Art & Culture

Are fungi the future?

A new exhibition at London's Somerset House explores the potential of the humble mushroom to revolutionise the way we live.

Neither animal, mineral or vegetable, mushrooms have long been viewed as the slippery underdog of the natural world. But dating back farther than the Jurassic Period and with 10,000 known varieties across the world, we should probably give this kind of hierarchy a rethink. Whilst humans are on the verge of making themselves extinct through man-made climate change, mushrooms have been evolving and thriving for millions of years. 

Whether it’s their use as a natural, renewable alternative to plastics or the fact that certain types of magic mushrooms can cure depression, addiction and PTSD after a single dose, fungi are pretty kick-ass. Celebrating the power of fungi, new exhibition Mushrooms: the art, design and future of fungi will be asking questions around what mushrooms can do for the world whilst exploring how they’ve captured the imagination of the art world. We sat down with Francesca Gavin, the exhibition’s curator and an unofficial fungi expert, to hear more…

What motivated you to put on Mushrooms: the art, design and future of fungi?

I kept seeing mushrooms everywhere and wondering why. Then Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World came out and I was really interested in mushrooms as a way of examining ideas around economics. I’m personally very interested in the aftermaths of counter-culture; I think that’s a moment when you have politics and aesthetics very intertwined. Mushrooms are similar in that they highlight the link between meaning and aesthetic

What was your curatorial process like for the show?

Research was really simple, I’d just look up the name of a specific artist plus “mushroom” and there’d generally be something relevant. Then it was just about creating a narrative through three small rooms that could demonstrate the revival of interest and how mushrooms have become related to the poetic and can stand in as a metaphor for ideas around the psychedelic and nature.

Are there any recurring themes across the artworks on display?

On a purely aesthetic level there are so may beautiful representations of mushrooms. It’s so amazing that you can take a single thing and so many artists can tackle it with such varied results. We have everything here; painting, collage, kinetic sculptures, ceramics… A lot of it wasn’t made for the show and these artists were already engaging with the subject. This is probably another reason why I wanted to put on this exhibition; curiosity about why so many artists are looking at mushrooms. Fungi seems to be very much in the zeitgeist.

How can mushrooms help humankind?

People always ask; “can mushrooms save the world?”  I’m not so sure they can but I do think they can point us in a more healthy direction. The third room in the exhibition, which is focussed on design, looks at this and there’s two points here. Mushrooms can be used as a material and within this can serve as an alternative to plastic or can be used as a bio fuel and even a natural alternative to pesticides. Then there’s also a lot of research about the impact of psilocybin on the brain and how it can change the way people think and help with issues like addiction or depression.

What can mushrooms teach us about human attitudes towards nature?

My aim was to do an exhibition that really centres around symbiotic relationships in terms of how humanity is linked to nature. Mushrooms are not only fundamental to human survival but also to plants. There’s even research out there that could force us to reevaluate the entire idea of what it means to be human. Because mycelium can communicate through hi-fi, there could be a form of mushroom thinking. Humans might not be the only beings capable of thought.

Mushrooms: the art, design and future of fungi is on at Somerset House until 26 April. 

30 January 2020