“On rawguru.com,” the contemporary visual artist Amber Stucke notes in her graduate thesis, Embodying Symbiosis: A Philosophy of Mind in Drawing, “you can buy, for thirty-four dollars and ninety five cents, a tincture of cordyceps mushroom extract.”
Found in warm, tropical climates such as the Amazon or Borneo rainforests, insects such as ants, caterpillars or moths that come into contact with the mushroom on the jungle floor become covered with its spores. The spores then germinate, infecting the insects’ brains.
“Disoriented and infected by the cordyceps”, Stucke writes, “the ant steers away from the rest of the other colony of ants and climbs on a plant to reach higher ground. The ant clamps its mandibles down on the leaf or stem of the plant to secure its final resting place. The fungus then devours the ant’s brain, killing its host.”
1,500 years ago, “Tibetan herders observed that yaks would eat cordyceps and then frolic with great energy and “passion”, Stucke continues, adding that she herself has taken the extract “to explore its use in body vitality.”
Primarily working in the mediums of drawing, painting and sculpture, the artist explores the symbiosis between her art practice and evolutionary biology, consciousness, philosophy and the imagination, using the fungus as a point of departure. “Take a mushroom,” Stucke reflects. “How much of an influence does a mushroom have over our body? Once we ingest it, is it going to dissipate in our body? Or is it going to continue its life through us? Is the mushroom becoming us?”
The California-based artist invites her audience to consider this as well, making one of her most recent artworks participatory. Currently on display in the Hazel Wolf Gallery at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, her piece, Paper Dusted with Wild Mushroom Spores, is constructed of 3,000 sheets of newsprint dusted with local wild mushroom spores.
Stucke asks observers to take a sheet from the pile. “I want to provoke a phenomenological space within the mind-body and guide the observer to connect to the separations and interconnections that I have created in forms to allow the viewer to imagine the possibilities and probabilities along with me.”
Born in Illinois in 1980, Amber Stucke received her M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts in 2011. She previously studied at Goldsmith’s College in London as well as The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her thesis was published in the British visual arts journal Consciousness, Literature and the Arts in May. Stucke has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2004.
In her intricately detailed drawings of algae, fungus, lichen and parasite sexual relationships—both real and imagined—Stucke combines “experiential and rational knowledge systems” by appropriating “from visual taxonomies to create conversations between local knowledge systems of the human body and scientific classification structures.” The resulting artworks are at once arresting and captivating.
An earlier project, Stucke’s 2008 series, People Without Bodies (Epidemic Portraits), explored the idea of portraying people without their physical bodies. Again using imagined bones and organs as stand-ins, her interpretational “portraits” reflected the artist’s experience of her subjects, documenting and capturing “a moment in time of a person without their body.”
Stucke’s work has been exhibited in solo and group shows throughout the U.S. and in México. A monograph of the artist’s work, Parasites: Survival Relationships (Symbiosis State), will be released in January.
Symbiosis State closes September 12.