Joan Mitchell Center AIR Program
2005 Painters & Sculptors Grant Recipient
Perceptual experience has long been a central issue in my art making. What I perceive and know through all my senses feeds a deep source for creative renewal. My earliest installations focused on spatial perception and how cultures shape spaces through their built environments (such as architecture, roadway design, or public spaces) and the making and placing of signiﬁcant objects (such as monuments, grave markers, and commemorative plaques) to underline cultural perceptions and values. I call this culturally driven shaping of physical space, cultural space.
I still explore how I know what I know, and how perceptual awareness is key to shaping a personal creative outlook. Early site speciﬁc installations mined the legacy of my Chinese American heritage to uncover the conﬂicting perceptions of traditional and modern Chinese family values. Then, through an exploration of Asian cultural symbols I examined how various cultures interpret clouds - a phenomenon at once universal yet read so differently through the lens of diverse cultures. I polled my international communities on their responses to clouds in the sky. Some saw them as foreboding harbingers of gloom, some as the vehicles in which their deities arrive, some as the long awaited end to the hot dry season and the coming spring, and some as the transition between heaven and earth. I photographed clouds, I drew clouds, I studied the naming and classiﬁcation of clouds. In 2004 I started making cloud installations using stainless steel hex netting. My cloud forms were intricately formed with needle nose pliers. Their forms were billowing and organic. Depending on the ambient light, the wire cloud forms came into sparkling clarity or disappeared into the soft shadows of an overcast day. If the wire clouds were hung near a wall, their cast shadows created a two dimensional line drawing which expanded the perceived space of the hex netting clouds by obscuring the boundary between physically real and the perceived wire clouds. For my cloud installation Floating Mountains Singing Clouds at the Sackler Gallery I worked with composer Eli Marshall whose airy ﬂute composition ﬁlled the interstices of the cloud forms with reverberations of eastern and western elements. Cloudsphere for the Philadelphia International Airport enjoyed the dedicated space of the Hammerhead Rotunda. There, my cloud installation had full play of the changing light through the clerestory windows and the drawn shadows on the curving walls of the upper rotunda. My commissioned installation for the Raleigh Durham Airport, Cloudscape is more elusive and secretive as it will only show itself in the strong rays of the setting or rising sun and in the evening as the upshining lights of the terminal draw a glittering response from the stainless steel.
Such was my metaphorical dalliance with heaven - clouds, ephemeral and ever changing. My perceptual shift in the past two years looks to earth - the ground beneath us. Hidden from view, below ground is an astounding amount of mycorrhizal activity. A close examination reveals a complicated underground network of mycorrhizae or mushroom root ﬁlaments. These ﬁlaments are the mycelium which will grow into mushrooms. The spread of these underground root systems can be extensive perhaps ten percent of a plant’s total biomass. The wonder of these mycorrhizae systems is the important symbiotic relationship established with the plant roots they inhabit – both mushroom roots and plants beneﬁt with stronger growth performance. The mycorrhizae actually channel vital nutrients in the soil increasing a plant’s absorption of nutrients and nitrogen thus accelerating plant growth.
As I study the scientiﬁc underpinnings of what conditions support healthy plant growth the relationships of mycorrhizal activity to plant growth represent small but important steps toward a sustainable environment. My challenge is to use this soil building system in a way that has the freshness and visual joy of good art making. In 2011 I created Mycelial Nimbus or Mushroom Cloud for the Abington Art Center. This sculptural installation took the form of an elliptical orb of poplar tree branches which were inoculated with plugs of mushroom spawn, and sited on a shady knob at the edge of the Abington Art Center’s woods. Over the course of a year or two, the inoculated logs hosted the growth of the golden yellow oyster mushroom spawn. Mycelial Nimbus will eventually give way to the cycle of time, decaying and returning its nutrients to the soil in the form of a supportive network of mushroom mycelia aiding the absorption of soil nutrients in plants. Thus the cycle of living plant growth is sustained in a way which enhances the soil for future growth.
My involvement with the Abington project led me to think further about how the soil replenishment attributes of Mycelial Nimbus could be adapted to a more portable size. I have since developed Mushroom Cap: A Mycorestoration Module. Mushroom Cap is a sculptural module made from oat straw and mushroom spawn. The module is about 24” high x 24” in diameter. Mushroom mycelia are known to not only enhance the nutrient uptake for plant root systems, but have also been used to “clean” some toxic spills, and to purify contaminated water. Multiples of the Mushroom Cap module can be produced to cover a site in need of restoration. As a ground cover, the modules will smother weed growth and create a visually beautiful ﬁeld of Mushroom Cap bumps. Over time the mycelia will ﬁrst produce mushrooms (only to be eaten when placed on non toxic sites) and then the mycelia will extend their beneﬁcial network into the soil below as the straw sculptures break down, disintegrate, and return to the soil. The ﬁnal result is an unique aesthetic solution to both enhance our soils in producing healthier foods and to nurture our creative wellsprings by providing an enjoyable visual ﬁeld.
Cloudscape, installed at Raleigh-Durham Airport.
Mushroom Cloud, installed at the Abington Art Center in Abington, Pennsylvania. The commissioned installation is a massing of poplar branches, innoculated with golden yellow oyster mushroom spawn. During the winter months the mushroom spawn will go into dormancy until the spring rains and warming weather will coax a bloom of oyster mushrooms to appear.
All works are copyright of the artist or artist’s estate.