At last, the word ‘rhizome’ can be used with alacrity. The terminology that has now entered the Postmodern canon of clichés can be accurately and unpretentiously applied to Klaus Weber’s Unfolding Cul-de Sac (2004), an installation that incorporates the Agaricus bitorquis, or ‘sidewalk’ mushroom, which does indeed thrive as an underground rhizome.
The rhizome, or mycelium, has the potential for unlimited radial growth and, if the atmospheric conditions are hostile, can survive in a dormant state for decades, only pushing up the familiar fungus, or fruit, at its periphery (known as the fairy ring) when conditions are right for the spreading of spores. The sidewalk mushroom is a resilient specimen that surfaces in great vegetable canopies the size of side plates and, what is more, its drive to reproduce can even overcome tarmac. At Cubitt the spores were sown in a segment of man-made soil and then smothered with tarmac. Soon the surface began to buckle and give way, the fungus bursting triumphantly through. It’s the classic narrative of the underdog (nature) overcoming adversity (artifice).
In a previous installation in Berlin, Weber sowed the fungus spores under tarmac and installed himself as the caretaker or curator (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) of the crop, consulting experts, studying the growth of the fungi and harvesting the spoils. At Cubitt, however, instead of resuming his performative role, Weber built a shed and decked it out with evidence of a fictional keeper of the project, an errant hermit, and encouraged visitors to take spores from the fridge and disseminate the fungus throughout London. The shed walls were littered with spore drawings, made by leaving fungi on sheets of paper so that the microscopic seeds fell in patterns according to the structure of their gills, while a magic mushroom festered in a Tupperware pot. The narrative took a cabbalistic turn with a cage of crickets chirruping under a warm light bulb, occasionally stopping their chatter to create a real preternatural silence, and a map pinpointing the rhizome sites that would proliferate if the spores were scattered in streets beginning with the letter ‘A’.
Weber’s installation is a concoction of fiction and über-realism. Unlike an artist such as Mike Nelson, he doesn’t create evocative atmospheres, but rather imports reality wholesale. Why attempt to reproduce the natural or preternatural when you can have the real thing? And, what’s more, the live aspect creates an even more authentic unpredictability. Why vainly attempt to proliferate the meaning of an artwork through social inclusivity or relational aesthetics when you can ride the wave of the fungi’s own natural fecundity?
It is the proximity of Unfolding Cul-de Sac to reality that tautens the fabric of its fiction, as undertones of terrorism rumble disconcertingly around the shed. But, beyond didactic narrative, the installation is replete with analogies: tarmac as a slice of urbanism, acted on by an unpredictable and innate force; mushroom as underground colony; researcher as Sisyphus, forever cutting back the overgrowth or chasing escaped crickets; participators as birds, spreading seeds by way of their droppings. Here art becomes guano, randomly placed stumps surfacing from underlying networks or something to be scrutinized with empirical precision.
Weber has taken on much of the vocabulary of science that is now applied to art practice, such as research and experimentation. But why were these deductive and inductive methods ever ascribed to the ambiguous methods of the artist in the first place? Weber’s reference to the positivism of the laboratory shows these parallels between art and science to be highly questionable. His research shed has more in common with the hobbyist’s den than an outpost in the Antarctic inhabited by a solitary naturalist. The personal and often arbitrary nature of the content of art seems to run counter to the apparent inevitability of scientific data.
It would be interesting to find out how successful Unfolding Cul-de Sac was as a social experiment. Did people take away the spores and disperse them in the streets? Are there vast rhizomes that will cost local councils thousands in road resurfacing? Are satisfied gallery visitors frying up a mushroom dish? Or are we cowed by the prospect of insidious life forms breaking up our neatly mediated social structures? Perhaps the status quo prefers its art bounded by the gallery walls and its mushrooms packaged by a reputable company, but I seriously doubt this is the case.