THE CRITICAL REVIEW

Introduction

This review looks at materiality and suggests it is a willful agent within my making process.

Setting out to use a practice-led research approach during this course by considering not only paint as a material, led to the exploration of charcoal, ink, and sculpture with clay, foam, wire, paper, cement and fungi.  The body of work made alongside the course material was influenced by subject matter which prompted and provoked me to investigate elements of painting. The physical encounter with material processes unfolded in most unexpected ways as I continued my practice as a mode of inquiry into materials and became more engaged in nature, its entanglements and its role in my own life and creativity.

The Fungal Kingdom became an investigation of making in my Parallel Project.  Here I contemplated the idea that the Fungal Kingdom is a form of meshwork, rather than a network, that permeated all landscapes.  These thoughts around the idea of a meshwork were influenced by Tim Ingold, when in In Being Alive he writes about entangled lines of life, and describes this as growth and movement, as opposed to simply a network of interacting entities. (2022:63) Studio interactions with materials became an involvement with a living thing as I looked at the mycorrhizal fungi and collaboration possibilities with other artists and the fungi itself.   Looking at the idea of Eco Materialism as an emerging art movement became an identifying option, here the idea of multispecies inclusivity, merging ecology and materialism are supported and brought a deeper understanding to look into environmental consequences when selecting materials and taking responsibility for the environmental cost of maintaining my work after it is completed – like considering recyclability or biodegradable options. An opportunity to spend between 2 and 4 hours a week at a local pottery studio supported the making of a  sculpture and other clay objects with locally found clay and working in another environment. 

Fig. 1 exploring inks and gel mediums as a reflection of mycelial growth

Founding my way into the materials as a visual language

Tim Ingold has written on materiality and I do like his reference to Aristotle: ” Long ago, Aristotle argued that if, for example, a sculptor wants to create a sculpture, then they begin with a lump of marble and, in their head, an idea of the form they want to create – be it the image of a god or of a famous character – and then they chip away at the marble until the form of the marble comes to match the idea in their head. So it was Aristotle who argued that in making a thing, you take a formless lump of material and an immaterial form and you put the two together. As the classical Greek word for matter was hyle, and for form was morphe, the idea that in making you combine matter and form came to be known as the hylomorphic model. This notion of making – of imposing form on substance – has been around in the western tradition of thought ever since, and has become in many ways increasingly dominant.

Ingold opened my mind to the becoming of material – this is a process of development, and by following the material in the way it goes, one is guided by intuition in action. It is what the material does during this making process which became my main interest in materiality in my work. He describes making as follows: “…., making is not about images and objects at all, but about the coupling of awareness, and of movements and gestures, with the forces and flows of materials that bring any work to fruition.” (An Ecology of Materials, pdf read online diaphanes) Research seen from this view is how I would describe the work; it developed as a making process with materials.

This involvement with materials led to an awareness of how materials resisted or became complicit.  Petra Lange-Berndt, in How to be Complicit with Materials  (2015:18-19)writes about making materials laugh. This reminds me of materiality as a ‘perpetrator’ of gender hierarchies. Work made using my own grey shampoo as a material to paint with, smelled nice and reminded me of femininity. (Part 4, Project 4 Painting without paint in my blog)   Barad redefines agency as a matter of intra-action: a neologism signifying what she describes as “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” (Barad 2007, 33).  Being influenced by the work of Cy Twombly and wanting to work with erasure, material as texture led to further exploration of materials that resist the surface. Shoe wax was used as a ground for drawings with charcoal. Wax as a material showed possibilities of having a multiplicity of functions being plastic in its consistency and seen in gendered terms as being linked to femininity and fragility.   Georges Didi-Huberman referred to a material fantasy of wax when he writes about the mystic writing pad and the Freudian model of the Wunderblock where ideas of traces, memory and erasure come to the front.  (Materiality: Documents of Contemporary Art, 1999:43) New meanings can be given to erasure, like to correct, to obscure, to revise as making and remaking.  I learned that erasing can be used to perform or become an act of rebellion. The plasticity of the shoe wax made it possible to draw spontaneously on the vellum paper with the charcoal; to bring in texture and transparency by erasing areas – even though the wax seems sticky and can be seen as a material that resits (it is not porous) –  removing it from the surface was an effortless work.   I find that as material this resistance as an art material opened up different dialogues with nature in my own making in terms of leaving traces and or memory of making as well as showing some tension which is always hidden in these relationships between humans and nature.

As a material wax is not a conventional material that comes to mind when thinking of matter in artistic production;  Didi-Huberman concludes wax is ‘downgrading’ not only from a point of view of the material but the academic idea of art in general. (1999:50,51) Fungal bodies are never stable, it always dissolves back into themselves again, reminding us that Nature is the continuous event of decay and remaking.  It also became clear that mycorrhizal fungi stay recognizable as fungi even when they partner one can see their fusions and eruptions within plant cells. The Vellum paper used is 100% cotton and wood pulp.

Looking at artists who influenced my making

Artists whom I researched, like Cy Twombly and William Kentridge, have had a strong influence on my explorative methods, such as inscribing, adding, removing, scraping into layers, erasing, repeating and redrawing or reworking.  Roland Barthes commented that Twombly “seems to cover up marks as if he wanted to erase them” (1985:179 and 180) I have been considering making as a form of sensemaking or alluding to understanding on my part, and I believe this is why Twombly resonated with my making.  I came to see palimpsest as a method in my work, both in writing (thinking about concepts) my blog and art-making. The material used, complimented my efforts of attempting to communicate with viewers as well as the way of thinking through the ideas of an entangled relationship between my body and nature. Cy Twombly’s use of paint to cover (erase), and to interrogate with materials as if this is a way to obscure, protect and add more layers to work, became a way into the materials and making. When I looked into block printing, I discovered another layering with materials – scratching into the surface could reveal new shapes, forms or ideas.

I was influenced by the work of Radhika Khimji, Lydia Halcrow, and more recently Terry Winters and Sonja Baeumel, as well as local artist, Gwenneth Miller. Most of these artists to work across materials as well as painting, drawing and printing and it confronted me with the processes of making and how this inspires new ideas to develop.

Material exploration of the fungi itself

New feminist materialism principles in this dialogue with materials lead to looking at nature, and soon alliances to make were found in the fungal world.  These alliances brought on thinking about the nature of things being themselves, and how being entangled makes us not separate or superior to matter.  The work being made and still developing did reflect more about this happening or alliances and led to a reflection on my own human experience of these things. A constant reminder of being in awe and the elusive component in everything became part of the reason for expressing – in one of our online tutorials, my tutor talked about ‘what if’ – this rung in my ears for a while when materiality was considered and how drawn I felt to it as the subject to review.  When working it became important to share these entanglements between materials and objects, and as if space for more possibilities was opened.  Karen Barad talks about ‘intra-action’, understood by me, it becomes the space of being enmeshed in more than only a human world. In her words, understanding is a process of becoming, not a thing, but a doing.  (K Barad, Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p 151) This insight led to deciding on the title of the final work, Fig. 2 Involution: fungi, trees and human. The work was developed over time with a collaboration partner who is a textile student.

Using wax as an underpainting for charcoal drawing on vellum paper as explained above:

Fig. 1. Involution, 2022 Karen Stander

As the above drawing developed, discussions continued within the collaboration around the idea of a strategy of destructing the work. By using fungi to enter it and hopefully consume it, was discussed as a process to follow.   A digital image was shared and the 3d made objects made by the other collaborator were placed in front of this image and photographed. This developed into further digital manipulation, which could also be seen as a hybrid between human and machine, to create a final digital work to be shown at an online exhibition in June 2022.

Involution: fungi, trees and human, 2022. Collaborative digital work by Annette Holtkamp and Karen Stander

More work developed which became central to the materials used as objects and subjects being studied; in a way, it became neither a subject nor an object, but lively materials, which are these mycelial fungi or living systems.  Contemplating materials and memory in this work it was decided to take a copy of the work and feed it to living mushrooms. Options are to colonise the printed Japanese paper with mycelium which has fruiting bodies. The first experiment was on printed paper and two types of oyster mushrooms were used to ‘colonise’ the work. The work was placed on top of the growing medium and human interference was used to create holes where the mushrooms could grow through the paper. This is an ongoing work which will continue as mycelium will be continuously layered with printed copies; it is foreseen that the paper is consumed by the mushrooms in the process. but it can also be stopped at any given time. Continuous photographic documentation is done at least twice a day. On social media, it was discussed if this deconstruction could be seen as a performance between the living and our projection of the living (IG post on @karenstanderart, dated 13 June 2022)

Day Three shows the Brown Oyster mushroom growing into the printed copy of the collaborative work, as shown in the previous image.

Looking at the above deconstruction of the work shows the mushrooms becoming part of the work, entering it with their own aesthetics and making it a living work.

Surface materiality

The work below was made on black cardboard.  When doing this work I found my interest moved to the spatial relationships within and between these mycelial meshworks, as well as how they might be perceived from near and far. The play with the surface materiality- how the paint and chalks created textured layers which look as if intertwining, became the motivation to further investigate making as a form of reflection of something which is in many ways imagined. In real life, mycorrhizal fungi are fifty times finer than the finest roots. Bubble plastic was dipped into acrylic paint and formed the underpainting or imprint for drawing and painting.

Using an imprint as an underpainting and considering how fungi as a living material make one question where the body starts and ends. I became interested in these spaces in between – which are not seen by the eye (human) but are entanglements which interconnect with different species underground. Does the dark board reflect on this space which we can not see – a possible juxtaposition of the real and the reflected?

Painting on Velour paper

In both of these works, a Diptych, I visualize a becoming – mycelium growing, but not yet ready to flower and produce mushrooms. I keep in mind that mycelium is not a thing, but a process. (Sheldrake, 2020:7) Sheldrake later describes it as a ‘body without a body plan’ (Sheldrake, 2020:55)  The hyphae explore different directions simultaneously, and has no fixed shape.  My reference material was the block of mycelium in which I grew oyster mushrooms during this time. How I thought about the materiality has a lot to do with the idea of how mycelium or mycorrhizal fungi collaborate. Merlin Sheldrake writes: “…hyphae travelled into knots and coils. This wasn’t sex……But it was sexy.”  (Sheldrake, 2020:140)

Being involved in a living organism, scale becomes an issue, as I could not really work with something which is mostly out of sight – how to experience it, see it or even touch it? I involved myself with something which is in many ways invisible and studied mostly in controlled laboratories. I realise that I do see only part of a picture, and I am making it larger in my works, and even consider going much bigger as with the works above. Making spore prints became one way to balance from small to large. I attempted to work with paper and found that the work below, done on aluminium foil, shows the fragility of this living subject as material.

Cultivating fungi reminded me of cultivating a partnership or involvement with the living fungi as a material. It became a framework to consider my own way of looking at the living world: daily posts on social media acted as a form of documentation of interaction, as well as possibilities around awareness and connections with the natural world.   I chose the Oyster Mushroom after reading that it is known for its learning to adapt to different environments and act as ‘collaborators’ in environmental cleanup operations.  It adapts well to contaminated or disturbed environments. From my own online research into growing mushrooms, I learned that the mycelium of the Oyster mushroom is very resilient, and aggressive against contaminants when compared to other fungi. 

Spore captured on an aluminium foil paper, 2022

More and more I understood that mycelium as a material is purposeful in that it is in the first place, a consumer, and had been doing so for millions of years in its evolution. This opened learning from fungi, like how to consider openness to new ways to live with, and adapt alongside one another, human and non-human.  I live on a farm and have experienced how the health of the soil influences our well-being in terms of crop production. I have now also learned that as humans have formed partnerships with plants, here it is the wheat plant, and new improved plants have been brought about through these partnerships. 

Merlin Sheldrake referred to an art piece in Friedrichsplatz Park, in Kassel, Germany, called The Vertical Earth Kilometer. (2020,156)  Looking at this work online, I immediately felt connected to the idea of the artist trusting the viewer to confirm its existence.  This work is mostly underground, to be exact,  one km solid brass rod was sunk into the earth, with only a very small, unassuming part showing, the 5.1 cm diameter of the pole.

The Vertical Earth Kilometer, Walter De Maria, 1977 (Showing the surface of the rod on a reddish sandstone surface in the park)

This work reminds me so much of mycelium as to how it is hidden under the earth.   In this way the materiality points to consideration of how we react to that what we do not see – there is still so much to discover or learn about what lay beneath/hidden. I do think this is true with materials I used – I discovered more, even if it was just the joy of working with it on and in conjunction with other materials and supports, without always expecting a great outcome, but moving forward. There is something about process and experience with the thing, the material in this case. Anthropologist Anna Tsing, positions mushrooms as metaphors for companion species, in this I read collaborations and contamination, always moving forward in our struggle to survive.

Through working with materials, metaphors arose around complexity, resilience, versatility, adaptability, and changeability. Ideas around balance and control were being tested due to the influence of the life force of the fungi.  By looking at mycelium I see a creative material production in nature and making became my reaction to find a dialogue or alliance by working with it.  

CONCLUSIVE REMARKS

 I explored other media as materials and became influenced by fungi in my Parallel project.  My work process was very intuitive as I became more aware of spontaneity and unpredictability as ways I prefer to work in my studio.

A preference developed to work onto thin paper support and explore erasure, memory by layering of forms and or colour.

Finding relationships between different works and mediums was a valuable learning curve.  This relates to a pushback process of materials during the making, which can be thought of as the effect things have on other things. Bennet writes: “ I equate affect with materiality” (Vibrant Matter, 2010: 2 )  I do feel that as an artist I am treading on some radical materials and building relationships which is less about individuality than it is about a partnership with materials and that this became more integrated into my practice as a metaphor for connectedness between making and materials whilst working.

The materiality of the made art object as something that one can touch, see and interact with and is part of why art will always matter in the literal and figurative sense in my making. I like to think of materiality as how my making became ” traces that are entangled in the web of life” as Lange-Berndt writes when she proposes, “Agency is a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has. Agency cannot be designated as an attribute of ‘subjects’ or ‘objects'” (ibid.)

THIS WOULD BE ON A NEW PAGE

Bibliography

Barad, Karen, 1996  Meeting the Universe Halfway

Barthes, Roland, 1985 

Bennet, Jane. (2010). Vibrant Matter [downloaded from OCA library and saved as pdf]

Sheldrake, Merlin, 2020  Entangled Life How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures  Random House New York  Ebook ISBN 9780525510338 [read online as PDF] 

Tsing, Ana, 2015  The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 23; 162. [ Read online on SCRIBD]

I realise by now that I am working with scale, making something very small and intricate into an imagined upscaled work. I believe this is my improvisation of the materiality of mycelium, as in the gestural marks an expression of a sensual experience is shared by using vellum paper to work on where the material adds to gestural marks about the hidden and or the obvious in the work.

New feminist materialism principles in my dialogue with materials made me look at nature, and soon I found alliances in the fungal world. These alliances made me think about the nature of things and being itself, and how being entangled makes us not separate or superior to matter. I felt that the work I was making reflected more about this happening or alliances and that I could reflect on my own human experience of these things. It reminded me of being in awe – in one of our online tutorials, my tutor talked about ‘what if’ – this rung in my ears for a while when I consider materiality and how I was drawn to it as the subject to study. When working I tried to share these entanglements between materials and objects I was so aware of. Karen Barad talks about ‘intra-action’, to me, it is being enmeshed in more than only a human world. In her words, I understand it as a process of becoming, not a thing, but a doing. (K Barad, Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p 151)

My work was central to the materials I used as objects and subjects I studied; in a way, it became neither a subject nor an object, but lively materials, which are these mycelial fungi or living systems. The work below was made on black cardboard. When doing this work I found my interest moved to the spatial relationships within and between, as well as how they might be perceived from near and far. The play with the materiality of the paint and chalks created layers intertwining.

To develop this painting I decided to upscale the work and made a diptych (images below) as I worked alongside music to develop the two works. I considered how I use tonality and textured material I work on, in terms of layering the work to create spatial movement.

In both of these works, I visualize a becoming – mycelium growing, but not yet ready to flower and produce mushrooms. My reference material (memory) was the block of mycelium in which I grew oyster mushrooms during this time. How I thought about the materiality has a lot to do with the idea of how mycelium or mycorrhizal fungi collaborate. Sheldrake writes: “…hyphae travelled into knots and coils. This wasn’t sex……But it was sexy.” I realise by now that I am working with scale, making something very small and intricate into an imagined upscaled work. I believe this is my improvisation of the materiality of mycelium.

Being involved in a living organism, scale becomes an issue, as I could not really work with something which is mostly out of sight – how would I experience it, see it and could I even touch it? I involved myself with something which is in many ways invisible and studied mostly in controlled laboratories. I realise that I do see only part of a picture, and I am making it larger in my works, and even consider going much bigger as with the works above. Making spore prints became one way to balance from small to large. I attempted to work with paper and found that the work below, done on aluminium foil, shows the fragility of this living subject as material.

Oyster Mushroom Spore Print on Aluminium Paper

Sheldrake referred to an art piece in Friedrichsplatz Park, in Kassel, Germany, called The Vertical Earth Kilometer. Looking at this work online, I immediately felt connected to the idea of the artist trusting the viewer to confirm its existence. This work is mostly underground, to be exact, one km solid brass rod was sunk into the earth, with only a very small, unassuming part showing, the 5.1 cm diameter of the pole.

This work reminds me so much of mycelium as to how it is hidden under the earth. In this way the materiality points to consideration of how we react to that what we do not see – there is still so much to discover or learn about what lay beneath/hidden. I do think this is true with materials I used – I discovered more, even if it was just the joy of working with it on and in conjunction with other materials and supports, without always expecting a great outcome, but moving forward. There is something about process and experience with the thing, the material in this case.

When I started cultivating my own fungi, the project reminded me of cultivating a partnership or involvement with fungi as a material. I started seeing it as a type of framework to consider my own way of looking at the living world. (daily posts on social media acted as a form of documentation of my interaction) I chose the Oyster Mushroom after reading that it is known for its learning to adapt to different environments and act as ‘collaborators’ in environmental cleanup operations. It adapts well to contaminated or disturbed environments. From my own online research into growing mushrooms, I learned that the mycelium of the Oyster mushroom is very resilient, and aggressive against contaminants when compared to other fungi. More and more I understood that mycelium as a material is purposeful in that it is in the first place, a consumer, and had been doing so for millions of years in its evolution. This opened learning from fungi, like how to consider openness to new ways to live with, and adapt alongside one another, human and non-human. I live on a farm and have experienced how the health of the soil influences our well-being in terms of crop production. I feel very concerned about mycorrhizal relationships which are under threat as plants are losing their ability to cooperate with fungi as conditions to thrive are constantly under threat or disrupted not just by fertilizers, but by global warming, drought and other environmental crises. I do wonder if fungi could not be used better against herbicides and pesticides. I have now also learned that as humans have formed partnerships with plants, here it is the wheat plant, and new improved plants have been brought about through these partnerships.

Mycelium as material

I explored other media as materials and became influenced by fungi as material in my Parallel project. This exploration of materiality led to the reworking and further development of work. Artists whom I researched, like Cy Twombly and William Kentridge, have had a strong influence on my explorative methods, such as inscribing, adding, removing, scraping into layers, erasing, repeating and redrawing or reworking.

Roland Barthes commented that Twombly “seems to cover up marks as if he wanted to erase them” (1985:179 and 180) I have been considering making as a form of sensemaking, or understanding on my part, and I believe this is why Twombly resonated with my making. I came to see palimpsest as a method in my work, both in writing (thinking about concepts) my blog and art-making. The material used, became a medium with which I tried to communicate with viewers as well as the way I tried to think through the ideas of an entangled relationship between my body and nature.

Through working with this material, metaphors arose around complexity, resilience, versatility, adaptability, and changeability. I became more aware of spontaneity and unpredictability as ways I like to work in my studio. Ideas around balance and control were being tested in my work as I clearly was influenced by this life force of the fungi. If I look at mycelium I see a creative material production in nature and my reaction to find a dialogue or alliance by working with it. I like to think of materiality as how my making became ” traces that are entangled in the web of life” as Lange-Berndt writes when she proposes, “Agency is a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has. Agency cannot be designated as an attribute of ‘subjects’ or ‘objects'” (ibid.).

The line of reasoning should be the materials and my alliance with nature through the fungi. I should start with a mini-plan – use solid text, and visual research as I am working now.

List of Illustrations

Bibliography

Barad, Karen Meeting the Universe Halfway

Barthes, Roland

Imgold, Tim

Lange-Berndt, Petra (2015) How to be complicit with materials

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