Some can be fried for breakfast, others bring us multicoloured visions. Maurycy Gomulicki, an artist and mushroom foraging enthusiast, talks to Tomasz Wichrowski about mushrooms, Mexico and his furry pink storeroom.
Tomasz Wichrowski: I remember how we met at one of your openings in the Muranów district of Warsaw. I was late, coming straight from a mushroom-foraging outing. Upon my arrival, your girlfriend Mirella told me I had to meet you, that nobody is as passionate about mushroom-picking as you are.
Maurycy Gomulicki: There might be some truth to that. I was always hyped about mushrooms and nature. But I wouldn’t bestow any sort of exceptional status upon myself – I think that we, Poles, are pleasantly drawn towards nature in general. Even though we are a rather urbanized species in our day-to-day life, we still try to spend our holidays by the water or in the forest. And whenever the weather allows it, we dart off for a weekend in the countryside. We savour the intimate beauty of this experience. All my friends and acquaintances enjoy and need to spend some time away from noise, surrounded by nature.
When did you start noticing nature?
I have always loved micro-worlds and enjoyed observing nature. As a child, when waiting for holiday gifts, I used to lie down next to the Christmas tree and imagined climbing it like a sequoia. It was the same whenever we went to a forest; I gazed at patches of moss, feeling as if I was looking at some atolls or extraordinary archipelagos from above. Those were my first exotic journeys. I stared at the undergrowth and saw landscapes. Nature, even at its most shy, is incredibly sophisticated when it comes to details. Getting close to it is an adventure; an encounter with sublime, refined beauty. Once I began my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, I was fascinated with those meticulous structures – I was enamoured with the etchings in Dürer’s works, in the graphics by Albín Brunovský from Slovakia, and in the works of Leszek Rózga who, back then, was a well-known artist from Łódź. My early works depicted meadows, grasses, mosses, lichen structures…
Did mushroom hunting stir your imagination in a similar way?
I believe treasure hunting is one of childhood’s greatest joys, and mushroom picking is a similarly-oriented endeavour. Those wonderfully soft suede boletes, majestically bulbous penny buns or the sleek curves of parasol mushrooms are the trophies we bring from our argonaut-esque expeditions. I started with classic mushroom adventures, focusing on the possible summer findings. There are also spring mushrooms and those cropping up in late autumn, which I only had access to during the holidays. We regularly visited Warmia, and there weren’t many red pine mushrooms there, I rarely stumbled upon a penny bun, but I managed to forage plenty of brownish bay boletes, fuzzy scaber stalks, red-stalked suede boletes and delightfully sticky slippery jacks. Looking for slippery jacks was always a proper adventure – to find them, you had to crawl on your hands and knees among the murky tunnels of young growths. With a pinch of imagination, this could transform into a magical experience. Dark, leafless tunnels, their jewel-spangled floors, like shoals of forest ambers. The tiniest ones were the most beautiful, those barely hatched younglings, still covered in their membranes – golden pearls, scattered among dead needles.
How did you know which mushrooms were edible and which to avoid?
Practice combined with theory. You learned some of it from adults and some from your countryside friends, but I also loved to leaf through mushroom guides. Let’s be honest, I lived in a library. The horizons of my world were demarcated by the books that covered every wall in our house in thick, double-rowed layers. Apart from comics, a book was the most obvious gift for a literature-crazy kid who grew up in a house ran by a couple of bibliophiles with no self-control in encounters with yellowed paper. I owned a plethora of nature albums and a whole battery of mushroom atlases.
Among the thousands of volumes that crowded the house of JWG – my grandfather – there was also an incomplete collection of the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie. Ceremonious castrations of the elderly German were our Sunday ritual – I was allowed to choose a few charts to add to my collection of illustrations. There were lithographs depicting glow worms and radiolaria, minerals and flowers, and, of course, mushrooms. They always attracted me because of their uncanny strangeness, laced with familiarity. To this day, I still consider them some of the weirdest beings in our hemisphere. They are so material, so close to us in their corporeality, and yet – as if of some other world. Alien visitors they are, and I don’t mean just the becapped unipeds. After all, their family also includes those glass-like, floppy-eared and lace-bodied strangers. Some look like horns, stalactites or stalagmites. The best-known among them is the wonderfully clichéd and childishly unseemly, the wonderful monarch of all mushrooms: the fairytale King Toadstool of the Amanita genus, our universal fantasy icon.
For as long as I can remember, I devoured fantasy literature. The mushroom forest from A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne always made me shiver with excitement, and my three-volumed Führer für Pilzfreunde was one of the most beautiful atlases I ever owned. The title means ‘The Mushroom Friend’s Guide’, and I found the word Führer on the cover just hilarious, but the book itself was beyond adorable. Bound in gooseberry-green cloth, the cover was adorned with gold lettering and a pressed image of a mushroom bundle. Inside, there were countless gorgeous lithographs. Whenever I read this little guide, I dreamed of finding one of those exotic beings. I fantasized of coming across the basket stinkhorn, which I did encounter, years later, in Yucatan, and felt a little dread creeping in at the thought of stumbling across Gyromitra esculenta, this lustfully puckered springtime murderess, notoriously mistaken for the true morels genus.
I remember that when we first met, you told me about stinkhorn mushroom and witches’ eggs.
I have known this mushroom since my childhood holidays in Warmia. The mushroom, known as Fungus virilis penis effigie or Phallus impudicus, was – unfairly, in my opinion – later renamed the common stinkhorn. It does stink, there’s no arguing with that, but its impudence strikes me as a more impressive feature. My countryside friends referred to it by a rather distasteful name and found its roadkill reek an excitable feature. Its phallic shape was hypnotizing. One autumn, I saw so many of these mushrooms in one gathering, they looked as if a whole legion of zombies was buried just under the surface, and each of them had an erection. What was more, we could smell them from 20 or 30 metres away, which made the hunts rather unusual, as we had to follow our noses rather than eyes. When we finally came across a robust specimen, it looked like some vampire prince was sticking his disgusting member out of a bed of beech leaves, ready to chase us away from the woods.
And the witches’ eggs?
The Phallus embryos. I found some of them recently, in Samin village in Masuria. Funny how most fungi are set firmly in the ground, but these guys look like they were dropped on the ground, only a thin thread connecting them to the mycelium underground. Common stinkhorns in their embryonic form are considered a delicacy, especially in Germany and Belgium. Cut into thin slices, they look a bit scary – like eyes on a plate. I like to simply fry them with butter. They have a peculiar radishy flavour and a very unusual texture: a little rubbery and a little crunchy, not unlike cartilage. They would be surely appreciated in Asia, where the texture of food holds as much value as the flavour itself.
What other mushrooms do you like to pick?
Recently I have been partial to Sparassis crispa, also known as the cauliflower mushroom. A few years ago, they were on the protected species list. What an incredible thing they are: lush and heavy, and yet extraordinarily delicate. They look like they are made of frills, a hybrid of cauliflower and coral, like a handful of lace forgotten and left in the forest. They have a very pleasant nutty flavour. I would like to taste the Craterellus cornucopioides, or horn of plenty, as they are said to make for a great dumpling filling. I have heard many a good thing about those humongous bright-yellow bracket fungi, also known as chicken-of-the-woods, commonly encountered in the parks all around Warsaw. Since the 1980s, I’ve been a fan of the psychedelic liberty caps. They are definitely not on the average mushroom hunter’s radar. I didn’t start experimenting with uncommon edible mushroom species until much later in life. Today, it’s much easier than it used to be: when in doubt, we can always double-check online. Although when it comes to unusual mushrooms, you can never be too careful.
Do you have any favourite species?
I like various kinds of mushrooms for different reasons – not only because of their culinary value, but also for sentimental and aesthetic reasons. I adore cornflower boletes, also known as bluing boletes – when cut in half, they suddenly change colour as if painted with cobalt ink. When it comes to flavour, I am partial to parasol mushrooms, and they taste even better when soaked in milk before tossing them on the frying pan. I also enjoy shaggy ink caps, which are simply delicious (before they melt into an inky puddle, that is). As for red pine mushrooms, I prefer them in soup rather than pan-fried. My recipe is similar to chanterelle soup, but it’s more orange. And to the palate, colour is also not without consequence.
You switch between living in Poland and Mexico. Do they also pick mushrooms over there?
Mushrooms are not vital to the Mexican tradition, but they do make for a pillar of the native psychedelic culture. And even if the Toluca region is famous for its mushroom soup, the presence of chilli peppers – those dictators of the Mexican table – makes it so hot it’s difficult to find any traces of mushroom flavour underneath the burning pain. Both types of mushrooms – edible and psychedelic – grow mainly during the wet season. Some of the species we know in Poland are popular over there, such as true morels. And the coral fungi, very small here, are much larger in Mexico. They are usually served roasted. Mexico boasts a very advanced culinary culture, much richer and more varied than what people imagine when thinking of the local cuisine, but that’s a different story.
Does this mean that psychedelic mushrooms are more popular in Mexico than regular ones?
I suppose so, unless we include huitlacoche, but it’s more about the food created by the fungi rather than eating the mushroom itself. Pajaritos and derrumbes are well-established in Mexico’s hallucinogenic pantheon, although peyote remains the most popular psychedelic substance in this culture. Psilocybin mushrooms can be encountered in various spots, but they are most prevalent in the hills of Oaxaca, where the climate is very moist. The hills are inhabited by shamans who, for a small fee, offer mystical-psychedelic experiences to young people from good homes.
You did mention that you have had your own experiences with magic mushrooms…
I have encountered some European varieties – in Poland and Scotland – and, of course, I’m familiar with Mexican mushrooms. I would like to try the Hawaiian ones one day. What always fascinated me the most was the theatre of psychedelic experience. In the coffee shops of Amsterdam, Mexican mushrooms are the lowest on the list in that aspect, European varieties are considered quite good, and the Hawaiian ones are said to be an absolute explosion of colours.
Do you think that psychedelic mushrooms can have therapeutic properties?
Perhaps they do, but it’s not my area of expertise. I’d rather not say too much about something I’m not overly familiar with myself. I would never advise anyone to fix their problems with psychoactive substances, but having said that, it doesn’t mean they cannot be a beneficial catalyst to a lost soul. However, those experiences are of much more substance than one might expect, which is why I believe you should embark on psychedelic journeys equipped with inner peace, and accompanied by trusted friends. I invest most of my time and energy in experiencing wonder. This is largely what makes me a fulfilled man; joy and happiness are not rare guests in my life. It doesn’t mean I don’t have my anxieties, sorrows and worries; it doesn’t mean I’m not haunted by melancholy. But it is a sense of wonder that guides me through life. If I can suggest anything, I would like everyone to pay more attention to the sense of wonder – especially politicians, who often, too often, stray from the fundamental feeling of harmony with the world. Wonder is strongly therapeutic, and since certain psychedelic experiences invite it, this might be some sort of therapeutic impact of those substances.
In your artistic work, you prefer the twists and turns of an expressive pop-art aesthetic and neon colours. Have your psychedelic experiences affected those choices?
In my case, there is no direct connection between the two. I find it annoying when people ask What were you smoking? whenever you create something that doesn’t adhere to the norm. In Poland, this is surely affected by the myth of Witkacy, who liked to experiment with perception-changing stimulants. As for myself, psychedelic experiences were always important to me, but I never made art under their influence. I can only speak of their indirect impact. I went through periods of fascination with certain colours: green, purple, later came pink, and now I work with very intense neon palettes. I have created many works that are based on the use of gradients. Those pieces might be the clearest reference to the mystical-psychedelic experience of the Huichol people, which is omnipresent in Mexican culture. The most conspicuous visual heritage of such experiences are the vivid, pulsating gradients. These patterns appear everywhere, both in traditional (although bearing no ethnic relevance to the Huichol people) striped shawls called serapes, and on the designs adorning truck trailers and other surfaces. It’s obviously an afterimage of jewellery and various small objects, intricately encrusted with glass beads – those objects being a result of the Huichol people’s experiments with peyote.
Do mushrooms appear in any of your works?
Several times. The first one was in 1996, I think. I was working on various projects that glorified youth, which I think might be rather interesting since we usually become interested in youth once it fades. Not long before that, I began photographing girls. At first, they were always naked. The photos weren’t erotic, though. I simply needed nudity because every kind of clothing implies a certain context of time and culture, and I was interested in universal emotional beings. Soon, I started to dress them up, and that stemmed from my fascination with pop-culture. I missed the perfect, overly eroticized, comic-book-simplified phantoms of femininity, such as Barbarella or the swarms of hyper-saccharine belles from American pin-up illustrations. I wanted them to materialize in my life in the flesh, if only for the briefest moment.
Back then, I had a basement studio on Broniewskiego Street. It was dark, but dry and quite spacious at 40 square metres. I used to flood it with light, generated by very environmentally unfriendly 500-watt lightbulbs. I assembled my backdrops: patterned fabrics and faux furs. I had my female friends come over, I would dress them in various outfits I dug out in second-hand stores, and then I passionately photographed them. To sum up that ‘early hyper-colour’ period, I came up with a quirky project that led to one of my first exhibitions, and which I now consider a cornerstone of my later artistic frolics. I made a two-metre-tall toadstool. Its cap was made of styrofoam that I had covered with red faux fur, then I added white furry dots, and built a stalk out of a sewage pipe clothed in a fuzzy stocking. Last, I made a base for it to stand straight, and I put together an intimate cave, all lined with pink Bulgarian fur. The mushroom dominated my studio space like a sacrificial post. I would invite female models, tie them to the furry stalk with gold plastic chains, and photograph them. The whole dynamic of this endeavour was a bit like taking pictures with a fake bear in Zakopane. Except that these were not souvenir snaps, but glimpses into a Hyperborean fantasy that blossomed in a basement hidden underneath a post-communist block of flats.
Extraordinary. Where was the exhibition held?
In the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. The exhibition was called Nowe przygody sierotki Marysi albo spełnienie marzeń [The New Adventures of Little Orphan Mary or The Fulfillment of Dreams]. My first two exhibitions were arranged in spaces connected with other artists’ displays, also at the Ujazdowski Castle. It made sense because such shows – especially those by young and unknown artists – attract the most attention on the opening day, and I wanted to showcase my works in a ‘real museum’, not in the Academy’s corridors or in a local culture centre. When I contacted the Ujazdowski Castle to suggest the third exhibition, they didn’t have any space available at all, so they offered me a broom cabinet under the stairs on the ground floor. I happily agreed and decided to pull off my storeroom fantasy.
How big was it?
Six square metres, maybe. I lined it all with pink fur, put my toadstool in the middle. Robert Niziński, from the now-legendary Księżyc group, composed the acoustics. On the invitations, I wrote that “the toadstool is aurally cankered by Niziński the Worm.” Outside the entrance, I had several photos set up on the walls, none of them very large. The mushroom cave was at the end of the corridor. Obviously, the people couldn’t all fit inside, and since there were a lot of them, an impressive, communist-length queue grew in front of my little broom cabinet. For the opening, I wore a red crocheted beret with white spots, which my dear mother sewed on herself. Many years later, Katarzyna Kozyra – an artist I both like and respect – confessed to me that when she saw me wearing it and heard me babble about girls and plushie toys, she “wanted to puke”.
It is somewhat amusing, considering that she actually dressed up as toadstool in her film Summer Tale…
There were quite a few of those oversized mushrooms in art, and some were rather spectacular, like the famous piece by Carsten Höller, who installed massive toadstools on the ceiling to look like they were growing upside down. Takashi Murakami also had a go in the fungal department; my favourite Sylvie Fleury made a contribution, too, with her usual grace. All those works make for very interesting echoes of psychedelia in modern art. As for myself, years later, I had the pleasure of creating an art installation made of five steel toadstools that stand on the lawn in front of the Nowa Huta Culture Centre in Kraków. They can protect the passer-by from the sun and rain, but also – I hope – add some joy to the grey Polish reality, lighting it up with their carefree shapes and colours.
Why do you think mushrooms have such a strong impact on our imagination?
From the human perspective, they are completely unremarkable and thoroughly uncanny at the same time.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Born in Warsaw, in 1969. He is an artist, hedonist and enthusiast; a popular culture anthropologist and fetishist. He is the creator of a number of public-space installations. He lives in Warsaw and in Mexico, alternating between one and the other. A passionate hunter of mushrooms.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano