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Issue 218

Diana Policarpo’s Fascinating World of Fungi

At Galeria Municipal do Porto, the artist uses sound, videos and print to investigate ergotism and the right to self-determination in healthcare

BY Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva in EU Reviews , Reviews | 26 FEB 21

Eating bread contaminated with ergot fungus, which grows on rye, can result in ergotism – a disease whose symptoms include delirium, hallucinations, burning sensations and gangrene. Also known as St. Anthony’s Fire, ergotism was rife in Europe during the Middle Ages, especially among the poor, and was the subject of various paintings, notably by Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald, who symbolically depicted its gruesome torments as the trials of evil forces testing St. Anthony’s devotion. Ergot is also the nidus of Lisbon-based artist Diana Policarpo’s exhibition, ‘Nets of Hyphae’, at Galeria Municipal do Porto: a purple-lit labyrinth of videos, prints on fabric, sound work and digital animations curated by Stefanie Hessler.

Diana Policarpo, Bosch's Garden, 2020, installation view, Galeria Municipal do Porto. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dinis Santos / Galeria Municipal do Porto

At the narrowest end of the triangular gallery, Bosch’s Garden (all works 2020) is a three-channel digital animation based on Bosch’s triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (c.1501), a painting that Policarpo has often visited at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. Zooming in and out on the panels’ terrifying scenes of torture, monsters, amputated limbs, rituals and processions, the film is accompanied by a voice-over of the artist reading an interpretative text on the iconology of the painting: the alchemical transformative properties – on bodies and societies – of fire, ergot, mandrake (used in herbal medicine and magic to cure ergotism) and an evil-defeating piety.

The 16-channel sound installation Drift distributes cinematic scores of crackling, babbling and electronic bleeps throughout the space, creating an acoustic ensemble as well as pockets of sound by placing speakers either near screens or flanked by drawings on sheer fabric, suspended from the ceiling, of enlarged microscopic plants (‘Bodies We Care For’). Using synthesized sounds and field recordings from Galicia and Portugal, Drift is a collaboration between Policarpo and multi-instrumentalist Edward Simpson.

Diana Policarpo, Infected Ear, 2020, installation view, Galeria Municipal do Porto. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dinis Santos / Galeria Municipal do Porto

Elsewhere, the video Cyanovan (Protocol) loosely documents Policarpo’s road trip with the artist-activist and researcher Paula Pin. Fragments of conversations filter through themes that range from gender and technology hacking to self-managed gynaecology and the anthropocentric, monetized, heteropatriarchal science that separates us from nature. Policarpo and Pin met through their shared interest in ergot, including for its impact on women’s health. Before being largely replaced by a synthetic version of the hormone oxytocin, ergot was used to induce labour and reduce postpartum bleeding. In addition, the fungus contains an alkaloid that can be used in the treatment of migraine and to synthesize LSD. Theories abound about ergot’s involvement in witchcraft scares, notably in Salem in the 17th century. In Cyanovan (Protocol), the team works on extracting this alkaloid in Pin’s mobile laboratory – the titular blue van – percolating a rich, burgundy-coloured substance while reflecting on the natural interconnections between species. ‘We have co-existed with bacteria and fungus since birth,’ muses Pin.

Diana Policarpo, The Oracle, 2020, installation view, Galeria Municipal do Porto. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dinis Santos / Galeria Municipal do Porto

Infected Ear – a digital animation based on the ergot’s lifecycle, which echoes the growth of mycelia – leads to the show’s final work, The Oracle. Drawing on illustrations Policarpo foraged from digital archives, museums and botanists, this four-part, subtitled video revisits the stories associated with ergot – from its use in Ancient Greek initiation ceremonies honouring Demeter and Persephone to the visions of Hildegard of Bingen to its historical applications in midwifery – and explores the transformation of birthing practices by modern medicine, including the appalling surgical experiments conducted on women of colour.

While the details of Policarpo’s historical, artistic, and scientific investigations into the world of ergot are fascinating, there’s also the chance that the viewers might be lost to the sensory overload in the single gallery. Hinting at the fungus’s psychedelic properties and audio-visual synaesthesia, ‘Nets of Hyphae’ offers a multiplex physical experience of sounds, lights and esoteric knowledge while subtly defending the right to self-determination in healthcare.

A reopening date of Diana Policarpo: Nets of Hyphae’ at Galeria Municipal do Porto is yet to be announced. 

Main image: Diana Policarpo, Cyanovan (Protocol), 2020, installation view, Galeria Municipal do Porto. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dinis Santos / Galeria Municipal do Porto

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer based in Hong Kong. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pipeline magazine.