- Open Access
The beauty and the morbid: fungi as source of inspiration in contemporary art
© The Author(s) 2016
- Received: 10 November 2016
- Accepted: 14 November 2016
- Published: 29 November 2016
The arts have the power to irritate, to provoke and to let us think and dream about the impossible. The relationship of the arts and fungi is not immediate; however, fungi are ideal subjects for artists. They are both visible and invisible. They irritate. They evoke within each of us different feelings and inner pictures. Some are perceived as disgusting or dangerous because associated with dirt or death. Others are appreciated for their unique and delicious taste in our eating culture. Microbiologists further consider them as useful for industrial exploitation or per se as interesting because they are gratifying objects to study basic phenomena of life. To stimulate a fertile and interdisciplinary dialogue between artists and fungal scientists, we here present some examples of the inspirational powers of fungi and fungal science for contemporary art. Astonishing, poetic and perplexing artistic works could release scientific creativity and overcome the boundaries between art and science.
- Science and art
- Contemporary art
- Fungal-based materials
- Burial suit
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) describes in his 1983 novella Worstward Ho  the very essence of the artistic process itself. Every person who has ever worked in a research environment can relate to those words too. Negative results, hard-to-interpret data and technical troubleshooting are a conspicuous part of the scientific process of every experimenter, regardless of her/his experience or the nature of the scientific question. And as such they are also the necessary prelude to the satisfaction of a successful experiment and to the elation of discovering something no one has ever seen before. Failures are part of the joys of experimenting. To negate this is to deny the functioning of science itself. By the words of Jules Verne (1828–1905): “Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth” . And to say it with the words of Albert Camus (1913–1960): “La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux” —“The fight itself towards the summits suffices to fill a heart of man. We have to imagine Sisyphus as a happy man” (variant translation).
There used to be a time when science and art went hand in hand. Perhaps because “Man cannot do without beauty”  or perhaps because both essentially have the same aim: to investigate and understand nature and (as part of it) ourselves. Still, insights into the world we are living in are explored by different means and generate different knowledge and experiences: rational, materialistic ones (science) and emotional, vivid ones (art).
In the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) combined the arts and science as a painter, inventor, sculptor and mathematician. His artistic works were the result of his scientific investigations. Much later, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) documented his voyages as explorer and naturalist with beautifully accurate (or accurately beautiful) drawings. Many more examples can be made of thinkers who contributed significantly in the past to the advancement of both science and the arts. Several reasons could be ascribed to that. Curricula where more encompassing and scholars were trained also in classical disciplines, something which is nowadays not possible anymore due to the high specialisation and thus fragmentation of scientific and artistic disciplines. Intellectuals belonged to elitist circles and personal connections among representatives of different fields were nurtured, as for the friendship between the painter Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and the “father of microbiology” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), contemporaries of the Golden Age of the Baroque, the period following the Renaissance. During these days, scientific insights into nature were limited and all knowledge could be conveyed through curricula. As exchange between scientists and artists was very intense and lively, many intellectuals were generalists.
These educational, professional and social milieus are today radically different. Scientists became specialists with very limited knowledge of the other’s disciplines, tools and technologies. C.P. Snow (1905–1980) argues in “The two cultures and the scientific revolution”  that the intellectual life of the modern Western world became separated into two cultures—science and the humanities—and that this separation hinders us to solve problems of mankind. Indeed, open-minded personalities of scientists and much translation work is nowadays necessary to run research projects involving multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches which are key to understand complex phenomena. And the proactive exchange between science and art? Almost gone. This discrepancy shines through the words of Max Planck (1858–1947): “Experiment is the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination.” But is he also encompassing artistic experimentations? And where does the creativity drive for innovative experiments come from, if not from the power of imagination?
In the preface to his autobiographical book LSD—My Problem Child , Albert Hofmann (1906–2008) describes how in his boyhood he occasionally perceived nature with intense, almost mystical sensations. Reflecting on his impossibility in communicating these experiences by artistic means due to his lack of vocational inclinations toward painting or poetry, he often anticipated his very personal failure. Recalling his career, he considered a lucky accident that his vocational interests were directed towards (fungal) natural products and that he discovered LSD and its psychoactive effects, able to open wide the doors of perception.
Luckily, many artists and artistic fields get nowadays creative impulses and become technologically empowered by scientific breakthroughs to investigate nature using artistic methodologies. Artistic fields that became inspired by science are as various as photography (e.g. in the nature-inspired captures by Rosamund Purcell, documented in the movies An Art that Nature Makes), music (e.g. in singer-songwriter John K. Samson’s When I Write my Master’s Thesis or in his more recent Postdoc Blues; or also in the transliteration of the DNA sequence or methylation patterns into music ), dance (as in the Dance Your PhD contest sponsored by the magazine Science), theatre (e.g. in the program fostered by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to exhort leading artists to explore scientific themes), the visual arts (e.g. in Salvador Dalì’s rendering of the DNA double helix in his Butterfly Landscape—The Great Masturbator in a Surrealist Landscape with DNA), illustration (e.g. in a Kickstarter campaign to produce a children book to show the contribution of woman in science throughout history), architecture (for example in the investigation of fungi as construction material), poetry (which, like science, gets at universal insights through metaphors and abstract thinking, or as testified by so-called “science slams”, an offshoot of “poetry slams”), literature (as for the “science-in-fiction” genre pioneered by the celebrated chemist Carl Djerassi), and the cinematic arts (as shown in the yearly festival by the non-profit organisation Imagine Science Film). The Scenes collection from Imagine Science Film for example gathers footage from scientists to visualize the beauty of scientific raw data images, with minimal interventions of post-production editing and human narrative.
From these examples, it emerges how fungi are interesting for artists as dynamic, uncontrolled entities that need not to be tamed, but rather investigated and exploited depending on the specific purpose. The mycelium is not collected and displayed, but rather grown and transformed. A transition from the passive display or consumption of fungi as inanimate entities to their active use including the reprogramming of fungal cells as currently done in synthetic biology  is present. Contemporary artists, who become inspired by the science of fungi and their potentials in biotechnology, are future-oriented and cultivate a transdisciplinary approach. Themes highly relevant for our modern society such as sustainable living, new materials and ethical considerations are recurrent among the different works. Many of these ventures rise from the collaboration with scientific institutes and individual scientists, who likely enjoy the respect and appreciation of their work by artists, their fresh and unusual perspective on it and because the arts are respected as catalysts in the perception and acceptance of technological and scientific innovations by the society.
When considered in a broader context, the interaction of science and the arts needs a proper environment to let oneself be influenced and to cross-fertilise each other. First of all, a physical place, i.e. a laboratory supplied with the proper equipment in which scientific results and art pieces can be produced is necessary. As academic freedom is as important as artistic freedom and both are international and borderless, no limitations should be put on their practices. When there is the wish to collaborate, scientists and artists can be brought together by various means. To name but a few, the Swiss Artist in Lab program for example supports artists who wish to get acquainted with scientific methods and technologies and incorporate them in new projects with long-term residencies in a research institute; the Art Laboratory Berlin invites scientists to regularly teach artists and the interested public on how to cultivate or even manipulate microorganisms in a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach; the Scientific Delirium Madness of the Djerassi Resident Artist Program offers a one-month retreat in the San Francisco Bay Area to scientists and artists experienced in working in the other discipline to foster new exchanges and ideas.
To understand the drive of the artist and unmask additional possible similarities between scientific and artistic processes, we talked with Maurizio Montalti, founder of the Officina Corpuscoli , a laboratory that investigates the relationships between science, art, society, nature, culture and industry. Interestingly, further intersections among the practice of both disciplines emerged. Exposing his very personal journey, the artist explained how by working on his project Continuous Body , where he explored the decomposition and transformation of inanimate and animate matter and questioned the human rituals of death, he stumbled upon the idea of including fungi as a central element of his work. “My purpose changed over time, but both my personal interest in fungi and the importance of observation were central throughout the process. I was fascinated on the spot,” he told us. Starting from a DIY approach, he first experimented with fungi he collected himself or bought from a strain collection in his own bathroom. Realising the technical limitations of his skills and equipment, he sought to collaborate with a fungal research laboratory. “Of the 50 or so researchers that I contacted, only a handful answered. In some cases, I was told that they were too busy doing important stuffs, implicating that my work wasn’t.” Montalti ascribes these reactions to the fact that he uses a different approach than a scientist, and that his questions and purposes are more encompassing than those addressed in a scientific project—what, from a scientist perspective, might be seen as less specific and thus fuzzier. Finally, he successfully started collaborating with Professor Han Wösten from the University of Utrecht—a collaboration that is now nine years in the making—with whom he initiated, curated and produced the exhibition FUNGAL FUTURES. “Even today,” Montalti adds, “the process is more important than the results themselves. And yet, what motivates me is to be able to make an impact rather than to secure a possible financial return.” These motivations and the necessity to search for success in failure reverberate with the everyday life of a research laboratory and the long-term goal of any impactful scientific project.
“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter,” Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger (1942). This statement is radically contradicted by the artist and inventor Jae Rhim Lee who cares about the “how.” With the assumption that our bodies are enriched in toxins and that funeral practices severely harm the environment, she designed and developed a burial suit infused with fungal spores in her own DIY lab to ensure that both the body and the toxins within become fully decomposed after her death. “I started collecting my hair, nails and skin so I could pick the best mushrooms to become infinity mushrooms, to recognise and eat my body after I die,” she stated in an interview with New Scientist  after presenting her vision at the TEDGlobal conference in 2011 . A must-see video! Enthralled by this idea, she studied mycoremediation, collaborated with experts from science, arts, design and funeral industries, started the Infinity Burial Project and founded the burial company Coieo in 2014 (www.coeio.com). The first adopter, Dennis White, expressed his interest to become buried with the “Infinity Burial Suit” in 2015 because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness and wanted to become buried in an environmentally-friendly way. “I want to go out with a bang, like I’ve lived most of my life,” he said in a documentary about the suit. He died recently, in September 2016, and became the first-ever person to be buried in a “Infinity Burial Suit” without embalming or even a coffin. With this end of his life he might pave the way for success of a visionary and astonishing fungal product inspired by an artist.
CN and VM conceived the idea and the structure of the manuscript and wrote it jointly. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
All links to external webpages provided throughout the text were consulted on October 2016.
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