Museum exhibition

The Language of Mushrooms: The Interspecies Internet

Monica Studer / Christoph van den Berg
Contemporary Gallery Kunming, Kunming, China
28 August - 28 November 2022

Return to Yunnan, the mushroom homeland, to listen to “The Language of Mushrooms”. Set out on a journey of nature, science and art, to weave a web of diversity. Four groups of Swiss artists — Marion Neumann, Rahel Oberhummer, Gerda Steiner & Jorg Lenzlinger, Monica Studer / Christoph van den Berg, are invited to participate at the exhibition “The Language of Mushrooms: The Interspecies Internet” in Kunming.

Swiss Artists:
Rahel Oberhummer
Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger
Monica Studer/Christoph van den Berg
Marion Neumann

This is a journey of discovery in nature, art, and science. The exhibition “The Language of Mushrooms: The Interspecies Internet,” which opened on August 27 at Contemporary Gallery Kunming, brings us closer to the world of mushrooms in diverse, unimaginable ways, showing us the roles mushrooms play in the natural world, and how mushrooms influence our consciousness, reshape our understanding of life, and the wisdom of interspecies symbiosis.

The exhibition brings us into a mushroom world in which mycology, ecology, sociology, art, and literature are all intertwined. Zang Mu, who expanded the field of mycology in southwest China, and avant-garde composer and artist John Cage, were both pioneers in their respective fields. They both loved to scour the mountain forests for traces of mushrooms, recording their discoveries and insights about mushrooms in the form of field notes or conceptual art. They meet at the opposite ends of science and art, guiding us to listen to “The Language of Mushrooms.” Thirty-four individuals and groups of mycologists, scientific illustrators, artists, photographers, and writers from China, America, Switzerland, France, Canada, and Australia, mushroom allies from a wide range of fields, bring together this multidisciplinary exhibition centered on the mushroom, weaving together a diverse network from species consciousness and living awareness.

We begin this mushroom journey in Yunnan, home to China’s richest collection of wild mushrooms. It was here that Zang Mu, a pioneer of higher fungi research in southwest China, and those who followed after, such as Yang Zhuliang and his research team, made many important discoveries regarding fungal diversity, leaving us with a rich trove of vivid field notes and world-leading mycological research results. Hand in hand with mycological research, scientific illustrators such as Zeng Xiaolian and Yang Jiankun have created intricate and vivid paintings of fungi. The rich natural environment and plethora of mushroom species have led local Yunnan artists Yu Jian, Tang Zhigang, Zeng Xiaofeng, Zi Bai, Li Ji, and Li Rui deep into the kingdom of fungi, where they have found an inexhaustible source of creative energy.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. The main body is the mass of mycelium growing beneath the ground. Mycelium is like the Internet of the forest, linking organisms together. The mushrooms that grow from the mycelium often grow as companions to other species, forming a relationship of interspecies interdependence.

The profound connections between fungi, the cycle of life, and symbiosis have also inspired environmental art creations among the younger generation of artists, expanding the connections between nature and art. Artist Zheng Bo looks at life in the forest on the molecular level. The Political Life of Plants discusses the cooperative relationships between fungi and plants in the forest; Yan Xiaojing has brought the life cycle of the lingzhi fungus into a collaboration between art and nature in Lingzhi Girl; Long Pan reveals the tenacity of nature through a fungal hypha threading a needle; New York-based artist Cao Shuyi was drawn in by a strain of fungus with the ability to digest plastic and latex discovered by the laboratory of Peter Mortimer at the Kunming Institute of Botany, and is using it to explore the shared evolution between the organic and the inorganic; Wang Yiyi’s Petriceps depict a symbiotic organism in which fungi grows within a stone host; Cheng Xinhao’s Mushroom Feast, or Vanitas with Mushrooms transforms fungi’s connotations for the cycle of life into a set of artistic allegories.

The existence of fungi, and their fruiting bodies, the mushrooms, has also influenced human consciousness, giving shape to new artistic ideas. Conceptual artist, inspired by the ways fungi grow, developed ideas of extemporaneous and uncontrolled creation. In the paintings of Tang Zhigang, Guo Hongwei, Li Jikai, Zhang Zipiao, Zhou Yilun, and Yulia Iosilzon, we get a sense of the deep physical and conscious entanglement between fungi and humans. After all life has achieved fusion, the images in Qiu Xiaofei’s works cast off their shells and return to the primal state of life.

Rethinking the original living awareness, and coming to a new understanding of the forces of nature, in the works of Zhang Xiaogang, Sui Jianguo and Qiu Xiaofei and others, we see the inner contemplation and flights of fancy that emerge as the boundaries between nature and humans, subject and object fade away, and the conscious perceptions and meditations on life that arise from unification between the individual and the world.

In the exhibition, artists and photographers from multiple countries share works they made in collaboration with nature. Australian photographer Stephen Axford has photographed many amazing Yunnan fungi in the biodiversity “gene bank” of the Ailao Mountains; Artist Rahel Oberhummer has collaborated with researchers of ancient microbes. Her “Unearthed” photography series records microbes that have lain dormant in the permafrost at over 3000 meters altitude at Muot da Barba Peider in the Swiss Alps, revealing their revival and growth under sterile lab conditions.

The Swiss artist team Monica Studer / Christoph van den Berg, who bring us the crypto artwork Fungible Giveaway, see mushrooms as symbols of symbiosis and parasitism. In At the Extremes of Our Universe, artists Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger envision a fantastic universe brimming with mushrooms, fungi and other organisms.

Can fungi help us restore and change our relationship with the world? In The Mushroom Speaks, filmmaker Marion Neumann joins forest rangers, mushroom foragers and growers, mycologists, anthropologists, and psychiatric researchers to explore the therapeutic properties and restorative abilities of fungi.

“The Language of Mushrooms: The Interspecies Internet” curator Ye Ying believes that at a time when the pandemic and ecological crises are spreading across the globe, we must rethink our anthropocentric ideas. As the tie that binds the natural world, fungi challenge our understanding of non-human intelligence. By considering the connections and mutual influences between species from the perspective of cooperation, and bringing together different fields of inquiry to the understanding of the species of the world and their environments, we can further expand the boundaries of art, and imagine a Myco-Cultural Evolution.

Located on China’s southwestern frontier, Yunnan Province is home to one of the largest concentrations of wild mushroom species in the world. Southwest China is one of 34 recognized biodiversity hotspots around the world. The 15th Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity established the Kunming Declaration to create an effective “post-2020 global biodiversity framework,” reverse declines in biodiversity, and put the world on the path to biodiversity restoration by 2030 at the latest.

Exhibition artistic director and Contemporary Gallery Kunming Director Nie Rongqing stated that Contemporary Gallery Kunming will draw on the rich natural resources of the local region to establish a global knowledge network for equal dialogue between different fields and species, and that the museum will develop a series of exhibitions and art projects to promote biological diversity. Mutual adaptation and symbiosis among the species and between the species and the environment are only possible in an environment of biological diversity.

This gathering between art and science, which began in Yunnan for the interpretation of the “Language of Mushrooms,” will continuously reach and expand around the globe, weaving a “mycelium network” spreading the wisdom of symbiosis and interspecies connection.

This exhibition was organized by Contemporary Gallery Kunming, co-organized by The Art Newspaper Chinese Edition, and supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Swiss Arts Council, Institut français, and M Art Foundation.

Curator: Ye Ying

For more information please visit Pro Helvetia.

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