Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Somerset House has just re-opened with its free show, Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi. It’s totally psychedelic.
You’re welcomed by a seemingly indecipherable artwork, actually the exhibition title, written in fungi. Mushrooms creep here and there on the cabinets, a clever design trick where the artworks grow wild and leave their frames. The whole design of the show, by Pentagram, is interesting; even the labels have been thought through.
The exhibition space is small and quirky, but the subject is vast and ambitious. There are too many artworks (less is best) and too few historic and scientific artefacts.
The title of the show doesn't exactly follow the layout of the three rooms, which are named Mycophilia, Magic Mushrooms and Fungi Futures. It’s mainly a contemporary art show, not surprising since Somerset House is a modern art centre. Its latest exhibition is an hypnotic trip.
Illustrations by Beatrix Potter rub shoulders with Alice in Wonderland and more contemporary artworks. Beatrix Potter was obsessed with mushrooms, she painted over 300 watercolours of them before focusing on the tales of Peter Rabbit. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland features a hookah-smoking caterpillar atop a mushroom, who explains to Alice that if she eats one side of the mushroom, she will grow, while the other will make her shrink. Mushrooms became popular, their reputation shifting from poison and witchcraft to child-friendly and a door to another world.
Fly Amita, a film by David Fenster, features the artist dressed like an amanita in the middle of the woods, talking about fungi’s relationship with humanity. Next to it, Mushroom Suitcase, by Carsten Müller, features more amanitas, these ones spinning; the visitors spy to see all the mushrooms swirling: they don’t, as they’re solar-powered, an issue in a dark room! Hanging nearby is Cy Twombly’s Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms (1974), referencing Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia.
Then, it’s all about hallucinogenic mushrooms and their medicinal power. You're invited to dance in a multimedia installation by Adham Faramawy, a hypnotic film of a cool trip, capturing dancers in a 360 degree video. Such a shame there’s no psychedelic music or illegal substances!
There’s also a showcase of the surreal art of Seana Gavin, sister of the curator, Francesca Gavin. Eight of Seana's works hang in the exhibition, one of which has been chosen as the lead poster image and another as the cover design of the catalogue. That's ethically questionable, to put it mildly. Needless to say, the sisters' relationship isn’t mentioned anywhere in the show or on the website.
Finally, we get to see the growing interest for fungi in fashion and in an eco-friendly environment, with a decomposable mushroom burial suit by Jae Rhim Lee, designer shoes by Kristel Peters, lampshades by Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova, and similar creations.
Oh yes, the shop is super cool, too! It's not often that exhibition shops stock such quality products. That's where any show can really stand out, making a profit with original items created by artists for the sole purpose of the exhibition.
Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is surprising, crazy, joyful. You wish you could find some magic mushrooms to cope in our apocalyptic world. Or maybe we're all already stoned. Who knows? Enjoy the trip!
Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is on at Somerset House until 13 September.
Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels