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    For Artist Long Pan, the Mushroom Is the Message

    From rafts to migrant workers, as far as Long Pan is concerned, all art is fungi-ble.

    At first glance, the village appears idyllic: Tall green grasses whisper in the wind, with only a few small buildings in the background breaking up the pastoral landscape. Then the camera cuts in for a closer look, revealing marshes that are black and slick with oil, batteries and electronic waste scattered over the ground. Finally, the cuts stop, and the lens lingers on a small, solitary bell, suspended from a high branch in a field. It emits an irregular, almost Zen-like sound into the air of a humid South China summer.

    The bell’s maker, the artist Long Pan, created the bell with copper salvaged from a polluted reed bed in Guiyu, an infamous junkyard town in the southern province of Guangdong, roughly 550 kilometers away from Long’s home and studio in the neighboring province of Jiangxi.

    For decades, Guiyu was a hub of China’s solid waste processing industry. After China opened its markets in the 1980s, the town developed a profitable business importing and recycling plastics and electronics from rich economies with stronger environmental regulations.

    During the 1990s and 2000s, the village’s recycling plants boomed, largely free from regulatory oversight. At a time when villagers across China were being hollowed out by a lack of economic opportunity, three-fifths of Guiyu’s inhabitants made a living processing used batteries, phones, computers, and plastic waste.

    In 2014, not long after the industry’s peak — and just a year after journalist Adam Minter profiled the village for his 2013 book, “Junkyard Planet” — local officials claimed Guiyu villagers had been extracting more than 15 tons of gold annually from millions of tons of waste. Some eventually made enough money to secure their future; many more simply found that getting into the industry was easier than getting out.

    The cost to the environment was enormous. According to one study, more than 80% of the town’s children have abnormally high levels of lead in their blood.

    It took nearly three decades for local governments around China to recognize and respond to the growing problems associated with the solid waste industry. Since 2013, however, thousands of workshops and facilities around the country have been demolished or consolidated into more easily managed entities, helping to stabilize rural air and water quality. Meanwhile, the central government began cracking down on the solid waste trade at the source. In 2017, China banned imports of 24 kinds of solid waste. Last year, the central authorities went further, ending all solid waste imports, essentially closing the door on the industry for good.

    But the byproducts of the solid waste boom have proven more difficult to clean up.

    Long first heard of Guiyu from friends in Guangdong in 2020. Not long after, she began researching the village’s history of electronic waste trafficking. Still, when Long finally arrived in Guiyu last summer, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Perhaps, as some of the environmental specialists she spoke with suggested, nearly a decade of cleanup work would have erased all traces of the village’s solid waste industry. Indeed, her first impression of Guiyu was that it was extraordinary only for how ordinary it seemed: a collection of vast rice fields dotted with small industrial buildings.

    As Long ventured into a blank area on her map app, however, something caught her eye: a section of river tinted orange. “I’m not an expert, but there was something strange about the water,” Long says.

    Long took samples of reed roots from beside the river and sent them to a lab for testing, which confirmed her theory: Several heavy metal elements were found in excessive quantities, including concentrations of copper as high as more than 2,500 milligrams per kilogram — far exceeding the maximum amount considered safe. Her findings were backed by an official report published in 2020 that found excessive pollutants in the soil around Guiyu.

    Long decided that Guiyu’s story deserved to be heard — literally. With help from locals, she picked more than 50 kilograms of reeds from the riverside, from which she recovered some 10 grams of copper, just enough to fashion a single wind chime.

    “The river preserves a unique period of Guiyu’s history,” Long says. “The wind chime is an epitaph to the consequences of human activity.”

    Making art out of natural materials to raise awareness of ecological degradation isn’t a new concept. In the 1980s, German artist Joseph Beuys launched an initiative in the city of Kassel to plant 7,000 oak trees. More recently, Olafur Eliasson, a Scandinavian artist, attracted widespread attention for bringing icebergs from Greenland to central London, letting visitors witness firsthand the effects of climate change.

    Although China’s contemporary art scene is relatively young, Long is by no means the first Chinese artist to push the boundaries of artistic expression with living objects. Liang Shaoji, a 76-year-old silkworm artist, has spent the past three decades “co-working” with silkworms to create sculptures from silk. In his current solo show at Shanghai’s prestigious Power Station of Art, visitors pass through a room occupied by thousands of living silkworms — an experience meant to replicate the conditions of Liang’s own studio.

    But while environmentally themed art has proven increasingly popular in China, where decades of rapid urbanization have severed people from day-to-day interactions with nature, Long believes the label is overly simplistic. Her subject, she stresses, isn’t the environment, but humanity — specifically, human apathy. “Art cannot address every issue. But without sensitivity, humans will continue to make mistakes, and this is where art can help.”

    As a member of China’s urbanized post-1990 generation, Long knows firsthand how disconnected her peers are from nature. She herself says she had never thought about mushrooms — now the medium for which she is best known — before using them for her graduation project at the China Academy of Art four years ago.

    In 2018, the coastal city of Quanzhou in Southeast China experienced a spill of C9 resin, a petroleum derivative. The leak not only affected residents — causing symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and throat soreness — but also devastated the local fishing sector, as local governments halted sales of the city’s potentially contaminated catch.

    While visiting the city, Long met fishermen who mistook her for an environmental scientist, and who were quick to complain about the spill’s fallout. Although she shared their sense of frustration, the spill also gave her an idea. Having read scientific papers on the use of fungi to decontaminate the environment, a process known as mycoremediation, Long wondered if she could integrate the crisis into her own work.

    After six months’ experimentation in her studio, the room reeked of fungus. (She describes the scent as “fishy.”) Eventually, however, she mastered the reactions between fungi and pollutants. Coating a raft with mushrooms, she asked a fisherman to sail it into the then still-silent waters around Quanzhou.

    It was a symbol of optimism, Long says, a “raft of rebirth.” Yet, in her video documenting the piece, it’s hard not to notice that the vessel is dwarfed by the massive petrochemical plants still operating in the background.

    The Quanzhou project inspired Long to keep working — or, in her own words, “partnering” — with fungi. Despite the medium, however, her art is not limited to environmental issues. In 2020, she used mushrooms to call attention to the lives of the “Sanhe gods,” a famously cynical group of gig workers in the southern megacity of Shenzhen. With their motto “work for a day, party for three,” they live “like mushrooms,” Long says, sprouting up on the side of roads or in parks where they sleep to save money.

    When Long first approached the Sanhe gods to see if they would collaborate with her, she quickly learned that many were already masters of the skills she’d spent months honing — a result of their time growing up in rural China, where mushrooms are seen as a profitable, low-barrier business. When she offered to pay them for their help, however, some turned her down. “They don’t want to be a part of the labor-management relationship,” she says. “Rather, they desire something more equal, like friendship.”

    The Sanhe youth exemplify the same resilience to survive in otherwise hostile environments Long associates with mushrooms. “The (mushroom’s) hypha has the ability to penetrate exceedingly small apertures,” she says, allowing them to thrive and spread where other substances cannot. In the performance piece that came out of Long’s collaboration with the Sanhe gods, Long and middle-class museumgoers enjoyed mushrooms she had grown with the Sanhe youth. Together, they watched a video of the cultivation process intercut with interviews of Sanhe youth about their lives and ideas — an effort, Long says, to bridge the gap between marginalized gig workers and the city’s wealthier residents.

    Near the end of the meal, the screen suddenly cut to video of a Sanhe recruiting agent coldly calling out names of that day’s workers. Afterward, Long herself read the names again, this time warmly, emphasizing their humanity. Then the assembled guests shared another plate of mushrooms.

    Liang, the silkworm artist, frequently cites a dream he had in 1993 in which he could no longer tell himself apart from a silkworm — an allusion to the Taoist fable “The Butterfly Dream,” in which the philosopher Zhuangzi questions whether he is Zhuangzi dreaming of butterflies, or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi. Liang’s job, as he sees it, is merely allowing the silkworms to thrive and sculpt as they wish.

    This philosophy, shared by Long, challenges the traditional subject-object duality, blurring the lines between maker and medium. In her Sanhe piece, the Sanhe gods are ostensibly Long’s subject, but they were also active participants in the creative process, helping grow and cultivate the mushrooms together with Long. In a much talked-about piece from 2020, Long “repaired” wooden seats with mushrooms and fabric, a process equally directed by the fungus and Long herself.

    Long says she values the way her mushroom “partners” grow in a way that defies anticipation and micromanagement, a quirk she has come to embrace with “both frustration and delight.” The success of her fungi-based sculptures, she argues, must be credited to luck and uncertainty, as much as her own labor.

    “I would rather play a smaller role in the creation of an artwork, allowing others (whether fungi or people) to express themselves,” Long says.

    And if you pay attention, Long says, there are lessons to be learned, even from fungus. “One question I’ve explored is how to cope with hurdles that stand in our way. Should we destroy them, detour around them, or find a way to live with them?” Long told me, before describing her reaction to observing a fungus of the ganoderma family confronted by a curtain. Out of room to grow, “its hypha continued to sprout, looking for any space between the fibers, until it passed through and grew a new body on the other side.”

    Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Detail of the art project “Reverse Writing,” 2019. Courtesy of Long Pan)