 9 years of distant learning study it is still a part of who I am. Perhaps this blog is not just about the growth, decay and regeneration of a fungal book but also of my continued growth as an artist and academic?
8th November 2023 - the final harvest and also the penultimate time I photographed the growing fungal forms. This really caught me off guard as I had not been monitoring the growth of this second flush over the previous 4 days due to the pressures of an upcoming event meaning drawn art took the higher priority. In truth I was unsure as to whether the increasingly cold weather itself was going to play its part but it seems in fact it proved to be beneficial. The size and form of the caps I find stunningly beautiful as I have never before seen them grow to maturity - the wavy edges and concave forms become almost floral in their appearance but at the same time uniquely fungal. The gills and patterns on the stipes are quite charming as the colouration reaches into the depths inviting the exploration of spore prints which unfortunately failed miserably! I am particularly intrigued by the fruiting bodies growing from underneath the structure - the wetness of the caps being reflected in the wet plastic on which the book sits (the greenhouse shelves are mesh and hence its usage) which in turn reminds me of the wet weather that was being endured at the time. The textures and landscape of the structure still reminds the viewer of the underlying artistic endeavours but is overlayed by scenes of decay of those earlier clusters and potential bacterial or other fungal contamination. The book is alive but it was dying as once the caps were harvested the seasons slowly moved into winter with the cold preventing further growth. I regret not taking more photographs and of examining the piece more intricately but as I write I am wanting to retrieve it from the greenhouse (almost a month later) and cut it in half to see and understand how the mycelium has knitted together the pages themselves - I will update this blog accordingly.
However, the work of the book was not quite done as the small perpetrator of damage previously mentioned was determined to continue the feast of the final few small caps - within a few short days those not harvested had been eaten! This little creature, rather than being removed, was allowed to continue his feast undisturbed - the battle with his kind will resume in the spring albeit organically and without human cruelty.
Consequentially, growing fungal structures has lead to a deepening of moral and ethical beliefs that impact upon my thinking around sustainability - I am wanting to grow that third book, not from a kit, but from the harvested caps and utilising research papers no longer of use thereby not purchasing or taking further from the environment. I further want to explore exactly what sustainability means to me and our practice through reflecting on and expanding earlier my earlier academic research into the subject.
Finally, at the point of writing the remains of the book structure sit within the greenhouse whilst I decide, beyond dissecting it, how to dispose of it with environmental safety taken into consideration - bearing in mind artistic materials which may or may not contain microplastics (acrylic paint). I am keen not to put contaminants into my garden thus harming the ecosystem we have worked hard to build up or harm the wildlife that frequents our garden and again will update this blog within the next few days. Furthermore, that small slug reminds me of a desire to grow plants next year that are less likely to be eaten by his kind lessening the human-nature battle and instead embracing them as they are also good for the garden ecosystem. This book became something more than I expected - a small part of something wider as it is demonstrating both a desire to study further, to consider sustainability in more depth and also how my practice is situated not just within my home studio itself but is part of our wider home and natural environment: it has become a sum of its parts creating deeper thinking and promoting further research which I personally look forward to now doing. Time away from blogging/writing has regenerated my own personal enjoyment of doing so much to my slight surprise!
For now - I will update this blog when I dissect the book and also start the new book int he coming days as the harvested fruiting bodies really need removing from the fridge where they have been sat for 3-4 weeks and are now perfect for re-starting the project once more.
Get Rid of Gnats in Your House - Gnats & Other Flying Bugs | Orkin (s.d.) At: https://www.orkin.com/ask-orkin/how-do-i-get-rid-of-gnats (Accessed 05/12/2023).
Harvard (s.d.) Art Talk: The Abject Object—Decay and Irreverence in Dieter Roth’s Multiples | Index Magazine | Harvard Art Museums. At: https://harvardartmuseums.org/article/art-talk-the-abject-object-decay-and-irreverence-in-dieter-roth-s-multiples (Accessed 05/12/2023).
Nations, U. (s.d.) In Images: Plastic is Forever. At: https://www.un.org/en/exhibits/exhibit/in-images-plastic-forever (Accessed 05/12/2023).
Skowranek, H. (s.d.) Should We Reproduce the Beauty of Decay? A Museumsleben in the work of Dieter Roth – Tate Papers. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/08/should-we-reproduce-the-beauty-of-decay-a-museumsleben-in-the-work-of-dieter-roth (Accessed 05/12/2023).