Beauty and the Yeast
Those who know Viviane Le Courtois-Mitchell have come to expect those moments when she reaches into a garbage pail, plucks out a crusty banana peel -- and frames it.
Last November, for instance, she squeaked open her refrigerator door, rummaged around and, in the back by the bread and veggies, unearthed a tortilla. A tortilla that had been there so long it had sprouted a rainbow of mold.
"If I leave it there longer," Viviane thought, "I wonder if the colors will get more interesting?"
After a few more months, they did.
So interesting, in fact, that Viviane recently wrapped the rancid tortilla in plastic and nailed it to a gallery wall under the title "Forgotten Tortilla."
"Everyone loved it," she says. "It looked like a landscape, like little mountains with snow on top."
And so, no one was too surprised when mushrooms sprouted in her closet.
"Here it is," Viviane says. "Would you like to hold it?"
"Go ahead. It's okay."
We're in a back room of Viviane's house in south Denver, just inside the closet. At our feet sit several dozen glass jars, kitchen bowls and even an aquarium, all filled with a murky brown liquid topped by white blobs of bacteria and yeast: kombucha mushrooms. The jars have been sitting here several weeks now, the mushrooms fermenting, gestating and multiplying away while Viviane prepared her latest show for Edge Gallery. The mushroom lab, a multimedia installation featuring albino spores in all their gooey splendor, runs through March 5.
"What do you think?"
Viviane, a slight thirty-year-old with long brown hair, wire-frame glasses and a soft French accent, holds a specimen to the light, just inches from her face, and the mushroom jiggles like blubber.
"Yes," she says. "It is kind of strange."
The damn thing looks like an egg-white omelette in a glass of coffee, a banana cream pie in a pitcher of Railyard Ale, a dead jellyfish in a bucket of sewage, the pickled Octopus Boy I saw once at a state fair freak show. At any moment, I half expect the creature to leap out of the jar and latch on to her face.
"Yes," Viviane says again. "It is kind of strange."
Yet just five years ago, kombucha mushrooms were all the rage. Half the planet cultivated the pods in their basements and sipped kombucha tea like Evian. In certain circles (such as my family circle), kombucha mushrooms (also known as Manchurian mushrooms and panacea mushrooms) were thought to counter everything from coffee breath to cancer to AIDS.
The first recorded use of kombucha tea dates back to 221 B.C., when Chinese herbalists hailed its powers as magical. The mushrooms, which contain enzymes, vitamins and detoxifying acids that boost the immune system, then migrated to Japan, Russia and eventually Boulder, where today devotees name the pods, sing to them and share their "babies" like good karma. If properly placed inside a glass jar, kept in a dark place and fed refined sugar and black tea, the kombucha will produce a cidery elixir that supposedly cures whatever ails you.
"The mushroom asks only for loving care, and it will not only produce health for its caretaker," promises one Kombucha Foundation official, "but will also allow the opportunity to spread health to anyone and everyone through its propagations."
My wife's grandma said it turned her hair from white to black. My friend's neighbor said it healed his pancreatic ulcer. And my uncle's friend's sister said it evicted her deadbeat boyfriend.
"Yes," Viviane says. "It's supposed to be good for you."
Although a kombucha-tea-chugging woman in Iowa died a few years ago from an acid imbalance (not unlike a character on an episode of The X-Files), the mushroom's attraction remains as strong as ever -- it's now available on the Internet. Viviane fell under its spell five years ago. The moment she was introduced to her first kombucha, the mushroom stimulated the part of her brain that screams, "Create!"
So she did.
Already an accomplished sculptor and painter, Viviane dried the mushrooms into a variety of textures, from jerky to snakeskin. She laid them on rice paper so that the tea soaked into an array of halo shapes. She grew them into different sizes (they conform to the shape of their containers). And she even sewed them into a leathery figurine called "Mushroom Goddess."
"I always try to do something different," she says.
But one thing she won't do is drink kombucha tea.
"Oh, no," she says. "I don't like it. I throw it away."
In Viviane's current installation, two rows of rice-paper kombucha hang along the walls of the gallery. An aquarium holds a huge fermenting mushroom. On a back-room table, Viviane displays more live kombucha in various stages of evolution and encourages visitors to pick up a magnifying glass for a closer inspection. The entire exhibit is strategically lighted to accentuate the kombucha's creepy beauty. The result is like a cross between a biology class and a Japanese tearoom.
"But I don't want them to drink the tea," Viviane says. "I don't want to poison anybody."
Viviane sits on a futon in her living room, thumbing through photos of her artwork. Her husband, David Mitchell, clatters around in the kitchen cooking something with oregano that smells delicious. All around are artifacts from Viviane's travels through Mexico and Asia, as well as the occasional piece of Viviane's work, including a sculpture of dried banana, kiwi and orange peels.
"I like things that are growing and changing," she explains. "Things that are used up. Old things. Things with holes. Things that grow over time. Things that transform. I like the aspect of my work that it's not finished, that it's still evolving. And I like materials you don't expect to be used in art."
For ten years, Viviane gathered all of the hair that had collected in her brush or fallen to the floor during haircuts, stuffing it inside a bag. After a while, the hair assumed a shape (think Marge Simpson) that inspired Viviane, and she hung the big brown hairball from a gallery ceiling, spread some strands onto a pedestal and called the piece "Hair Sculpture."
"I'm not sure people liked it," she says. "Some of them probably thought it was disgusting."
But disgusting is good, she says. So is fuzzy.
One year, Viviane even plucked lint from her husband's belly button.
"Winter was the best time," she says -- that's when her husband wore sweaters. "They were like little sculptures. People were wondering what it was. They looked mysterious."
And that's the point, she says. Art should intrigue. Art should provoke. All too often, Viviane sees work that's too abstract, too theoretical, too removed from ordinary life. Visitors take one look at the work and walk away. Viviane wants people to linger a while, to contemplate their world in ways they hadn't before considered.
"I find things in my house," she says. "Things from my everyday life. Like whatever I'm doing, eating or whatever. I like objects that are sculpted by my hands, feet or mouth, things that become worn, dried, stained, tangled or transformed. Coffee filters. Licorice. These things are more meaningful to me. I like materials that I always look at, details that I always see. We don't always look at the peelings from fruit. But I like to use them, because it's something people don't always notice. I want people to look at things in different ways, to look at details in ways they had not looked at before."
So she exhibits shoes, which she creates from woven string. She crafts sculptures from ashes. She even makes art from dried calamari.
"I hung it from the ceiling," she says.
But Viviane doesn't take just any old trash and mount it on a canvas. She has a master's degree in fine art. She's received numerous awards. She has exhibited in France and Boston, as well as Denver. She invests much time, effort and brainpower in developing and presenting odd objects in ways that accentuate their natural beauty.
"I'm very selective about the materials I use for art," she says. "Some things are more interesting than others, and sometimes I end up throwing it away. For me, it has to be different."
Kombucha mushrooms more than qualify.
"They're just so strange," she says. "They're not so much beautiful as surreal. When people see them, they don't know what they are."
But they'll find out at the mushroom lab, Viviane's third installation involving kombucha. She wants them to touch the mushrooms, inhale their vinegary odor, watch the tiny bubbles float inside gestation chambers. On opening night, she even served a plate of mushroom focaccia (not kombucha, fortunately).
"I want it to be like going into a scientific laboratory and seeing things on tables and looking at them through a microscope," she says. "For me, art is like an experiment. During an experiment, you find out new things. People can touch it. They can smell it. They can even put their noses up to it. They might find it ugly, stinky, disgusting, beautiful or rare. But if I can make them and display them so people are surprised, then I think that's art."
"So what are they?" a woman asks during the opening-night reception at Edge.
"Mushrooms," Viviane replies.
"Where do you get them?"
"I grow them."
"In my house."
"In your house! Where in your house?"
"In my closet."
"In your closet! You never cease to amaze me."
"Look at this one in the aquarium," says another visitor. "It's just like one big bubble on top."
"That's gross," says his girlfriend.
"Put your face over it."
"No way! That will get my allergies really going."
"Or it might cure them."
"I think it's kind of cute."
"You know how some people have cats and hamsters," says Viviane's husband. "These are pet mushrooms. We call this one Joey."
"That's really gross."
"Can you eat this stuff?" someone else asks.
"Probably not a good idea."
"You know, my uncle used to drink the tea."
"What happened to him?"
"This one looks kind of phallic."
"You mean like someone left the condom on?"
"Here's a magnifying glass. Want a closer look?"
"What does it feel like? Rubber?"
"You wanna touch it?"
"Look at the ones in the jars. Definitely nineteenth-century."
"It looks like that green stuff you used to play with when you were a kid. You know. The stuff that tasted like hell but was fun to play with."
"You mean Slime?"
"Yeah. Just like that."
"This is really odd. Odd and imaginative."
"I think it's beautiful. It has an Asian feeling. Especially these dried ones on the wall."
"Jars of goo."
Although Viviane isn't sure what she'll do for an encore, kombucha mushrooms offer endless possibilities.
"As long as you change the tea and keep feeding them sugar, they will live forever," she says.
At Edge, a few patrons even offer suggestions: "Have you made a mushroom skirt?"
"Or a hat? You know, like a beret?"
"Or one of those things that Jewish men wear."
"You mean a yarmulke?"
"Yeah. A mushroom yarmulke."
"That would work great!"
"I already thought of that," Viviane replies. After all, she's already made a dress from fruit peelings.
But should the kombucha someday lose its charm, Viviane does have a backup plan. "I still have the tortilla," she says. "It's in the garage. It's not as green as it used to be, but I am interested in molds."
"No," she says. "That's too gross."
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