Courtesy of Vivian Lin / Cornell AAP

March 8, 2020

BIGSOFTFUNGI and the Role of Making

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During the week of March 2, Tjaden’s dimly lit Experimental Gallery was empty on one half and filled on the other with knitted mushrooms — soft, sculptural forms entangled with colorful mesh fabrics lining the floor. A projector on one side of the space presented a blue and pink grid of hexagons onto a trove-filled couch of even more mushrooms. As viewers walked through and interacted with the fungal forms, the projected pattern landed on them instead of the walls and in some sense, viewers physically became part of the installation.

Each mushroom was created on a knitting machine by Vivian Lin ’20  in collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon Textiles Lab. As she notes, “each mushroom was designed using a visual knitting interface” that generates forms from 3D models but was “hand-stuffed, stitched, and dyed.” Clearly delineated is the machine’s role from Lin’s, and their relationship becomes almost like a negotiation: you made that, but I, this.

Lin’s exhibition opens a larger conversation reflected in the movings of the art world on the tensions between man-made versus machine-made. We live in an era where the value of creation — or, more simply, making — is murky. A conceptually-driven past (and present, I’d argue), driven by artists  Sol Lewitt, John Baldessari and artists of much of the latter half of the 20th century, collides with a rise and revival in “craft”* forms of making.

It may seem contradictory to simultaneously uphold these disparate ways of creating, but what’s clear about Lin’s exhibition is it leads us to wonder if value is found in why something was made, how it was made, both or neither.

What we generally categorize as craft art — weaving, ceramics, sewing and the like — often bears merit in the sheer hours it took to make, representing a transferral of energy and spirit from the creator into the created.** As Lin explains it, “labor intensive work has currency of its own already,” so what happens when a machine is the one responsible for these hours, weeks, years of making?

Her resolution: “With using a machine, you have to consider what greater idea to give it.” With an army of knitted mushrooms, her role is to figure out how to use these building blocks to combine, display, and engage beyond each individual form. Her designed assemblage, if you will, does just this. A fantastical dream world was constructed, creating an alternate-reality within just one room — this is the power of art, regardless of how it was made.


*Craft in quotes because the phrase “craft forms of making” shouldn’t exist in the way it does. We give painting its own category, sculpture its own category, photography its own category, and yet “craft” is meant to encompass how many mediums and materials? “Craft” holds a heavy history, because historically, domestic, functional, feminine forms of making are conflated with being lesser. In reality, I believe this is all part of the ploy to keep “fine” in “fine arts,” whereby some artists and/or institutions feel the need to create distinctions in art to elevate and preserve themselves.

**I wonder if the pure labor of “craft art” is the reason it gets overshadowed as an art form. Instead of seeing the labor as a means to an end, we get trapped in the process of making, either in awe or haughty distaste.


Cecilia Lu is a sophomore in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected].