Dark Kingdom

“Whether one calls slime moulds, fungi and plants ‘intelligent’ depends on one’s point of view. Classical scientific definitions of intelligence use humans as a yardstick by which all other species are measured. According to these anthropocentric definitions, humans are always at the top of the intelligence rankings, followed by animals that look like us (chimpanzees, bonobos, etc.), followed again by other ‘higher’ animals, and onwards and downwards in a league table — a great chain of intelligence drawn up by the ancient Greeks, which persists one way or another to this day. Because these organisms don’t look like us or outwardly behave like us — or have brains — they have traditionally been allocated a position somewhere at the bottom of the scale. Too often they are thought of as the inert backdrop to animal life. Yet many are capable of sophisticated behaviours that prompt us to think in new ways about what it means for organisms to ‘solve problems’, ‘communicate’, ‘make decisions’, ‘learn’ and ‘remember’. As we do so, some of the vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought start to soften. As they soften, our ruinous attitudes towards the more-than-human world may start to change.”

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“These ‘zombie fungi’… modify their host’s behaviour in ways that bring a clear benefit: by hijacking an insect, the fungus is able to disperse its spores and complete its life cycle… the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis…organises its life around carpenter ants. Once infected by the fungus, ants are stripped of their instinctive fear of heights, leave the relative safety of their nests and climb up the nearest plant… the fungus forces the ant to clamp its jaws around the plant in a ‘death grip’. Mycelium grows from the ant’s feet and stitches them to the plant’s surface. The fungus then digests the ant’s body and sprouts a stalk out of its head, from which spores shower down on ants passing below… Zombie fungi control the behaviour of their insect hosts with exquisite precision…

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“However Ophiocordycpes is closely related to the ergot fungi from which Hoffman isolated the compound to make LSD”

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life

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“Through my LSD experience and my new picture of reality, I became aware of the wonder of creation, the magnificence of nature and of the animal and plant kingdom. I became very sensitive to what will happen to all this and all of us.”

Dr Albert Hofmann

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“[On the] mushroom-dotted grasslands and savannahs of tropical and subtropical Africa… the psilocybin-containing mushrooms were encountered, consumed and deified. Language, poetry, ritual, and thought emerged from the darkness of the hominid mind.”

Terrance McKenna

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“Drunkenness as a triumphant irruption of the plant in us.”

Gilles Deleuze

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“For two things, young man, are first among men: the goddess Demeter – she is the earth, but call her whatever name you wish; she nourishes mortals with dry food; but he who came afterwards, the offspring of Semele, discovered a match to it, the liquid drink of the grape, and introduced it to mortals. It releases wretched mortals from grief, whenever they are filled with the stream of the vine, and gives them sleep, a means of forgetting their daily troubles, nor is there another cure for hardships.”

Euripides, The Bacchae

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There is a shady genius at work in Fruiting Bodies, Mia Dudek’s series of photographs of Oyster mushrooms, a complement intended for both Dudek and her fungal friends.

The images are shot in the simple, slick and promotional style of product photography. Each subject mushroom is presented for our inspection, up-close and alone, against a neutral studio background, as if they were the latest smartphone or sneaker.

The mushrooms richly repay this VIP treatment. They are voluptuous, alien and profoundly present. Their tumescent fans shade from white and tan browns into pink, fleshy tones, striking a subtle and disturbing note of the erotic. Disturbing, but mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, part of the sexual phase of the fungal life cycle, the place where spores are produced. As such they are, for the broader fungal body of which each one is a part, zones of intense interaction with the more-than-fungal world.

Within Dudek’s latest, constellation of works, presented together at her exhibition at Foco Gallery and in this book, Fruiting Bodies are of fundamental significance. They are her symbols and examples par excellence of dynamic, organic actors able to transcend and breach the thresholds, barriers and constraints that structure the physical world.

As Rodrigo Orrantia, eloquently observes in his essay Outgrowing the House, Dudek’s “work is a disciplined and unceasing investigation into the dynamic relationship of the body and the different layers built around it”. She has “been long obsessed with skin as the limit of the body and its surface”, the “opposing forces of growth and compression” and “an overarching interest in contrast between the organic and the artificial.”

In Dudek’s earlier work, human bodies are set, uncomfortably or strangely, within brutalist, built environments (a subject represented in recent work, by the series Inhabited). This compositional set-up evolves into more abstract and juxtapositions in her later work.  Passages of skin, actual or pseudo, in the form of latex, and lumps of organic-like matter, are contrasted against inorganic structures that embody the principle of unnatural containment. The implied narrative underscoring Dudek’s work is of life straining to break free and proliferate.

Fruiting Bodies is a significant and timely development within Dudek’s work, in which her creative engagement with organic life steps out of the anthropocentric into the vast realms of the more-than-human. The last decade has, of course, seen a desperate deepening of cultural interest in more-than-human life, a sad corollary to the intensification of anthropogenic climate change, habitat loss and collapse in biodiversity across the world.

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In his admirable, recent book, Entangled Life (from which all the following information is taken), Merlin Sheldrake’s elucidates the extraordinary sophistication and power of fungi, the profundity of which we are only dimly beginning to comprehend, and the extent to which our lives are enmeshed with theirs. As Sheldrake observes in the passage quoted of the start of this essay, the implications of these revelations serve to further unravel the delusions of human exceptionalism that have underpinned Western thought for so long.

Fungi are one of the five or six kingdoms of life, depending on which taxonomic schema you follow. There are, it is estimated between 2.2 to 3.8 million species of fungi in the world, of which 90 percent are undocumented. Their diverse metabolic abilities allow fungi to flourish everywhere, from the sea floor, to deserts, to icy environments and throughout animal and plant bodies (including our own).  Using cocktails of enzymes and acids, fungi can break down and digest the hardest and most stubborn substances on the planet: hard wood, rock, crude oil, plastics to TNT. They can live off radiation. Some, like shaggy ink cap mushrooms, are physically strong and can penetrate asphalt and lift heavy paving stones. Though ‘brainless’ they demonstrate sophisticated problem-solving behaviour, indeed, fungi socially network other plants through subterranean mycelial networks.

Clearly Dudek has picked well in selecting fungi as exemplars of the adaptability and transgressive vitality of organic life. In doing so she has also intimated a radical expansion of the scope of her enquiry into “opposing forces of growth and compression”, from focusing primarily on physical boundaries and structures, to a broader interrogation of a complex web of intricately related thresholds and meshworks that variously define our ideas of form and identity.

The succession of quotes at the start of this essay from the second quote from Sheldrake on Ophiocordyceps unilateralis onwards (please read them now if you have not yet done so), sketches out a loosely related chain of variegated facts and theories that culminates in the admittedly wild speculation from the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, that the emergence of human culture was catalyzed by the psychedelic effects of psilocybin. The quotes flag up the alternately impressive and terrifying facts that most of the history of human experience of intoxication is down to fungi (yeast driven fermentation processes producing alcohol) and that zombie fungi are closely related to the fungi from which LSD is derived.   

The mental collaging of these two phenomena: the operations of zombie fungi, which after all, most intensely embody human fears of the horrific capabilities of rhizomic lifeforms, and the experience of intoxication and altered states generated by ultimately fungal sources, produces a fascinating tension. For us, the possible loss of our individual identity is both terrifying and deeply desired, for in the dissolution of the ego lies both death and also the promise of a reunification with all of existence – an imagined state of grace in which there are no barriers, thresholds or divisions, only an eternal and limitless unity.

Nick Hackworth

Curator, Modern Forms