I guess that few would currently dispute that the world is in crisis. I’m not talking about Covid-19. Nor am I primarily addressing the issues arising from the 36 billion tonnes of carbon that the human project sends into our atmosphere every year. Climate chaos is a part of the issue, but I’m thinking principally of those things that most impact upon the biosphere as an ongoing live enterprise.
They include the additional billion humans that our planet acquires every 12 years; the four-fifths of fish populations harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; the half of all the world’s trees felled by our species; the catastrophic depletion of soils by industrialised chemical farming, and the Sixth Mass Extinction which looms in an age increasingly defined as the Anthropocene.
Is it not strange, then, that these momentous matters barely register in the realms of modern art? Scan the works of the preeminent 20th-century figures — Kahlo, Picasso, Warhol, say — and you will find precious little that even celebrates the vast otherness of the natural world. Horses and bulls may have loomed large for Picasso, just as tropical flowers did for Kahlo, but they were primarily deployed as symbols of their own respective identities. When it comes to British artists on either side of the new century — Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud — one could comfortably summarise their collective oeuvre with that firmly self-reflective phrase ‘the human condition’.
While the realm beyond humans and its current plight struggle for artistic attention in some quarters, there is nevertheless a growing creative response that we might call ‘environmental art’. Unfortunately, the art world itself is wary of such prefixes and even Britain’s most celebrated practitioner in the sphere, Richard Long, apparently dislikes his own label as ‘land artist’.
Yet three excellent exhibitions in southern England illustrate the depth, range and vitality of the field. Two are in London — Mushroom: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi at Somerset House (until 26 April) and Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery (until 17 May). A third, entitled Bugs: Beauty and Danger (until 30 May), is at the GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Between them they draw together the works of roughly 70 British and international artists.
At an ecological level it is hard to imagine three sets of organisms more crucial to the biosphere than trees, insects and fungi. Exhibitions that explore these last two groups are particularly important because of the public’s widespread ambivalence or openly hostile responses to both. As a single illustration of this, a third of the human diet is thought to depend on insect pollination and in return we spend $40 billion annually on pesticides.
It is perhaps because of our preconceptions about fungi — as sources of poison or agents of decay — that the Somerset House exhibition has stressed the utility or cultural centrality of mushrooms. A third of the 30 artists in the show dwell on varieties such
Art about other life forms faces a central challenge of reflecting the importance of human encounter with, say, mushrooms or trees, without simply reiterating an underlying anthropocentrism. In each of the shows there are artists who resolve this problem in compelling ways.
A series of photographs by Thomas Struth in Among the Trees at the Hayward is of temperate and tropical forest scenes. All of them emphasise the astonishing complexity of these ecosystems and make us feel as if we are less observers of, and more entangled within, the trees. Vines smothered in mosses or epiphytes interlace with multiple overlapping tree trunks, while through and behind all is a bewildering recessional of foliage that continues spilling out beyond the margins of each image.
The effect is overwhelming and this is part of Struth’s intended message. Forests don’t exist to fulfil any imaginative purpose. They are not ours even at a conceptual level. In a way these images achieve a remarkable paradox: they abolish human agency. As he says, he wanted to make photographs in which ‘everything was so detailed that you could look for ever and never see anything’.
In Bugs: Beauty and Danger the artist Sarah Gillespie has intuited how the artistic process entailed in the production of her mezzotint prints is itself an analogue of our wider encounter with her moth subjects. The mezzotint process, which is all but lost and dates to the 17th century, begins with a dark canvas. Very slowly the artist reveals a lighter image on the page through a minute scraping action using a copper wire.
As Gillespie observes, ‘The moths literally emerge for me and to the viewer out of darkness, in the way that the insects actually reveal themselves at night.’ The images manage to seem both forensically detailed and shadowy, clear and bright yet somehow still half-formed. The word ‘understand’ in all its senses — both ‘to grasp’ and ‘to stand beneath’ — seems to be central to successful environmental art. Gillespie acknowledges this. The patience manifest in the work is itself an act of reverence towards her moth theme.
Exactly the same humility and tenderness of approach seem to operate in Amanda Cobbett’s fabulous mushroom models at Somerset House. These life-sized sculptures are about the quietest exhibit in the entire show. But then these pieces are not about us. They are about the form, variety, mystery and aesthetics of fungi.
One can only guess at the time required by Cobbett to make the models. The mushroom caps are fashioned by free-motion machine embroidery using coloured rayon threads. For the stalks she constructs papier-mâché tubes of hand-dyed papers. She even lightly scorches them to mimic the processes of decay which, in real life, a fruiting body exhibits even as it pushes up through the ground. She then stitches in fine silks to its base to suggest the hyphae on the mycelium as a mushroom is plucked out the soil. The detail is forensic. The resemblances are uncanny. But if they are such exact imitations of their subjects are they still art?
My answer is unequivocal. As authority for the judgment I would go to the body of work that is universally acknowledged as the origin of all human art. The Palaeolithic paintings in sites such as Altamira or Lascaux, from which Picasso emerged announcing that we had invented nothing, are noted for the way they capture the precise characteristics of auroch, ibex, bison, reindeer and wild horse.
Amanda Cobbett’s sculptural images of Agaricus arvensis, Boletus edulis, Coprinus gambosa, Panaeolus semiovatus and Macrolepiota mastoidea are part of the very same tradition. They summon the particularity and the living vitality of the other. They honour the richness of lives that inhabit this planet alongside us. No art can do more.
Mushroom: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is at Somerset House until 26 April. Among the Trees is at the Hayward Gallery until 17 May. Bugs: Beauty and Danger is at the GroundWork Gallery, King’s Lynn, until 30 May.