Solar Powered Spinning Mushrooms In A Free Exhibition On Funghi At Somerset House

Mushrooms, Somerset House ★★★☆☆

Solar Powered Spinning Mushrooms In A Free Exhibition On Funghi At Somerset House Mushrooms, Somerset House 3
Beatrix Potter painted a lot of mushrooms. Image courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Did you know that Beatrix Potter was a massive fan of mushrooms and painted watercolours of over 300 different kinds? Or that when you die you can be buried in a mushroom suit so that your body returns harmlessly to the Earth? Hey, if it was good enough for Luke Perry then it's good enough for me.

It's just two fun facts to be found in a free exhibition at Somerset House that delivers us into the fungal undergrowth to see how mushrooms have shaped and continue to shape art and design.

A mushroom shoe will hopefully not lead to any fungal infections. Image courtesy Kristel Peters.

Obviously, one can't talk about mushrooms without talking about their psychotropic effects. The hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms have been used for millennia, going back to Mesoamerica. A couple of replica mushroom stones from that era are thought to relate to rituals that involved eating mushrooms to induce a trance like state, and the consumption of mushrooms back then has also been linked to ritual decapitations — that's a seriously bad trip.

I'd always thought the trippy effects of magic mushrooms were the intended defence mechanism, but am surprised to learn from this exhibition that the effect on predatory insects is to simply make them feel full so they don't eat any more mushrooms. That makes far more sense than sending some ants on a vision quest to discover what their spirit animal is.  

A large proportion of this exhibition is dedicated to artists inspired by mushrooms including illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, about as psychedelic a story there is, and more contemporary sculptures of fungi beautifully crafted out of papier-mache by Amanda Cobbett.

Seana Gavin's mushroom human hybrids are fun. Copyright the artist.

Often the works can seem wayward — Adham Faramawy's over saturated dance video is meant to be about gender roles but nothing really makes sense in it, including the use of mushrooms. Even the curation gets carried away at one point claiming that "mushrooms are sprouting through the cracks of industrialisation and capitalism". What have they been eating at Somerset House — oh, those kinds of mushrooms.

The quality of work in this exhibition is spore-adic and it's at its strongest when it's given the shroom to be light-hearted. Like in Seana Gavin's surreal collages of a world filled with human/mushroom hybrids or Carsten Holler's spinning mushrooms powered by solar panels.

A memorable treat is the ability to type in my name and see it grow on screen in a specially designed mushroom font, it's mesmerising to stand back and watch it expand into shape over a couple of minutes — I'm definitely posting that on Instagram. Right, time to find out how much this mushroom burial suit is going to set me back.

Mushrooms: The art, design and future of funghi at Somerset House is on from 30 January to 13 September. Entrance is free but visits must be booked in advance.

Last Updated 07 July 2020