This artist creates ethereal mushroom sculptures like something out of a fairy dream
For these artists from across Canada, nature is more than a muse or subject: nature is an artistic collaborator, directly engaged in the process of creating art and deepening our understanding of the natural world around us. In Natural Collaborators, we meet artists who share creative control with nature. The wind, the trees, the grass, the plants, the sun are all potential partners in artistic creation, and what they have to express might surprise you.
In August 2021, Xiaojing Yan took CBC Arts for a walk in the woods. The location, a park near the artist’s home in Markham, Ontario, is a place she knows well, and when summer turns to fall, the forest becomes a forager’s paradise. “If we had been there in September, we would have found all kinds of mushrooms. Bigger ones and fanciful ones,” Yan says, recalling that day and the short expedition that was captured in his episode of Natural collaborators.
The short documentary explores Yan’s interest in mushrooms, the lingzhi variety in particular, a mushroom that features in the culture and folklore of his native China. She has developed a kind of creative relationship with the lingzhi, learning to cultivate them herself and employing these shelf-like organisms in all kinds of artwork: sculpture, video, painting, and even virtual reality.
On Natural collaborators, she shares the origins of Lingzhi Girl, the series that started it all. In form, it is a collection of sculptures: life-size busts of young women, characters meant to remind the viewer of a fairy-tale heroine, perhaps, or the artist herself. Many are cast from the same mould, and yet no two works are completely identical. They are also not entirely Yan’s creation.
To make a Lingzhi Girl, the artist fills a sculpted vase with a special mixture containing living mycellium. If successfully cultivated, the mushrooms will sprout and eventually complete their life cycle in an explosion of powdery brown spores, at which point Yan completes the process by baking the sculpture, thus ending the growth of the mycellium.
This is how only one Lingzhi Girl comes into the world, but Yan’s experiments are far from over. We contacted her by phone to find out where she would take the project next.
CBC Arts: What has happened since filming? Are you still working on the Lingzhi Girl series?
Yes, I have grown two or three other mushroom heads like the mushroom girls, and I am also working on other lingzhi mushroom sculptures. Like, I have two cats that are grown from lingzhi mushrooms.
I understand that the shapes you choose have a lot of meaning behind them, so why did you choose a cat?
Yes, it has a lot to do with the pandemic, actually. I have a cat, and during regular hours I like to travel and go to my studio a lot, so I don’t really spend much time with her. But during the pandemic period, when we were punished at home, the cat became such an important member of the family (laughs). So I made a cat sculpture.
The pose makes it look like she’s sleeping, but it also looks like she’s dead. There is therefore a kind of double interpretation of the work. He talks about loss — lost lives — that sort of thing.
I saw you doing paintings of the Lingzhi girls recently.
Yeah! You know, it’s like in the video where I show the process. When a mushroom sculpture matures, it releases lingzhi mushroom spores, and I actually collect these lingzhi mushroom spores. They are bronze in color, like cocoa powder, and I use them as a pigment. I mix them with a glue agent, then press that paste onto the canvas to paint these textures, and they look like mushrooms – like layers of mushrooms. I also mix it with water to paint portraits of the Lingzhi Girls.
When did you start making pigments from the spores?
Basically the same time I started growing my mushroom sculptures – so after my first sculpture was successfully grown [in 2015].
I think it’s very interesting that the sculptures, the Lingzhi girls, cultivate mushrooms, and then I also use the spores of these mushrooms to paint portraits of them. It’s all mushrooms. There is no other material.
I see this as a way to make the most of the resources we have. It’s a way to reduce waste and think about nature, the environment and resources — sustainability and all.
Are the spores alive? Do the paints continue to grow after the pigment is on the paper?
They may still be alive, but to be able to germinate and grow mushrooms, the conditions are very strict. It’s hard to do.
You have become an expert in this field. Watching the video, it was interesting to see how much of an experience it really was for you at first. You had no idea what things were going to be like in the end.
No, I didn’t!
Did you imagine that you would continue to work this way all these years later? What drives you to work with mycelium?
Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. When I started working with mushrooms, I bought already grown mushrooms from the store and had them cast in bronze. At the time, I used lingzhi mushrooms because of the Chinese cultural connotation: it is the mushroom of immortality and it is also found in many patterns and patterns — clouds, waves. They are all derived from the lingzhi mushroom and it has a lot of history in China. So I wasn’t thinking of using the mushroom itself as a material, it was more of a symbol.
Where the mushrooms grow from the sculpture, what shape they will take: it’s totally out of my control.– Xiaojing Yan, artist
After doing my first install with a mushroom concept, I went back to China and coincidentally went to a farm where they were growing these mushrooms – kind of foraging. I was amazed. When I was little, you know, it was something mythical, powerful. Seeing them mass-produced kind of amazed me, and it gave me the idea to work with the mushroom – to use it as a sculptural material. Let’s see how far I can go with it! So I just started my experimentation, learning how to grow mushrooms. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. (Laughs)
For me, I think the most exciting part is that it’s unpredictable. I can only control the sculpture up to a point. After that, I leave it to nature. Where the mushrooms grow from the sculpture, what shape they will take: it’s totally out of my control.
For the Lingzhi girl, I now have 20 sculptures from the same mold, but they are all very different.
I appreciate the process. You grow something, you feed. You know, it’s like caring for something, it’s tender — and it’s not just in a few days, it’s a process of a few months.
I have a small garden in my garden. I like to grow plants, flowers, etc., and I find that very calming. It may also be an aspect of [the art] that satisfies me.
It’s a nice idea to think about: the care that goes into making your art. If not, how do you work with the mycelium these days? Are there any new projects you are pursuing? Do you have any mushroom sculptures on the way right now?
Yeah, actually – and I’m still experimenting, finding the best formula for mushrooms to grow.
Last year I was commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum to create a sculpture for the Year of the Tiger, and it is now on display in their Chinese gallery. Next year will be the year of the rabbit, so I’m going to use one of my mushroom rabbits for this order. I probably already have 14 or 15 grown rabbits, so I’m going to grab one and give it to them. Next year, if you go to the ROM, you’ll see it.
Also, I’m working on a VR project. I create a utopian fantasy world where I put 3D models of the mushroom sculptures. The viewer can enter and look around.
Sometimes when I do exhibitions in a gallery, it is difficult to create the ideal wooded setting. [With VR] you can create a frame like the antlers – you can create something more ethereal. But it’s such a challenge (laughs). It’s the same as when I tried to figure out how to grow mushrooms. Now I am taking on this new challenge: learning to create virtual reality. And it’s more complicated than mushrooms!
See more works by Xiaojing Yan on her website.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.