Sarah Staton is an artist working with the social potentials for sculpture, and balances public commissions with studio work and occasional iterations of her ongoing SupaStore project. Her project in zingmagazine “Mycology and Dendrology” celebrates the newly identified wondrous hidden underground communication networks that researchers such as Suzanne Simard are identifying through careful study in recent years. Sarah Staton lives and works in London, and is Senior Tutor in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art.
Interview by Brandon Johnson
How did you first learn about mycorrhizal networks, and what about them sparked your interest as a subject for art?
Around four or five years ago I came across a text that talked about the ways trees send nutrients and water to each other through their root networks and via the nets that fungi make under the forest. This fascinated me. I looked for more information and found the work of the ecologist Suzanne Simard who has been mapping and researching this area for 30 years—her Ted Talk is excellent. As for taking this knowledge as the subject for watercolor and ink drawings, I have enjoyed the visual correspondence between the forms of mycorrhizal networks and the diagrammatic networks that I doodle in academic meetings, which also correspond to the nets that spiders make when they have been fed various drugs. These “Spiders on Drugs” nets provided subject matter for an early set of watercolor and ink drawings. Mycorrhizal networks are a vehicle for me to go forward while go backwards as it were to revisit a visual form that resonates with me, and to do it in a slightly new way.
So would you say your recent drawing practice is about representing interconnection?
I would describe these drawings as pictorial representations, and a vehicle with which to enjoy the play of color and line on paper. In this particular set of drawings interconnectedness is represented, and they are a visual note for speculations on non-sapiens sentience.
How does this fit in with your other work?
Drawing as a way of thinking—I use drawing in a number of ways, sometimes to develop ideas and methods for making sculpture, sometimes as a kind of pictorial diary/note-making, and sometimes in small series to explore ideas. The mycorrhizal networks drawings are one such small series. I see a link with the notion of interconnection with the series “Spiders on Drugs” from 2001. The mycorrhizal network drawings also connect to an exhibition that I made in 2007, “In Situ Ex Situ,” at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, in which I thought about the journey living wood takes from forest to home. For this exhibition, I created sculpture from pine furniture, manipulated with digital cutting (CNC), alongside Alpine style furniture that is essentially wood dust held together with resin, tracing a kind of timeline from majestic living wood to abject reject domestic furniture.
It’s interesting to think of something as simultaneously a living thing and material. A transformation takes place where organism becomes commodity, not only in name from tree to wood, but also a separation in the mind where these somehow are two distinct things where origin is lost. The essay in your project expands upon this subject. Are you advocating here for sustainability or at least a consciousness surrounding the consumption of natural resources?
To take your last point first, one might say that we the humans suffer from exponential entitlement issues: our destructive domination of the animal kingdom and our planet’s resources is taking us to the point of no return. How might we step back from the brink? Considering these nascent understandings of communication networks that clearly exist between living organic matter and between living creatures whose languages we don’t understand and sometimes can’t even hear, is helping me rethink consciousness in terms of consumption of natural resources. I find these areas of discovery incredibly exciting in terms of their potential for us to change our behaviors going forward.
In terms of considering the relation between organism and commodity, I am very interested in Peter Linebaugh’s writings in which he studies historic processing of natural resources, along with the labor issues involved in these processes. His writing reveals in some detail the specifics of working with material and in the main he looks at the time before oil transformed our range of material options so exponentially. The pernicious effect of adding oil, petrol, and their by-products to our material register has been and continues to be corrosive on a devastating scale.
Your project in zing uses a rainbow spectrum of color that bring to mind a utopian visual aesthetic associated with the hippie culture of the 1960s. Was this in any way an influence here?
Absolutely this is a direct associative reference, the aesthetics of hippie culture, that point toward content, to name a few examples—in the UK, Oz Magazine, IT and Spare Rib, in the US Bijoux Funnies, the Whole Earth Catalog—this explosive moment post-WW2 for western counter-culture. For Millennials and Gen X-Z, the rainbow spectrum may have a different reference, signifying LGBTQIA+, the double-edged sword of identity politics?
What projects are you engaged with currently?
I’ve been thinking recently about the Bauhaus education model which taught through material knowledge. As we all slip behind screens, how can retain the value of this way of thinking, in education and in the wider world too? In terms of art making, I am primarily creating commissioned public artwork, which I see as a form of applied art that I approach through the filter of material in relation to site. My tendency is to create useful sculpture for the public realm, useful places for doing nothing, that can be enjoyed bodily, structures that can be sat on, or walked on or under. I am particularly interested in inherent material attributes and how they can add enjoyment, bring pleasure, for example I am working with heat retaining terra-cotta on sculpture—making spaces that can be enjoyed into the evening, when the retained heat releases back into the bodies of those who linger and languish late in the evening.