- Post Hall, Department of Art and Design, Sheffield Hallam University
‘There grows the fungi
Still tied to its past.
For the melting of the solid world
The change is coming fast’
From ‘Olive Tree’, Peter Gabriel
It is also Peter Gabriel who said recently that the countries that feel most alive are those that have death as part of their culture. Images of Mexico’s Day of the Dead are familiar – the yellows and oranges of marigolds, the brightest colours lighting the pathway to the mortal world for the skulls and skeletons of the celebration’s guests of honour. Mexico has a unique relationship with death. Lost loved ones are mourned, and celebrated with humour and with joy. The belief is that their spirit will visit on the Day of the Dead and their families can be together once more.
‘How you strive and endeavour to level woman down too.
But neither the earth’s nor woman’s desire to manifest life dies.
Take my advice: the idea of making a footpath was a good one.’
From ‘The Grass Is Really Like Me’, Kishwar Naheed
Contemporary artists address a multitude of issues, and as artists and spectators we can be duly thankful. Some coolly reflect on the essence of art-making; some nail political colours to the mast, while others look inwards, driven to make their deeply personal feelings manifest. It all takes courage, passion and integrity. Successful novelists advise to work with what you know, but this carries the challenge of invoking issues you and your audience might rather avoid. In ‘For Whom The Mountains Pray’ Sheffield-based Mexican artist Helen Blejerman considers the tragically prevalent occurrence of femicide in her homeland. Currently most common in South Mexico, women are murdered and it is believed that their bodies are taken to the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and concealed. When working with such distressing subject matter there is the potential for it to appear, to some extent, exploitative and we be merely presented with horror, reminding us that life is rarely the rosebed we would like it to be. Yet, in her thoughtfully constructed proposal, Helen offers slivers of much-needed hope in the form of fungi, tied to its past, but able to cultivate a less desperate future, particularly for the victims’ families, that is at least clearer. Might the mushrooms flourish if fed by the minerals absorbed by the soil from the interred bodies of the unfound women?
Helen has made fourteen Waterfall Mushrooms, quietly sculpted from papier mâché, reflecting the delicate texture of the fungi and recalling the traditional craft used by Mexicans when producing objects for ritual. Each of the fourteen are painted loosely in degrees of grey, and create two columns which line the perimeter of the exhibition space. They are in a variety of twisted poses so are bodily, somehow, hauntingly human, giving form to departed souls. In Mexico mushrooms are seen as a link between the individual and the Divine, their psychoactive properties playing a key role in shamanistic ritual. They also build networks through which they communicate and share nutrients. And if that wasn’t enough, scientists believe that mycorestoration can help reverse the damage we have done to our environment.
Along the centre of the exhibition are the fifteen individual stages of the reanimation sequence of a Black Mushroom, from spore to spore. Made from clay, papier mâché and wire, they have an elegant simplicity – spectacle would not be suitable. There is warmth in their handmadeness. Each sits on utterly grey bricks, indexical of civilisation and manufacturing, a juxtaposition of materials and ideas.
Fungi needs water to grow and Helen has included painted fragments of symbols referring to Dzahui, the God of Rain, on the back wall. Runic in their simplicity, they encourage us to reverse the ancients.
This whole ensemble guides us towards a thin, glistening cross; soft steps along an aisle, perhaps, so as to near an altar. As we stand before the cross, our eyes traverse a large, black and white photograph of the most barren of landscapes. It is unwelcoming terrain, an expanse as boundless as the heartache. We contemplate the exhibition’s title. We think about how venturing out could be overwhelmingly dispiriting. Yet in unity there is strength. Women come together in these times of crisis to combat adversity, reaffirming faith in human spirit and notions of help and mutual support. Advancements in drone and geo technology enable signs of disturbances in the land’s surface to be more easily detected, so digging for bodies is not so forlorn. The haystack becomes smaller and there are indications where the needles might like. In a symbol of extraordinary power the women use the cross to dig – ergonomic as well as spiritual. With the unearthing of the body the process of grieving and the quest for justice can finally begin. Their time in this realm can be honoured and the family can spend time with their spirit.
It is the restraint that makes this exhibition so compelling. It is highly respectful, empathic and congruent. Helen has subtly transformed the space, using its architectural features to create a space that is both gallery and church, that speaks to the work and allows it, in turn, to speak to us. She has given us room to imagine, to envisage the anguish of a heartbreaking search. She has worked through something so weighty so thoroughly in order to better understand her own emotions. The underlying flavour of tragedy is relentless, but on top of that sits hope, spring eternal.