There’s something about mushrooms that’s at once fascinating and horrifying. I remember opening a cupboard in an old flat and discovering a little field of pure-white mushrooms sprouting out of the carpet. Part of me was amazed that these strange things had taken up residence in my home, and part of me wanted to burn the place to the ground. Alongside insects and tentacled sea creatures, they’re the closest thing we have to alien life on earth.
Somerset House delves into our complicated relationship with these… things (neither plant nor animal) in its new exhibition Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi. It begins with the statement “Without fungi, all ecosystems would fail”, spelling out their vital role in the life cycle of everything and everyone, before diving into the place they hold in the world of art and culture.
There are beautiful botanical drawings, stamps from around the world celebrating their diversity, and painstakingly accurate models.
Mushrooms have inspired creators from Lewis Caroll to Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto. They appear in science fiction as a shorthand for places far, far from earth, demonstrated by Seana Gavin’s wonderful series of collages of alien skyscrapers housed in towering fungal columns.
There’s a room dedicated to the psychedelic properties of mushrooms, something that’s of increasing interest to both scientists and recreational drug users. One video installation mimics the trippy aesthetic of a psilocybin trip (the psychoactive ingredient present in some mushrooms). Another features an artist dressed as a fly amanita toadstool discussing, in character, his relationship with his environment.
The exhibition also touches on the surprisingly common propensity to project intent onto mushrooms, likening their networks of underground ‘mycelium’ to the internet (something that crops up in the scientific as well as the hippy community), as if they have an intelligence all of their own.
It ends with a room devoted to what our future relationship with mushrooms may look like, with shoes crafted from their flesh and examples of their uses in biotech. It’s a fascinating and timely exhibition celebrating one of humanity’s great, unsung alliances.