WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
16.03 – 23.04.2017
The difference between flowers and fungi is more than semantic – it is metaphysical. Mushrooms are not fertilised by bees or butterflies. They subsist off of dead matter. They do not stretch towards the sun. Flowers, on the other hand, with their bright petals splayed to reveal a core of fluffy pollen, are an old, tired, metonym for “womanhood” – for the harmonious connection between all living things. A blunted, biologically essentialist equation which layers buds over genitals over gender.
In ‘Bend to Her Will’, Aggenbach moves towards a more complex and nuanced metaphor. She looks elsewhere in the biosphere, towards the quiet and subterranean – towards organisms with no need for light – to talk about the presence and power of feminine bodies. Wrapped in stalks and twisted vines like an Ana Mendieta photograph, bodies half swallowed by the earth, Aggenbach’s prints, paintings and sculptures fuse mycology, humanity, and politics.
Mushrooms (aka the ‘vegetarian steak’), are an intuitive, gastronomical way of talking about meatiness; are a confusion of categorisation. Fungi are more closely related to the animal kingdom than to the plant kingdom. They cannot move but follow the passage of necrosis. They thrive and interact with decaying tissue.
Aggenbach, working in a mixed down palette of sickly blues, greens, and chromatic greys – shades of worms, grubs, algae – begins to ink in the overlaps between dead and living tissue. Her Natural Selection series, numbered 1 – 12, picture dye-stains of flourishing fungi; the ghostly, indistinct style of which could easily be reframed as some method of paranormal photography; smudges which could be spirits, nuclear shadows of dead bodies, caught in the corner of images, blooming under darkroom developer chemicals. These prints are made to look like photographic negatives – dark images created by the exposure of a light-sensitive thing. This makes sense because fungi do not photosynthesise. They piggyback off of the digestive efforts of other organisms.
The title of the show is also reflected in her second series of prints, Sweet Surrender. On with the fungus fun facts: certain species of fungus are functionally body snatchers. Though they haven’t the capacity to move alone, they are able to infiltrate the motor systems of small insects. They create ant zombies. What could be a sweeter surrender than letting mushroom spores settle in your central nervous system?
Though the mark of consumption is present in these prints, there is little movement of any kind evident. Rather, they capture the eerie aesthetic of complete, peaceful death or stasis. These prints are much starker than the others – flesh ribboned off the bone, bare branches with sharp lines, beauty in death – a series of skeletal funereal wreaths. The forms are sharp and clearly silhouetted, unlike the rorschach blotches of Natural Selection. The compositions are delicate, precise, and in harmony with themselves and their environment.
Her painting, Elysium, a ghostly picaresque, makes reference to the ancient Greeks’ understanding of post-mortem paradise. In the painting, a rowboat, personed by an indistinct figure – some squishy amalgamation of organic matter – is shown departing from the shore, perhaps to somewhere brighter and better. The figure is not quite human, nor plant, nor wholly fungus. We get a glimpse of a head (or leaves?), an ear (or the gills of a mushroom?). In any event, it has transcended the mortal plane and is heading away from here.
Closely hung on the gallery wall is Lure, a large canvas print of a floral arrangement with golden threads trailing down onto the floor. Moving deeper into the mythology of the afterlife is just a quick note, or a nod, to the Fates who hold the thread that keeps a soul tenuously bound to its mortal body. This work, I think, is one of the more explicit moments in the exhibition which invites the viewer to think about the complex, seductive entanglements between life and death.
The more notorious territory of the Greek afterlife (also only accessible by boat), though, is the dark, cruel, subterranean domain of Hades.
The story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades and transformation into the ruthless queen of the underworld is a familiar and commonly referenced myth. It is malleable in meaning. Was she abducted, or, as in some contemporary readings, did she escape the mortal plane of her own volition? What becomes of the daughter of the harvest when taken into the house of the dead?
This is Aggenbach’s retelling:
Persephone, then a goddess of flora, was drawn towards a lily pond and pulled beneath, into the realm of Hades. Her flowers wilted and became fungi, because mushrooms need no light to survive. Nor life, nor movement. Only death, and damp, and time. This is why all things, eventually, bend to her will.