Medical Research Council and University of Exeter

The Creation of Pharmakon

Read about the creation of Pharmakon below to learn about the creative process, and watch “The Making Of Pharmakon” at the bottom of this page to see the artists’ working on the sculpture from start to finish.

The Concept of Pharmakon

Fungi are some of the least studied, and least understood pathogenic microbes that can infect humans. These networked exploiters of matter, mirror our human explorations and actions, and while fungi have not reached the limits of their resources, we are nearing that of ours.

The ground-breaking work that scientists at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology undertake is a narrative of hope, revealing knowledge systems, telling untold stories and reminding us that our entire world is underpinned by the microbial kingdoms that sustain, but also can question and threaten our existence.

As a collective, Still/Moving’s collaborative methodology attempts to dismantle the notion of the solitary artist as genius, and to move beyond silos of knowledge within academic terrains. We see this work with MRC as a mycelial synthesis of knowledge and communication.

Aspergillus fumigatus hyphae
Macrophage ingesting fungal spores

The background

This sculpture reveals the invisible and often overlooked kingdom of pathogenic fungi that exists among us. It is inspired by the way fungi move through a host in an ever-evolving state of transient exploration and the extraordinary ways our immune system responds. We have taken the word Pharmakon, which can mean both remedy and poison, as the title for the sculpture.  Karen Barad wrote that “Mycelium are the ultimate Pharmakon – traditionally associated with life and death, food and poison – matter with occult virtues”.

While respecting the relative scale of the microorganisms the sculpture does not claim to be a precise rendering of a fungal and human immune interaction. Instead, it tries to capture the feeling of a speculative entanglement. This tension between humans and fungi is formally demonstrated within the microscopic terrains of Pharmakon. Death, motion, decay and life are all held within the transmuted bronze forms.

From Still/Moving’s previous work concerning de-colonisation, we were particularly interested in the way in which we talk and think about the immune system, the host and the pathogen. We want our work to help dispel the militarised language often surrounding self in battle with the ‘other’. “The immune system is not just a war machine, as many still tend to think it is… Humans are not little states with their own border patrol but assemblies in a web of life” (Rupa Marya and Raj Patel). Rather than continue the idea of the immune system as a colonial apparatus, we are interested in the notion that immunity is a process of negotiation and damage management. Fungi can become us, a part of who we are.

Incorporating biological structures

Pharmakon explores one of the main genera of pathogenic fungi – Candida, in the form of Candida albicans, which grows delicate, branching hyphal strands from round mother cells. We wanted to make visible the precarious dance between a healthy host and disease-causing fungi. In Pharmakon we have made the human host invisible, but it is present in the silhouette that the hyphae and their mother cells trace, and the immune cells (macrophages) that they encounter – together these define the form of the sculpture. Within this form imagined as a cylindrical laboratory core sample taken from a host, fungal hyphae explore and grow while the macrophage try to keep it in balance. This vertical column takes the traditional proportions of classical and figurative sculpture, to bring to human scale an imaginary journey of fungi, as they seek out nutrients and avoid regions of scarcity.

Within the sculptural form the macrophages shape-shift as they try to limit the fungi’s spread. This astounding interaction is going on inside us and all around us all of the time. We don’t ask our immune system to look after us, but that is exactly what it does most of the time. Pharmakon aims to make visible this spellbinding process, reminding us of the primal power of nature, a story we urgently need to remember.

The creation of the sculpture

The sculpture was made in wax and was cast from recycled bronze using the lost wax process. The bronze hyphal filaments allow for a delicate appearance, but great strength and weather-tolerance. Its patina, the result of oxidisation of the copper in the bronze, will slowly develop over time and its final colouration will respond to its environment and ambient conditions.

We are interested in the way bronze has been traditionally used to commemorate and celebrate the colonial project. Throughout the world heroes of empire stand immortalised in bronze. We deliberately chose to use bronze for another purpose, to draw attention to our multi-species world, much of which is under threat due to ongoing colonial practices.

The Message

We believe that we are living in a time where people are often driven by fear. We do not want to make work that further contributes to this problem. We want to encourage ourselves and other people to face fear, to face death, and remember that history has shown that we can adapt and we can learn. There is a timeless nature to the kingdom of fungi, like a labyrinth that takes us back to the beginning of ourselves. It is a kingdom that re-embroiders death into life. Guided by the extraordinary discoveries of scientists researching in labs such as MRC CMM, we can move forward with care and tread fine entangled lines that weave us into a deeper relationship with the world that we live within and lives within us.

Pharmakon is a general call for all of us to be more curious about the microbes that make up our worlds.