Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The elusive mushroom

Nesmahar Sayed found out about the latest German-Egyptian art exchange project

Al-Ahram Weekly

The most recent project by Kasha Bittner, the Cairo-based German curator — undertaken in the framework of the German Embassy’s long-term Berlin-Cairo Event Series — involved an artist from each city: Sarah Samy, a Berlin-based Egyptian; and Yvonne Buchheim, a Cairo-based German.

“We wanted an exchange,” Bittner said, “but we wanted to avoid ordinary, familiar city postcards as project’s results. We wanted to stimulate a free, non-routine and even naive approach to those places, just to learn about the places and not simply document them.”

As an “open form” and a metaphor, mushrooms seemed like both an appropriate guide through shifting urban identities and a “teaching machine”, based on the philosopher, composer and mushroom collector John Cage’s idea of concerted unknowing: “It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms, they escape your erudition.” Familiar and ordinary though they are, mushrooms remain unpredictable and unlimited — indefinable.

It was particularly fitting for Samy, who has lived in Berlin for a year now, and Buchheim, who has lived in Cairo for three, teaching at AUC as well as practising art. Bittner, for her part, moved to Cairo when her husband found a job here, but she was “interested in Cairo, particularly its culture” to want to live here anyway.

The project in Cairo comprises an outdoor exhibition outside the German Embassy (remarkably on Berlin Street), the screening of a video by Buchheim at the Goethe Institut downtown and another by Samy at the Goethe Institut in Dokky.

“So the project spreads through the city like mushrooms,” Bittner says. “On Berlin Street the visa applicants become the natural audience for images by the two artists while they are waiting in line outside the embassy headquarters. This is the first time that embassy art has been exhibited in the street. The place is important in itself, it is like a piece of Germany in Cairo but on the other hand it is also a public street so the venue of the exhibition is a bit like a border line.”

From this public-space artistic encounter, rare enough in Cairo, the audience can go onto the indoor video screenings. “All three venues are somehow related to Germany while being part of Cairo, that’s why they seem to be the perfect place for presenting this project.”

Most of the audience were familiar with mushrooms, partly due to the 1980s and 1990s mushroom-growing campaigns. Buchheim’s performances with red mushroom sculptures always sparked interest. “Someone always wanted to occupy the space between the mushroom and the artist, but we think it is the mushroom, not the artist that people were interacting with... Looking for mushrooms—not picking them but looking for them in time and process. This was the artistic method.”

For her part Buchheim said the project altered her understanding of mushrooms. “For me, mushrooms bring back lots of happy childhood memories. I remember picking mushrooms on forest walks with my father in Germany and learning how to carefully lift a mushroom from the moist forest earth and differentiate between tasty edible and poisonous ones. At home, my mother carefully reexamined all the collected treasures and secretly got rid of some doubtful specimens.”

Due to the absence of real wild mushrooms in Egypt, however, looking for them took her on a different kind of journey: “I thought about mushrooms as an abstract idea and what they could symbolise. They spread underground and most of their growth is invisible but every so often a body is growing above ground, only then do you become aware of the actual mushroom and its hidden structure. With this awareness I began to see everyday life with different eyes. I was reminded that what we see is only a fraction of what is present and within this gap lies huge potential for our imagination.”

In her animated video Perfectly Voiceless, Buchheim visually explored these ideas, playing with a continuously changing mushroom motif to trigger associations. “The animated images suspend concrete meaning and instead the viewer is invited to reevaluate what unfolds visually in front of their eyes. Especially the Cairo street scenes become strangely haunted when people are caught by the red plastic mushrooms slowly growing in unexpected places, seemingly unnoticed.”  

The process itself was revealing: “When I placed the replica mushrooms on the streets of Cairo I encountered lots of different reactions, from enthusiastic and curious to confused and suspicious, but people were never indifferent. This struck me as one of the major differences between public art projects here and in Europe. Here, people’s curiosity to communicate and find out about the mysterious objects often led to surprising situations.”

An impromptu performance took place when a teenage boy started swinging over the mushrooms from a tree at the Fish Garden in Zamalek. Here as elsewhere families were keen to be photographed with the mushrooms.

“I was utterly perplexed by the friendly banter that took place between strangers. Several times I heard onlookers warn the people around of the sculptures, which they had mistaken for bombs...” Naturally she did her best to clarify that misconception.

By showing people’s responses to unexpected situations within the public realm in Cairo in 2015, these encounters explore the role of art within the everyday and the use of public space. “During the making of this project,” Buchheim says, “I used mushrooms as a tool to question the boundaries between art and life. This inquiry is continued by placing the final artwork not in the white cube of a gallery but on the street in front of the German Embassy, inviting the queuing applicants as well as passers by to engage with it.”

Bittner says Buchheim also discovered mushrooms in Egypt: “Although edible mushrooms barely exist here in nature, fascination with them is common and represented widely. Ceramic, plastic and other mushroom representations are placed in parks, streets, hotel lobbies and cafes. They decorate the road from Giza to downtown and are one of the symbols of the White Desert. Edible mushrooms grew here naturally in pharaonic times, and had a holy status—one belief was that mushrooms are the sons of the gods, sent to earth on bolts of lightning.”

Buchheim asked how mushrooms exist in Cairo, whether they were more of an exotic motif than a real biological species. “Her method is playful. On the one hand she is making these red models and placing them in various situations, triggering interactions. On the other hand she tries to classify the mushrooms she finds on her way through Cairo.”

Through this, Buchheim was in contact with Samy over the project’s six-month duration. “Via email,” she says, “we exchanged our research on mushrooms, shared art in progress, reflections and questions, and through this gained in-depth insights into our new home countries. A lot of this exchange remains unseen in the final exhibition but its presence has real impact.”

Buchheim’s video brings natural and artificial mushrooms together in morphing, hallucinogenic formations that, according to Bittner, “leave the viewer with Cage’s conviction that it’s useless to pretend to know them. Watching the video, we understand that what we get to see is just a small fragment of an overwhelming, unseen structure and richness.”

For her part Samy went to the woods encircling Berlin, an experience she later called “pure sensation”, but the images she presents in the show do not document the encounter. As Bittner describes them, they are a demonstration of her fascination: digitally manipulated or repeatedly repainted photos, drawings and 3D objects, compounded into a whole and together evoking the forest’s mysterious atmosphere and overwhelming nature.

“As the artist can’t really capture the power discovered,” Bittner says, “her way of dealing with it is to migrate into abstraction and dream. So in her images mushrooms shine with fluorescent light, deer turn into Bambis, and an early morning on the edge of a wood becomes a dance of afterimages in sun-blinded eyes. A reimagined, magical world emerges, a forest picture liberated from its source. Samy’s video also makes room for our own tensions and imagination: non-narrative shots of a wintery, silent forest landscape are combined with clips found on the web of people stomping on puffball mushrooms, releasing clouds of dust like spores from their bodies.”

The mushrooms are apparently provocative: their puffiness is irresistible, and physical confrontation with them seems the only way of escaping this sensuality. But in Cairo, Buchheim proves that “mushrooming” is limitless, and mushrooms also have strong provocative and interactive potential.

“Mushrooming in Cairo and Berlin has become a project lying between observation and astonishment, recognition and abstraction, reality and dream,” according to Bittner. “It started from mushrooms in order to reach places, and then it reached ideas about particular places, ideas that were found in the works of Sarah Samy and Yvonne Buchheim...”

As Cage said, “Ideas are to be found in the same way that you find wild mushrooms in the forest, by just looking. Instead of having them come at you clearly, they come to you as things hidden.”

Samy had always been intrigued by mushrooms. “Especially the fact that the fleshy, attractive bodies are only part of a complex underground network of mycelia,” she said. The mycelia transmit communication signals throughout its network, linking a large and diverse population of trees, plants and other forest inhabitants. This network somehow acts as the sensory system of the forest and through a dynamic process it spreads nutrients and coordinates defence responses to impending threats.

“When I started working on the project,” Samy recounted, “I often went for long walks in the forests around Berlin and Brandenburg. Mushrooms acted as a starting point that eventually gave me the space to draw connections with the entire landscape of the forest and the sensory experience of walking itself, pressing hard on the soft ground. During the walks, I came across large mining and gravel pit sites, which also operate according to their own networks but provoke a rather lonesome atmosphere, a certain sense of isolation which might not actually be valid, but is nevertheless there.”

Samy wanted to make an image to quickly tap into this “pure sensation” of a place. According to Bittner, in the silent video scapes, she was trying to link different points of interest, whether it was the gravel pit sites, the snowy forest or found internet footage, in some sort of a tense, disoriented rhythm.

In the making of the project Samy discovered that people and places had their own relations with mushroom: “During the forest walks, I came across many people collecting wild mushrooms, which I found very interesting. There are a lot of resources and maps available on where to find edible ones and how to identify them. During the season, there are a lot of small market stands in the countryside, selling a variety of wild mushrooms. The references are also everywhere, as garden décor or little fairy-tale figurines, which I find very beautiful.”

She too stressed the exchange aspect of the process: “During the entire project, I was working very closely with Buchheim as well as Bittner. We were constantly sharing thoughts, ideas, work in process...”

Is Bittner looking for another project with a similar concept, though?

“I would like to work more as a curator in Cairo and I think it would be wonderful to do more research on the Egyptians’ fascination for mushrooms,” she says. “Many positive reactions to the project are taking place now. People approach me with their own stories on mushrooms, also on cultivated mushrooms. So it seems that many people here are interested in growing their own mushrooms or they just do it in their houses, using for example organic waste as soil. Mushrooms, after all, can grow everywhere.”

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