Microbes, fungi, bacteria and stem cells reveal a larger, and smaller, world

Art | by Gregory Beatty

MORTALITY MEETS MUSHROOMS Xiaojing Yan’s Lingzhi Girls explores the circle of life

The Experiment
Dunlop Gallery

Until June 23

The idea of conducting an “experiment” is most closely associated with science. It’s not limited to that discipline, though. Yes, scientists take it to the nth degree with ultra-precise data collection and analysis — but creative people in other fields can be pretty rigorous in how they investigate things, too.

The four artists in this exhibition are a perfect example.  In The Experiment, they ditch their (stereotypical) artist’s smocks for the (equally stereotypical) scientist’s lab coats.

The Experiment opened at the Dunlop on May 17. It’s curated by Jennifer Matotek and Wendy Peart, and features work by Heather Komus (Winnipeg), Radah Chaddah (Toronto), Xiaojing Yan (China born, Toronto-based) and Nicole Clouston (Toronto).

Mud Magic

Clouston gave a talk at the opening, so I’ll start with her work. It’s inspired, she said, by her fascination with microbial life. While some microbes can be deadly, the vast majority perform vital functions in a multitude of niche ecosystems from the human gut to a backyard garden to a forest floor that help keep us and our environment healthy.

After some “experimenting”, the artistic process Clouston settled on to explore her interest involves digging up mud from select lakes and rivers, and taking it back to her “lab” (studio). Then she pours the mud into long clear acrylic tubes which she displays vertically in a compact row in the gallery.

The mud contains zillions (science term) of microbes, and as the show progresses, all sorts of vibrant colonies start to emerge. Clouston’s previous projects used mud from Lake Ontario and the Detroit River, and the end result is truly spectacular.

For this project, she gathered mud from several spots on Wascana Lake to put in her acrylic tubes, which are now on display at the Dunlop.

During her talk, Clouston addressed ethical issues arising from her work. As a “bio-artist”, she said, she was aware that she was engaging in a non-consensual collaboration with the microbes. For most people, microbes are probably pretty far down the animal welfare scale. Still, they are alive, and Clouston said she owed them a duty of care.

On opening night, tiny fish that had been accidentally caught by Clouston could be seen swimming in the tubes. (Before anyone calls PETA, I checked with Clouston, and she said she always “rescues” any higher order animals such as fish and snails that end up in the tubes).

As the microbial colonies grow in the coming weeks, Clouston says, she hopes viewers will be reminded of their otherwise invisible presence “in us, on us, and all around us,” as she put it.

Fungi & Stem Cells

Like Clouston, Xiaojing Yan presents work created through a non-consensual collaboration with another living entity — in her case, lingzhi mushrooms. Lingzhi Girls consists of eight bust-like sculptures of the artist made from wood chips. Yan then seeded the busts with spores from lingzhi mushrooms, and let them grow in the wood.

Lingzhi mushrooms have cultural significance in China. Looking at the busts through Western eyes, they evoked thoughts of death and decomposition for me. To a certain extent, that gave them a morbid quality, as they suggest the idea of a person left unattended after death — as might happen if they were murdered and the corpse hidden in a remote location. But in a true ecological sense, the busts are a poignant acknowledgement of the natural cycle of life.

Mushrooms figure prominently in one of Heather Komus’ three works as well. The other two are at the back of the gallery, and see her use organic material such as pig intestine, hair, dead insects and a symbiotic bacteria/yeast culture to create delicate wall-mounted and hanging mobile sculptures that reference biological processes tied to plant and animal reproduction.

The piece with mushrooms, Memory and Matter, is at the gallery entrance. What she’s done is mounted dozens of inky cap mushrooms on watercolour paper and used them to create a collage shaped like a human brain.

The mushrooms hint at the brain’s network of neurons that transmit the electrical pulses that generate thoughts, feelings, memories and other marvels of human consciousness.

We’ve long clung to that consciousness as the marker that distinguishes us from the rest of life on Earth — which, by extension, conveniently justifies our exploitation of them. Thing is, humans don’t exactly have a monopoly on consciousness. Recent research shows that some species of fungi exist in large communities which gather and distribute water, nutrients and other life essentials.

Similar to the other three artists, Radha Chaddah relies on a bio-based collaboration. The first step involves her seeding petri dishes with neural stem cells taken from human skin. Drawing nourishment from the petri dishes, the cells grow into networks, which Chaddah then doses with fluorescent antibodies and photographs, turning the resulting images into vividly colourful prints.

Shown greatly magnified, the neural networks have a cosmic aura about them. While that might not be literally true, it does dramatize the very real continuum between the micro and macro, and how we need to care for both realms if we’re to live sustainably on Earth.