At first glance, the enormous fibre glass globe appeared to be a map of the Earth as it looked during the period before the super-continent Pangaea split into today’s continental structure. But a closer inspection revealed that while the work was indeed a map of sorts, it wasn’t continents that it detailed. Instead, the multitude of colours and intricate patterns of the work depicted the complex subterranean networks and communications that occur among trees and fungus, known as the internet of fungus.
The installation is one among the seven exhibits in artist Dhara Mehrotra’s latest exhibition, Through Clusters and Networks: The Wood-wide Web and Other Stories. Part of the Artist in Residence Outreach Programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, the exhibition explores the intersection of art, science and technology. It provides a glimpse into nature’s parallel universe – a universe that has existed for millions of years, but one that we have begun to understand only over the past few decades.
Mehrotra has interpreted this fungal network through a selection of iridescently-hued paintings rendered in acrylic, as well as the globe installation. She decided to incorporate the installation because she “felt that only a two-dimensional representation may limit articulation of this phenomenon that has varied facets in it and spans multiple dimensions”.
Mehrotra’s work has always been in response to, and engaged with, the minutiae of nature, exploring the ecology of landscape through petals, pollen, grass, moss and weeds. A few years ago, she stumbled upon what is known as the “wood-wide web” while researching a plant called Panic grass (Panicum). “This grass grows in the geyser basins of Yellowstone National Park [in the] United States,” Mehrotra said. “How is it able to exist in such difficult conditions?” As she learnt, “the grass has fungal assistance at the root level, enabling it to greatly increase its capacity to absorb nutrients as well as make it more heat tolerant”.
Mehrotra subsequently began to probe further into the world of mycorrhizal networks, to understand the symbiotic relationship between the fungus and trees. “The fungus provides trees with extra nutritional absorption powers and increases their immunity while the trees, in turn, nourish them through the carbohydrates that they manufacture,” she said. But what is especially crucial is that the fungal connections are not merely limited to the tree – a dense, interlaced network of fungal threads connects one tree to another, enabling them to transmit information, nutrients and other resources to one another. This is why a tree is able to divert resources to one of its own young saplings or release root secretions to encourage other trees to grow in crowded competitive situations.
Having always appreciated the aesthetic form of trees, Mehrotra said she became increasingly fascinated by the eloquent and detailed modes of fungus-facilitated communication among them. Her interest in the “philosophy and poetics of nature” grew and as her research took a more scientific turn, “it seemed as if I had located what had been a missing part in my practice”. Mehrotra’s research eventually led to her applying for, and successfully getting, the opportunity to participate in the programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. Mehrotra’s eight-month residency began in January 2018. It allowed her to interpret the form, topology and structure of the mycorrhizal network by understanding the mechanics of it through interactions with the scientists, research and engagement with technology.
Given that some scientists are sceptical of anthropomorphising the wood-wide web as “tree conversation” or chatter, how did they respond to her initiative? “To my surprise, their response was welcoming and very encouraging,” she said. “With their help, I found myself easily gaining access to this uncharted territory and understanding their practice.” Some of the principal investigators at National Centre for Biological Sciences are themselves introducing similar interactions within their lab research, and generously supported this outreach. “Art can give science outreach while science in turn gives art structure,” she said.
Clusters and networks have been a periodic theme in Mehrotra’s work. Nest, a wall installation in her current exhibition, features her signature dragonflies, which have also appeared in earlier iterations. One part of the installation features a swarm of fragile polymer-winged damsel flies and dragonflies emerging from a dark fissure in the earth. Another imagines the walls of the corner of the room as a black void from which dragonflies are departing to an invisible destination. A filigree-thin network of delicate golden cracks surrounds this nest, a reminder that the worlds beneath our feet are as precious and dynamic as the ones above, stressing the need to be equally mindful and appreciative of both.
One of Mehrotra’s key encounters with technology occurred through the literal lens of imaging when, as part of the programme, she was able to get a glimpse of the plant world using Scanning Electron Microscopy in meticulously controlled, dry lab environments. Capturing pollen, stigma, anthers, leaf structures, roots, minerals and leaf pads, the micrographs taken of these plant minutiae are in themselves astonishing works of art, extending beyond their ostensible functions of scientific documentation and enlarging existing knowledge. “They were an illuminating peek into mysterious world of micro-realities, making us realise that the objects we see in microscale that resemble those in the macroscale,” she said. A grain of pollen, she says, looked like a deity reposing in an ancient, ridged cave.
One of Mehrotra’s biggest takeaways from her experience has been her keen awareness of self-organisation in nature, something that aligns with her preoccupation with the idea of clusters and networks. “It evokes the wonderful thought that each cell or molecule is preprogrammed and knows exactly its purpose. Our small steps are merely unfolding and discovering intelligence behind nature’s evolutionary miracles, something far more profound and in existence than any human endeavour.”
Through Clusters and Networks: The Wood-wide Web and Other Stories, is on view at the NCBS Gallery, Bengaluru till February 15, 2019.
All photos courtesy Dhara Mehrotra.