For Stanford University graduate student Yu-chuan Phoenix Chen, a craving for mushrooms led to a surprisingly fruitful journey. After presenting a paper in Berkeley a few years ago, Chen checked out a nearby farmers market. He was seeking matsutake mushrooms, known for their distinctive scent, delicious flavor and high price. Alas, it was spring and, the vendor explained, matsutakes can only be found in the autumn. Though he was disappointed in that quest, his conversation at the market led him to what eventually became his dissertation topic and the focus of the exhibition he's curated at the Cantor Arts Center: "A Mushroom Perspective on Sacred Geography."
Matsutakes (their Japanese name meaning "pine-tree mushrooms" after the habitat they're found in), the vendor told him, grow near Mount Shasta, considered by Native American cultures a sacred mountain.
"I started to think about some connection between rare mushrooms and sacred landscape, and how people understand that," he said. Soon he was diving into research and learning about another mushroom -- the lingzhi, whose names in many Asian languages translate to something like "divine fungus" or "soul/spirit mushroom" -- that has for millennia been associated with sacred spaces and magical and/or medicinal properties, and quite often appears in East Asian art. Traditionally, people relied on spiritual guidance, such as from a religious teacher or shaman, to find them.
"Since sometime around the first century CE, people in China have venerated lingzhi mushrooms and their spiritual habitat," Chen said, adding that some historians think there may be a link to ancient Indian legends about a healing elixir.
The relationship between humans and their environments has always been a complex one, with humans venerating, fearing, depending on and seeking to master the natural world. By communing with something rare or difficult to find, people feel a heightened connection to the power of their environment, as well as a sense of mastery.
Many physical interactions with nature, including drinking spring water, dipping into hot springs with healing qualities, and consuming certain herbs, flowers and, yes, mushrooms, "help us to perceive the very abstract, conceptual idea of sacredness; to bodily consume the sacred mountain," he said.
Chen, who's working toward his doctorate in art history, was surprised -- and thrilled -- to find the lingzhi mushroom represented in numerous works from Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture in the Cantor's collection, which he mined to create the small exhibition currently displayed in the second-floor Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery.
The curvy, long-stemmed lingzhi is portrayed in the exhibition through a variety of media, including paintings, ceramics, jade and wooden carvings. The centerpiece is "Gathering of Immortals at the Peach Festival," an incredibly detailed, 23-foot-long illustrated scroll from 16th century China, which first caught Chen's eye when he arrived at Stanford as a curatorial research assistant six years ago.
"That painting really shows close interaction between humans, sacred landscape and mushrooms," he said. "It's amazing that we have this in the Cantor's collection."
The scroll depicts the birthday party of the Queen of the West, a powerful goddess from Chinese mythology. The goddess may offer a taste of divine fruit -- the "peach of longevity," which grants immortality -- to her party guests if they bring her a suitably impressive gift. In one panel of the scroll, which Chen likened to a comic book in how it tells a story through sequenced illustrations, a man is seen carrying a lingzhi mushroom, the sacred fungus intended as the goddess' present. In another, a figure wearing leaves or feathers is seen on a mountain where lingzhi mushrooms grow. According to legend, Chen said, a woman retreated into the wilderness after fleeing political turmoil, where a Taoist taught her to find and eat mushrooms and medicinal herbs, through which she eventually attained immortality herself. A third panel depicts people harvesting the precious fungus. This scene shows "human management over the sacred organism; how they see themselves controlling lingzhi mushrooms," he said.
The interconnection between human culture and the natural world, including specifically with mushrooms, is still evident today, Chen said, even though many in modern societies may feel far removed from their food and its origins. Lingzhi mushrooms are still considered medicinally beneficial; other types are cherished (and studied) for their psychedelic properties, while locally, mushroom devotees forage in the woods for the rarest delicacies.
Chen isn't the only fungus fan in his family: he credits his young daughter with helping stoke his interest. "(She) is a huge mushroom lover," he said, pondering its particular, earthy-yet-otherworldly appeal. "It's something between meat and vegetable ... a mushroom is such a special, unique organism."
On March 30, Chen will give a lecture on his work at the Cantor, following a reception.
"I think oftentimes art history has been treated as something elite, but I want to say art history also has a lot to do with something physical and material. It's important to me to really show that strong resonance with our everyday life," he said of his exhibit and his ongoing research on interactions between culture and nature. "It has a lot to do with how we eat; how we treat different food and how humans engage in these relationships."
What: "A Mushroom Perspective on Sacred Geography"
Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive Stanford
When: Exhibition runs through May 15, Wednesday-Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays until 8 p.m.). Yu-chuan Phoenix Chen will give a lecture on Thursday, March 30, at 6:45 p.m. (reception at 6 p.m. on the Geballe Balcony) in the Cantor auditorium.
Info: Go to Cantor Arts Center.