Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Urban Mushroom Paradise, by Kevin Chow

An aquaponics column at the front of Paddestoelen Paradijs.  The column is a self-contained ecosystem, producing both fish and plants for harvest. 

            It is difficult to classify the space occupied by Amsterdam’s Paddestoelen Paradijs (meaning “mushroom paradise”).  A chimerical gallery space, farm, clean room laboratory, and educational workshop, Paddestoelen Paradijs showcases the manifold possibilities of fungi in art, design, and agriculture.  In its own words, “Paddestoelen Paradijs is a first, playful step towards a larger design initiative that will stimulate the cultural and artistic potential of innovative design solutions and sustainable materials.”  By displaying examples of mushroom-related design innovations and fungal artworks, Paddestoelen Paradijs offers a visually arresting experience that forces a viewer to rethink his/her understanding of fungi, while also beautifully exploring the fine line between art and life. 

Maurizio Montalti’s The Ephemeral Icon (2011) after 10 months of gradual decomposition.

Maurizio Montalti’s The Ephemeral Icon collides natural with man-made materials in a visual demonstration of a fungus in the act of consumption.  Montalti covered an ordinary plastic chair with a layer of Phanerochaete chrysosporium, a fungus that is capable of breaking down certain types of toxic, synthetic polymer materials.  The fungus looks like a fluffy white moss covering the surface of the chair and lends the object a surreal quality.  Both a living organism and a found object, the piece exists in a dynamic state of decomposition.  The fact that the fungus will eventually overtake and consume the entire chair like a food source can be interpreted in several ways. 
If we consider this piece within a larger genre of environmental or eco-art, Montalti’s work, with his deliberate choice of a chair, could be interpreted as a dramatization of our comfortable reliance upon petroleum-based plastic consumer products.  For Montalti, the rapid consumption of our non-renewable fossil fuels is not simply a political issue, but instead represents a physical inevitability.  The piece, like the mycelium Styrofoam packaging replacement shown below, underscores the collapse of the distinction between the man-made and the natural through fungal technology.  In the near future, it is Paddestoelen Paradijs’ hope that fungi will unseat the current throne of plastics as our most important consumer material.

Beyond displaying some pragmatic applications of mushrooms, Paddestoelen Paradijs also encourages viewers to rethink their attitudes toward fungi through the exhibition of visual and sound art.  Yann Seznec and Patrick Hickey’s piece, The Secret Sound of Spores (2010), playfully re-imagines the process of spore proliferation.  A laser beam is shone underneath a mushroom to illuminate the thousands of spores that are normally invisible to the naked eye.  The light patterns are then captured by a digital video camera, analyzed in real time, and then translated into musical notes that are played by tiny chimes installed on blocks hanging from the ceiling.  The effect is a whimsical yet highly palpable representation of a crucial biological process that might easily pass by unnoticed.

YouTube Video of Yann Seznec and Patrick Hickey’s piece, The Secret Sound of Spores (2010)

Lizan Freijsen’s Fungi (2011)

            Elsewhere in the exhibition, artists explore the visual and aesthetic dimension of fungus.  Pictured above, Lizan Freijsen’s Fungi depicts photographs of fungal cultures growing on Petri dishes.  Magnified and displayed on such a large scale, these visually striking photographs play with the boundary between life and art. As a student interested in art conservation and preservation, the work on display also raises provocative questions about what it means to conserve art that is constantly living and changing - art that brushes up against the very definition of art itself.  Does art even want to be conserved, or can a piece’s deterioration be vital to the artist’s original intention?
            As an educational space, Mushroom Paradise also offers lectures about mushroom agriculture and urban farming workshops.  With its self-consciously D.I.Y. aesthetic, Paddestoelen Paradijs encourages anyone to try growing mushrooms themselves and provides an engaging, accessible space to think about what it means to cultivate fungus in an urban environment. 

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