KATIE BETHUNE-LEAMEN @ TORONTO’S SCULPTURE GARDEN
In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, “One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.”
“One side of what? The other side of what?” thought Alice to herself.
“Of the mushroom,” said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.1
I’m still in mind of the fabled caterpillar’s advice to Alice, even as it’s been a couple of day’s since my visit to the Toronto Sculpture Garden, currently home to Katie Bethune-Leamen’s Mushroom Studio. Her gigantic wood, steel and foam toadstool looms some twenty feet over the park which is, after all, an area only forty feet wide, flanked on one side by an old brick wall that is crawling with ivy – and the brisk patio luncheon service of the neighboring restaurant on the other.
Despite its enormous scale, the work has a muted demeanor which stops just shy of making a spectacle of itself. The piece invites attention incrementally. Positioned such that a view from the park’s King Street gates exposes an entrance carved in its stalk, a fairly nondescript, industrial door bordered on each side by a little window beckons viewers to approach. Under the mushroom’s gilled canopy, screened but conveniently curtainless windows reveal the Mushroom Studio’s interior to be a rather austere, partially sky lit studio space.
The room is actually a rounded cubicle. It has the character of a study carrel, with an inset desktop, really, a tableau featuring a lamp and tools such as a a box of prismacolour pencils, a pair of scissors, some glue. In the Sculpture Garden documentation of the piece, there is an Aluminum Group Chair at the desk, lending the studio an air of Mid-Century Modern nostalgic appeal. On the day I visit, however, the chair at the desk is far more banal in terms of its design and condition. There’s a little dust buster down below and a portfolio of papers, drawings? Is that Tupac Shakur in that picture tacked to the wall? Sunshine on the glass thwarts viewing just enough to really pique one’s curiosity. Through cupped hands one can barely discern a little ink drawing on the wall above the door. The drawing depicts two witches on broomsticks with text that reads, “Props to the Fairy People”.
Fairy and pixie connotations abound with this work. One thinks of all the elves and magical creatures in Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke at home in their very own little mushroom houses. Consider the pontificating slug in the case of Alice in Chapter Five of her well known adventures. The mushroom, a hybrid form of sheltering toxicity, home to fairies, caterpillars and in this case a contemporary artist. This subtext is not lost on Bethune-Leamen suggesting as she does in her statement about the work:
The notion of mushrooms as habitable spaces is a mainstay of fairy tales. In such confabulations, elves or fairies are anthropomorphised elements of the natural world: that which is unseen or unknown is given a form that can be comprehended. In some ways, the contemporary artist occupies a similarly chimera-like social position-both visible and invisible, regarded and disregarded.
An artist’s interest in forging a livelihood from their work, and in the case of Mushroom Studio, creating an artwork in which to create more artworks, offers an odd clash of the real and the fanciful.
I’m not completely convinced it’s fanciful enough in some ways. I think the architectural features of the studio , its doors and windows could take a little more customization for my taste. The interior could unfurl a bit more – its tableau could be more persuasive. But over all it is wonderfully odd. And it’s also brave. And ambitious. It’s a rare work that sets as its goal to position fancy in reality. Too often, fancy is ridiculed as frivolity or suppressed. As to the presumption of a clash? Well, there is a marvelous X factor, an aspect of potential to this piece that will play itself out and take its form in the coming days the artist spends in her most peculiar public residency. The Toronto Sculpture Garden is to be commended on its curation of this project.
 – Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Random House New York, 1946 pp 49.
“Katie Bethune-Leamen: Mushroom Studio” is on view May 28, 2008 – April 15, 2009 at the Toronto Sculpture Garden.
All images by the author.