Depth of a Surface

A little girl named Ana accompanies her twin sister and father as the latter picks mushrooms. Seasoned in the hobby, the father passes on some of his knowledge about how to identify the edible mushrooms from the inedible or toxic ones. On being interrogated by his daughters about the validity of his observations, the father asserts that he only knows what their grandfather has taught him. On identifying a potentially fatal mushroom (called the ‘fly agaric’ in common parlance), the father crushes it under his boots. The sight of the mutilation triggers something in Ana, and she later goes on to presumably consume it and experiences a powerful altered reality that transcends the limits of her cognition. It was perhaps an act of defiance against a primarily patrilineal form of shared knowledge; the mushroom is not an accident.[i]

There stands a space of durational engagement on the premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan; perimeters set, it’s a laboratory occupied and activated by fungal spores. A condition has been created for the spores to grow and proliferate across the surface of walls comprising organic matter. It houses a realm of life that evolves on a scale imperceptible to human senses unless physically manifest; the changes in temperature, smell and sight are specific to this pocket of molecules, concentrated by the condition of the ‘garden’. Below the surface of the walls, a range of activities is taking place perpetually, which is outside the spectrum of visibility. What is visible are the rhythmic changes in colour and networks that have registered on the walls; they give the observer a sense of temporal passage.

When observed under the microscope, the fungi reveal the intricacy of their forms; the surface runs deep. As a network, they form a system driven by nonhuman agency and in scale, mock the human ambition for cumulative expansion in space. The rhizome invades and maps every inch space under the radar and beneath our feet.

A deadly virus plagues the world currently, attacking human life and quietly spreading with tactile contact. It’s invisible and significant, it invades the human body and feeds off its energy. With the threat of the virus, the body is put to test and the microbes that constitute us are alert and/or dying. In its quest for human hosts, the virus has contaminated the air so that mobility is restricted, ‘deviants’ maltreated, and space reveals itself as a privilege. The State reveals its glaring incompetence as the crisis gets subsumed into narratives of communalism. Racist strains continue to pervade in the media as the poor die of hunger. Some of us wallow in our domestic pockets in anticipatory grief while the virus shapes the content of our dreams. Orders are changing as people become more fragile to the elements. It’s a catastrophist fever dream; are we collapsing?

But fungal life is precarious and a liminal space between life and death. Years after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, a black fungus was found growing in the location. Taking over a site of disuse, the fungus fed on the radiation, making the area potentially habitable again. It is an obstinate sign of life then, and it flourishes even (and sometimes, especially) in neglect. The garden remains untended.


[i] This is a descriptive analysis by the author of an excerpt from the film, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), directed by Victor Erice, Spain

Cover Image: A still from the Fungal Garden, Maksud Ali Mondal

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