"Mushrooms connect everything. Soil, plants, themselves. They're creating a whole ecosystem." D.C.-based artist Naoko Wowsugi can't help but grin when discussing her newfound passion, mushrooms, which also happen to be the subject of Redux Contemporary Art Center's latest exhibition, The Fungus Among Us: Our Mycelium Connection.
The project started as a mushroom aficionado would come to expect — through the coincidence of connection. Redux's director, Cara Leepson, used to live and work in D.C. and was familiar with Wowsugi's projects. But it was Enough Pie's founder Kate Nevin who saw one of Wowsugi's projects — an umami taste development center, naturally — and introduced her to EP's Cathryn Davis. The people were connected, the project was on.
Enough Pie's Awakening, an annual community wide project that involves art exhibitions, talks, and performances centered around a certain theme, focuses on the topic of "nourish" this year. Mushrooms, Wowsugi will have you know, fall perfectly into the nourish category.
"Without mushrooms, there's no soil," she says. "You didn't know that!" Wowsugi is delighted to share her knowledge with shroom newbies; she's so dedicated to this project that she is now a certified mushroom forager. "When anything dies, the mushroom dissolves it — 90 percent of organic matter will be decomposed by mushrooms. Thirty percent of soil is mushrooms. They are everywhere!"
Besides being a walking factbook for the amazing properties of mushrooms, Wowsugi is a creative dedicated to enriching the communities in which she lives and works. She's traveled to Charleston several times to familiarize herself with the area and the people. And, with the help of Davis, who she stays with when she's in town, she's gotten to know the mushrooms around here, too. "We were at Mepkin Abbey," says Davis of the day trips she's taken with Wowsugi. "And we made a big mushroom pizza and then we went to a city council meeting." Mushrooms, city council, it's all part of the community Wowsugi has come to learn about.
"One of our core values is to be a hub of creativity for the community," says Leepson. "There are multiple layers to this project, school and studio visits. I think it's just the epitome of why we exist as an organization."
While aspects of this project are still coming together — it's organic, like the very plants that inspire it — Wowsugi, Davis, and Leepson have some idea of what the installation will look like. First of all, there's the planetarium. Yes, like the theater that shows us what's going on in the sky above us. Except this planetarium has a bit of a different goal.
"The more I read about mushrooms, it's just like a universe underneath the Earth," says Wowsugi. "Under the Earth, we see the universe. I see mycelium as the planetarium." Local textile artists have created looped and netted cords forming wrapped coils — reminiscent of a mycelium network — which will be hung from Redux's ceiling and serve as the screen on which a video will be projected. Guests will be invited to lay down on mats and look up at the coils, seeing the universe underneath the earth.
"She's this creative force that's inspiring all of us," says Davis. "We're all working on different projects: teachers are doing mushroom projects with students at local schools. They're eating mushrooms. There will be student sculptures in the installation." Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Fungus Among Us is the community mapping project. The gallery will be split into "light" and "dark" sides: the planetarium represents the dark side and the student sculptures and community map will exist in the light.
The community map is comprised of strings on the wall and a polaroid for guests to take photos of themselves, which they can then pin up on the wall. If you see someone you know, simply connect your photo to theirs with a string. We are all connected, after all.
As the project's outline describes: "Mycelium grow underground and connect to other organisms in fascinating ways, just like community members connect to each other in ways they may not realize."
Wowsugi hopes to introduce community members, especially kids, to the people that live in their circle, in the very real world of their possible connections. She has recruited locals, like owner of Dellz on the Macon, Smarel Brown, to play the roles of mushroom fairies (a nod to fairy rings, a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms) for the video that will be projected on the coils in the planetarium.
"As an artist, I emigrated from another country to America," says Wowsugi. "Art making always connects people and I learn about the community. I am learning so much about Charleston."