Bridging the Gap Between Sculpture and Mycology: Studio Visit with Alexander Main.
We recently took refuge from the brutal Berlin cold in sculptor Alex Main’s cosy Prenzlauer Berg studio/ Mycology lab. Over a warm glass of glühwein, the Argentinian-born artist led us through his fascinating explorations into using live mushrooms as an artistic material.
Alex bounced around Scandinavia for several years working as a self-taught product designer before he eventually found his home in Berlin three years ago… “Berlin was the place where I finally stopped daydreaming about where I should move to next. I just completely aligned with the whole mentality here”.
It wasn’t until fairly recently though, that he felt compelled to go all-in on sculpture, and gave up his career in Product Design. I asked what exactly it was about sculpture that attracted him so much.
“I kind of think three-dimensionally so I guess sculpture came naturally to me… And I like the idea of materializing a thought and making it into something you can touch. I find that very powerful.”
Whether it be countries, ideas, careers or materials, it quickly became clear that Alex is a person defined by a compulsion to explore. His approach to sculpture is no different.
“I’m trying to combine things… On the one end, I have this very sort of purist way of sculpting, which is anything from clay modelling to plaster to molding, but then on the other end I’m diving very deep into Mycology - which is the biology of fungi, as I’m utilising mushrooms as a material for growing living sculptures.”
“It’s not like you’re using a traditional material where you’re an artist and you’re sculpting - you’re kind of just guiding it… So there’s this interplay between me - the artist - and nature, as I cannot a hundred percent control the way the mushroom would grow… So every piece is basically alive.”
I was interested in what the artistic landscape of ‘mushroom sculptures’ looked like, and was even more interested when he told me it didn’t actually exist yet. I wondered what deeper fascination had led him to such unexplored territory.
“I respect the old days of the Renaissance, where old masters would be both scientists and artists. They wouldn’t have these boxes, as both share an insane curiosity of wanting to understand the natural world... I would like to bring back this idea that art and science go hand in hand, because I believe they belong together.”
“Funghi - as a domain of life - is third, after animals and plants. So they’re kind of like the underdogs… I just find it fascinating that a whole world is pretty much completely hidden from most people, and yet everything is connected to mushrooms.”
“From their role that they play in nature as decomposers of soil to the role they play with building this web of communication within plants and trees, basically, life wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for fungi - and I just find that really interesting… And most people aren’t aware of the strains of mushrooms that I’m working with, but they also happen to be insanely beautiful.”
Using the living matter as a material imbues the work with a degree of ephemerality not present with traditional materials, as when the mushrooms fruit into the bodies, they only last for a few days. But all drawbacks have benefits, as Alex explained… “They’re gourmet mushrooms, so typically I can eat [the sculptures]”.
This ephemeral element though has led Alex to consider other avenues of ‘recording’ the work… “I’m starting to explore photogrammetry [3D scanning] so I can preserve them digitally and develop the art pieces into more of a digital design type of work… And that’s super exciting… I want to embrace the new technology. So, in a way, I would like to merge biology with the arts and then also the digital.”
Alex’s fungi-centric sculpture practice is not purely rooted in personal fascination though, rather there’s a broader message to the work.
“We’re witnessing the destruction of the biosphere, and more than ever we have to look into new materials… Fungi could play a major role in helping us move towards a more sustainable world… They can be used as materials in construction and in textiles, and some have even been proven to eat plastics, but the reason we don’t know enough about it is because there’s too few people diving into the topic… So I would like my work to invite more people to jump on board and start looking at them both from a scientific but also an artistic and design point of view.”
Thank you to Alex. You can find links to his work below.
Words by Ewan Waddell.