Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artful Fungi

So, you think you know mushrooms? These mysterious organisms belong to kingdom Fungi, and are more closely related to humans than plants are. Are you aware that a mushroom is actually the spore-producing fruit which springs from a network of fungal hyphae (strands) lying beneath the surface of the ground at one stage of the fungus’s life? Even if you can tell a chanterelle from a portobello, unless you appreciate this vast hidden network, collectively known as mycelium, there is a lot you are missing.

In fact, the largest living organism on the planet is a fungus of the species Armillaria residing underground in eastern Oregon. It is estimated to cover over 2,200 acres and to be at least 2,400 years old. It was discovered when scientists were trying to discern why large groves of evergreen trees were dying.

Mushrooms are currently much in the news. Fungal mycelia have been used in remediating the damage cause by past oil spills and may well play a role in the Gulf. The anti-depressive properties of “magic mushrooms” are being studied under controlled conditions, and the use of mushrooms as pesticides is also being explored. In fact, mushroom authority Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms can help save the world. Check out Mycelium Running to read more.

And, on the West Coast, fungi have inspired a new type of sculpture. The artist Phil Ross, long-interested in “growing” sculptures of natural materials (a 1997 example of his work is shown above), has recently been using mycelium as the structural material for his art. Ross was inspired to work with mycelium by his “experiences as a mushroom hunter and then grower, and seeing how it is similar to a material like plaster or cement that can be cast into more durable forms.”

His efforts came to my attention through an article in Time, which described the teahouse Ross named “Mycotectural Alpha” (right), created for Eating the Universe: Food in Art at the Kunsthalle Museum in Düsseldorf, Germany this past winter.

How he created this piece of art is quite a tale. At the Far West Fungi Farm in Monterey, California, Ross built 400 bricks of fungal material. He first packed sawdust into airtight bags, then steam cooked the packed bags for several hours. The pasteurized wood chips were then cooled and small pieces of Ganoderma lucidum fungus tissue were introduced into each bag. Over the course of several weeks the fungus digested and transformed the contents of each bag into a mass of dense interlocking cells. The bricks were cured for about a month before their assembly into the sculpture. Ross described the final material, “The skin itself is incredibly hard, shatter resistant, and can handle enormous amounts of compression. Shaping and cutting the bricks destroyed our files, rasps and saws.”

Mycelium is not normally eaten, but deconstruction of the sculpture during the course of the exhibition was part of the vision of this piece of art from the start. The sculpture is being brewed into a tea which is being served to museum visitors. Ross wrote in a recent email to me, “It is currently being boiled into a tea right now, though I don't have a good progress report from the museum about its current state. It is in my contract with the museum that it must be entirely destroyed through digestion or other organic processes.”

Ross still works with Far West Fungi with whom he has a “formal collegial relationship.” He currently has no plans for commercial uses for his art, but is “growing a second arch, and intends to grow a full scale building in a few years.”

Check back in a few days to read about mycological happenings in the East, a couple of hours from “the land of steady habits,” where I reside.

1 comment:

  1. I love the arch! CAn this artist be interviewed and is he still at Far West? Great stuff.