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The ability to come up with concepts that can unite a variety of different objects, losing your ego, presenting an artist’s work in a way that is interesting and can be read well, or treating artists with respect. These are some of the essential characteristics needed to become a curator according to Francesca Gavin, and she has them all. Naturally, she’s put them all to work in her new exhibition, Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, opening on January 31 at Somerset House in London.

The seemingly unusual show invites visitors to explore the fascinating world of mushrooms through paintings, collages, stamps, site-specific installations, sculptures, interactive screen works and film pieces. Featuring works by thirty-five artists, designers and musicians, the curator goes for a different kind of show: “The idea of mushrooms felt like quite a natural progression from a lot of my exhibitions around technology”, she tells us. “There are so many strange inspiring facts around mushrooms that are influencing design, science, aesthetics, psychology that it felt really ripe for exploration”, she concludes. And so, be it through psychedelia or organic design, delve into one of the unmissable exhibitions this season and get to know it better through its curator.

To get to know the person who curated this exhibition, how did you first get interested in the art world?
Through art postcards. My mum went to St Martins and gave me and my sister her art postcard collection when we were about 7 and 9. By the time I was 12, I had started collecting hundreds and had quite an encyclopedic knowledge of art history. I studied the subject for pure love at university but only got into the contemporary art world years later. I sort of fell into a sea of openings and began to focus on writing about art. Everything went well from there.
What do you think are the basic/essential characteristics needed to become a curator? The best and the worst parts of the job?
First, you need the idea. An ability to come up with concepts that can unite a variety of different objects no matter what media they are. Then, I think it’s about losing your ego, presenting an artist’s work in a way that is interesting and can be read well, juggling and a hell of a lot of organisation. Treating artists with respect is everything. The best bit is when the works finally arrive and you get to unbox them. It’s like the ultimate Christmas. The worst part is the layers of organisation from insurance to transport, and the lovely blips along the way. I love what I do however and feel very lucky I get to create exhibitions and hopefully inspire people to see exhibitions.
You work as a curator but also as a writer. What does each of these professions bring to you? Does your work as a writer influence your work as a curator? And vice versa?
Completely. Writing came first – and I see my exhibitions as very journalistic. I put together a group show the same way I would put together a book or thematic feature. I trained myself to look for things that were defining the zeitgeist, I suppose! It also makes writing exhibition texts a lot less daunting. I learnt to hustle as a freelance writer. It wasn’t a bad background for curating! However, I learnt so much about curating from making shows.
My first exhibition took two years to put together. I hadn’t a clue how to frame or hang or ask artists. I just started approaching people I liked out of the blue with an idea. Years of creating shows taught me a lot of things on the job. Also, always, always say thank you. To everyone. All the time. Because without the installers, the producers, the cleaners, the invigilators, or whoever you are working with, the exhibition could not happen.

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi forms part of Somerset House’s cultural programme exploring sustainability. Do you think this will impact the future of art? As in other areas/industries, has sustainability become an important aspect of artistic productions? Do you think it’s something that has been implemented enough?
I think it has to effect the art world and this is a conversation that is slowly coming to the fore – in particular with art fairs and the huge costs and waste during production and shipping across the industry. I think the industry has to do far more, but I think the government has to do even more. Why isn’t plastic illegal? Because of vested interest. We need legislation that means serious investment in alternatives.
I still believe culture is one of the most vital ways to influence people’s thinking about the relationship to each other and the world. The Mushrooms exhibition was really a way of making people think about their relationship to nature and the environment in a relatable, accessible way. Artists have always been thinking about sustainability – when they aren’t at the top end blue chip of the art market. Younger artists largely cannot afford fabrication. They are using what they can get their hands on, and that can mean much more interesting art too. Even paint is really just crushed stones and dirt with an ego.
You have curated exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world, often with a strong focus on our relationship to technology. However, this exhibition invites visitors to explore the fascinating world of mushrooms, why did you choose this element as a starting point?
The idea of mushrooms felt like quite a natural progression from a lot of my exhibitions around technology, like The New Psychedelica at MU or The Dark Cube at Palais de Tokyo. I think that a lot of my shows are looking at the visual and political remnants of counter-culture experimentation. My shows are usually about me trying to get my head around something – our relation to screens and how that makes us feel about our bodies. There are so many strange inspiring facts around mushrooms that are influencing design, science, aesthetics, psychology that it felt really ripe for exploration. I also simply loved the beauty of the things and was fascinated that so many artists were using a single topic as inspiration.
There are many works uniting technology and nature, like Jae Rhim Lee’s decomposable mushroom burial suit or Casten Höller’s solar-powered Mushroom Suitcase. There are other artists whose work links technology and nature and makes them inseparable, like Björk, for example. What’s your take on the topic? Will technology save nature instead of destroying it as we’ve been thinking lately?
The Internet and our phones and the whole screen culture are ecologically unfriendly. The mining of minerals that destroy the landscape, the energy used to power these objects… A single Instagram post takes energy. I think we are all very, very addicted to the machines we use – and they are designed that way. However, I think using technology to develop new materials, new methods, new ways of being that are positive to the environment is incredibly important. I’m not sure that technology is going to save the world. I think it could help us communicate and develop methods to rethink what we are doing.

The exhibition features works by thirty-five artists, designers and musicians. How was the selection process? What criteria did you consider and what do these creators have in common?
The works really all represent mushrooms in some way or use mushrooms in their actual creation. It’s like stumbling into a forest filled with mushrooms – everywhere. I wanted to show a breadth of medium – we have paintings, collage, stamps, installation, sculpture, interactive screen works, film pieces, books, ceramics, textile pieces. It was so interesting to see how mushrooms could be adapted across so many different objects and touch on so many aspects around politics, ecology, beauty, poetry, architecture, fashion, museology. The list goes on.
In addition to the process of selecting the participants, what other phases or moments were essential for the realization of the exhibition? Did you find any major problems or difficulties during the process?
It is always about budget. Asking people for help to support what you are doing. We were very lucky that Origins partnered on the show, and the Gaia Art Foundation supported the talks programme, and that galleries like Gagosian were kind enough to help with loans. Space is always the second issue. I could have created a mushroom show three times as large as I had the room!
Beyond the artists that participate in the exhibition, what other contemporary creators do you admire? Tell us about some of your favourite artists or those you think are doing the most interesting, pioneering pieces.
What a fun question. I love so many: Pierre Huyghe, Betye Saar, Cameron Jamie, David Hammons, Mark Leckey, Wolfgang Tillmans, Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Danny Macdonald, Lynette Yiadom Boakye. Don’t even get me started on the dead artists...

In Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, there is a great commitment to contemporary artists. In addition, you wrote 100 New Artists, a book that brings together artists born after 1970. What do you think of the current art context? Do contemporary creators have enough visibility?
I think that it’s really hard for emerging artists, and if I can do anything in my little way to bring attention to their work, then, great. In around 2010, I was really excited by the generation of artists using the Internet as a way to disseminate their work in new ways. It feels that has stagnated, maybe because of Instagram. We got too used to the screen. Today, I think the most important things for any artist is to show work. Seeing work in person is a totally different experience than looking at a jpeg. I think the rise of performance reflects a real need for community and conversation.
Is there any area of art that you haven’t explored yet but you want to explore in your future exhibitions? What plans do you have after Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi?
I’m waiting for the next big idea – I’m sure it will come because I’m too bloody curious about life and am obsessed with looking at things! There is the possibility of doing a larger, more comprehensive book on mushrooms and art, which again, has never really been done. I have a radio show on NTS, Rough Version, on the relationship between artists and music and think that may well lead to a future project. I find the best ideas usually come out of walking down the street, going into bookshops, making scrapbooks and reading.
Francesca Gavin is the curator of Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, open at Somerset House until 26 April, free entry.

Claudia Luque
Wolf Dieter Grabner

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