The original performance of Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s opera La Dafne occurred in 1598. Based on the story of Daphne and Apollo, Gods’ Facsimiles is an exploration of the opera and the myth. La Dafne is a tale of life, death, and transformation. This fascination with origin and change as it spawns through archetypes permeates through Mobarak’s latest work.
Of Mycelia and Men
In Gods' Facsimiles, an exhibition drawing on the myth of Daphne being turned into a laurel tree, Nour Mobarak has formed a group of new sculptures from mycelia. But as the artist explains, it is about more than the use of an unusual material. The fungal networks have their own intelligence, each type operating in distinct and unpredictable ways. The artist has gone through a series of experiments and processes, learning how to work with her unruly collaborators. The mycelium ‘live off of breaking down dead organic matter,’ as she says.
"The fungal networks have their own intelligence"
Within the West End’s Rodeo Gallery, there are six sculptures, five mounted on the walls in arch-top plinths, or niches, and the sixth – a clear green snake – lies in wait on the cobbled floor. The artist has reconstructed a miniature version of Peri and Rinuccini’s ‘Sala Dei Nicchie’, or Hall of Niches, each niche containing one miniature model of a character from La Dafne. During the performance of the original opera, these figures were set into the walls around the stage of the Medici’s Palazzo Pitti on which the opera was first performed. ‘Peri and Rinuccini both worked for the Medicis,’ the artist says, suggesting a critical interrogation of artists’ historical dependency on wealthy benefactors within the work.
"each niche containing one miniature model of a character from La Dafne"
A repurposed horse stable, the gallery is a fitting space for work that explores transformation and decay. Staring at the well-worn jade and cream wall tiles, the first sculpture I notice is the babe-like Cupid, poised to unleash his arrow. Here, he’s suspended in the air, embodying the inseparable tension between violence and desire as they’re often found in Mobarak’s work; Apollo is rendered into a sphere, appearing as if covered in a thick moss; Daphne is half-mushroom, half-laurel-tree, the sculpture approximating human form with two limb-like things raised above where a head might be.
In the common telling of the myth of Daphne, Apollo begs the naiad to be with him with a kind of fuck boy intensity. ‘Daphne is something of a queer figure,’ Mobarak says, explaining how alongside the naiad’s famed disinterest in Apollo’s advances, she cultivates a rich life away from his persistence. As either punishment or protection, she is transformed into a laurel tree. In Ovid’s telling of the tale, this does not halt Apollo’s pursuit.
"Daphne is half-mushroom, half-laurel-tree"
Each sculpture combines solidity and distress – a central form holds a shape or presence, but the surface appears degraded, worn away – ochre, green and burnt orange hues pressing down into them. The reason? Mobarak has been working closely with mycelium in her work for a few years. This appearance of degradation is the active work of a non-human life form’s natural patterning.
Across our conversation, Mobarak speaks of the scale and extent of mycelial cultures: ‘One of the earliest forms of life on earth were these giant, 25-foot tall fungi.’ There are more varieties of mycelium in the world than there are varieties of plants. While the mushroom is the visible and known symbol of these reproductive structures, it is only the fruiting body of the fungi. Mobarak’s sculptures are made of mycelia, composed of a network of barely-visible fungal strands known as hyphae, working and growing into a myriad of shapes.
"The fungus works as a connector, a tool for creating transformation by breaking down the properties of matter and turning it into something new"
For the statue of Venus, titled Venus Copy, Mobarak has used a double-conical shape as her mould, into which she inoculates her substrate with mycelial spores which have worked to break down the conical body, changing its colour as the fungus spreads through the material. Set beneath the surface is a series of glass beads that Mobarak was able to inlay into her sculptures by setting them into the surface of the mould. The regenerative work of the fungus as it breaks down the surrounding matter reveals hidden jewels – in the opera glass beads were woven into the dresses and clothing of performers to catch the light on stage. The fungus works as a connector, a tool for creating transformation by breaking down the properties of matter and turning it into something new – much like Mobarak’s remoulding of myth.
Silence penetrates this show, mute like Daphne. But in Mobarak’s work she is not just a laurel, pliant, malleable by human hands, subjected to Apollo’s constant unblockable yearning. She’s fungal, she grows by breaking things down and through slow, unpredictable permutation.
Mobarak’s niches for Gods’ Fascimiles contains prototypes of a story to come. This summer, her own opera piece, Dafne Phono, will open to audiences in Rodeo’s gallery space in Piraeus, Athens. What more will it tell us of these forms and their earthen collaborators? What languages will it contain?
"these forms and shapes will soon sing"
These figures articulate a story, each wrought in a network of mycelia distinct from human understanding. Mythic violence is suspended and degraded in a combination of human and fungal activity. But these forms and shapes will soon sing. These performers are plastic Gods, the sound of their voices will fill the air.
By Ed Luker