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Mushroom Visionaries

What lies beneath the mushroom? These plump, strange, immensely varied spore carriers are in fact just the tip of an organism that is as vast and as deeply complex as the human brain. 

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Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) | Photograph Jethro Haynes

This organism is mycelium, a network of hyphae that twist beneath the earth’s soil and other substrata. It can respond and communicate across its entire body. This interconnectivity has made fungi and mycelium the metaphor of the now. Neither plant nor animal, mushroom are the brave new frontiers that artists, environmentalists, composers, designer, technologists, filmmakers, scientists and many others are looking at for inspiration for the future of existence. 
One of the first artists to really bring attention to the often-overlooked mushroom was John Cage. The American avant garde composer and artist was also a professional mycologist, who would forage edible mushrooms for five star restaurants to earn a living alongside making art. Co-founding the New York Mycological Society, foraging had a strong influence on Cage’s work. This interest emerged most directly in a portfolio publication, 1972’s Mushroom Book, depicting and describing fungi in graphic notes accompanied by delicate illustrations by Lois Long. For Cage, fungi embodied the zen, mind-space he sought in his art. 

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John Cage and Lois Long at Hollander Workshop, Spring 1972 | Photograph James Klosty c/o Atelier Editions

Cage’s captivation with fungi echoed in the work of other artists. The iconic painter Cy Twombly’s Natural History print series repeatedly featured mushrooms amongst references to history. Artists have been painting the calm and timeless art form of foraging for decades, now with contemporary artists embracing their interest in the mycelium network. From Jeremy Shaw’s aura photographs of psychoactive mushrooms to Carsten Holler and Sylvie Fleury’s respective super sized shroom sculptures, artists are increasingly fascinated by mushroom’s phallic and yonic forms.  
In the wake of the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s, mushrooms also became the symbol for the psychedelic. Recent scientific discoveries, as well as the work of writer Michael Pollen and radical mycologist Paul Stamets, have transformed how the mainstream are looking at the use of psilocybin, the psycho active substance found in some fungi, which is being used as a possible treatment for addiction and depression.  

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Agaric | Photograph Jethro Haynes

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John Cage A Mycologycal Foray | Cage Mushroom Book Scan PlateIl c/o Atelier Editions

Technologists, designers and even economists are also looking at mycelium for new ideas. The creator of bitcoin was allegedly a mycologist, basing much of the token’s structure on the way mycelium network functions. Scientists have been exploring the potential of being able to transmit electrical impulses through the fungal network. They have discovered that mushrooms can be utilised to clean polluted water and oil spills, make bio-fuel and even eat plastic. 
Without mushrooms, humanity and the planet would not exist. Fungi allowed plants to colonise the Earth by breaking down the Earth’s bedrock. Without fungi all ecosystems would fail. Fungi are also a fundamental part of how the human body functions, existing in our microbiome. Mushrooms demonstrate how important and interconnected the natural world is.

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John Cage, Stony Point NY 1965 | Photograph William Gedney c/o Atelier Editions

 

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John Cage, Stony Point NY 1965 | Photograph William Gedney c/o Atelier Editions

 

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Text: Francesca Gavin

Graphics: Ken Balluet

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