Daisy Hoppen’s Pick of the Month: Mushrooms at Somerset House

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1. Seana Gavin, ‘Mindful Mushroom’, courtesy of th
Seana Gavin, ‘Mindful Mushroom’Courtesy of the artist

Daisy Hoppen shares her art pick for January: Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi at Somerset House, curated by Francesca Gavin

Opening on Thursday, Somerset House’s new exhibition Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is a must-see show – if purely to satisfy the curiosity piqued by its title. Curated by Francesca Gavin and part of a wider programme around sustainability, the exhibition looks at the organism in visual culture, as well as the fantasy, psychedelic and spiritual fascination that we have with it – from eating it in a delicious plate of food to out-of-body experiences. Everybody has their own tales to tell about the humble mushroom.

On a cold January Friday evening, Gavin (who has previously co-curated Zurich’s Manifesta 11 and The New Psychedelic at MU in Eindhoven to name but a few) and I emailed about mushrooms and why they had formed the central subject for this spring show. “I began to notice artists repeatedly returning to the subject,” she wrote. “Originally my sister Seana Gavin’s collages and then a growing number of others. At the same time Anna L Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World came out. When Somerset House approached me to do a show it was a natural fit with their current focus on ecological awareness.”

In a wider sense, mushrooms kept appearing in contemporary art and I wanted to know why,” she continued. “I am fascinated by how such a variety of artists and designers are drawn to a single topic of inspiration. The results are so varied and touch on everything from poetry to economics to ideas around communication, climate and the psychedelic experience.”

Another, more personal, reason that Gavin decided to curate this exhibition has to do with her upbringing. “I grew up in Woodstock, upstate New York, and have always been fascinated by the legacy of the counterculture – a particular moment when creativity and politics intersected,” she says. “It was a natural progression for shows I’ve done about the influence of rave or the psychedelic nature of technology.”

I am personally looking forward to seeing the Beatrix Potter drawings and the works by Gavin’s sister, Seana, both of which have a psychedelic, fairytale quality to them which reminds me of the Brothers Grimm’s illustrated story books, but in a contemporary collage format. Gavin says her highlights include the new works made for the exhibition – Jason Evans’ film about mushroom pickers in the Pacific northwest and Perks and Mini’s handmade graphic rug – as well as Cy Twombly’s print series loaned from the Tate collection.

There is such a large conversation around fungi at the moment, in terms of sustainability and design and technology – essentially growing products into shapes with very little waste, and biodegradable – which makes the show feels timely. This is clearly an exhibition that invites a serious conversation, but also has a playful sensibility – as Gavin says, “without fungi all ecosystems would fail. Humans share DNA with fungi – we had a common single cell ancestor. The largest organism in the world is a mushroom! The facts just blow my mind.”

Other highlights from the exhibition include:

  • A specially commissioned mycelium-based chair from one of Britain’s leading designers, Tom Dixon
  • A solar-powered Mushroom Suitcase from acclaimed conceptual artist, Carsten Höller
  • A decomposable mushroom burial suit by Jae Rhim Lee, designed to reduce the damaging environmental impact of the funeral industry
  • A large-scale mushroom-based floral installation from the London Flower School, featuring mushrooms grown at Somerset House

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is at Somerset House from January 31 – April 26, 2020.

Daisy Hoppen is the founder of DH-PR, a London-based communications agency. She also works in house with a small number of brands, companies and personalities across fashion, art and culture.