Michael Campbell speaks to the big stuff – life and death, art, philosophy, human evolution and of course, mushrooms.
All artwork is Michael Campbell (Photos by Modern Eden Gallery)
Interview by Dia VanGunten
Michael, I love how your work evolves, as if each new piece is sharing some essence of fungus. Does it feel like that to you, as if you’re a messenger, in communion with mushrooms?
Every new piece is another step along an unseen path for me.
Are you literally communing with the mushrooms?
My work and my life are inspired by the mushroom in every way. From treks into the forest hunting mushrooms, taking mushroom supplements for health, microdosing psilocybin, or making art about them, each day is connected to the fungi kingdom.
Mushrooms are like little antennae pushing up from the underworld into our realm to relay a message of ancient insight. I try to be an open channel to that message and a positive example of the mushroom’s potential to heal. And one’s love for mushrooms often translates into a greater love for nature and our place within it.
I know you recently moved to Portland, how does it feel being closer to the source, there in the pacific northwest?
It’s been quite a transformation from life in Northern California, but so far we love our new home! Nature is ever-present here in Oregon. The grey, overcast skies make all the natural colors much more vivid. All of the tree branches are dripping in moss and lichen. And at this moment, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Spring is a real event here.
The PNW is dark and mysterious and we’ve only begun to discover her secrets.
You mention William James in your artistic statement. Any other philosophical influences?
I’ve really been inspired by studying Lao Tzu and Taoism. The Tao has been a great lens to view and be made aware of the inherent rhythms and cycles of nature. Through the Tao, you understand the value of living in alignment with nature and how inserting one’s will creates suffering. The Taoist idea of flow state or Wu Wei seems very psychedelic to me.
Also, Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati or love of one’s fate, embracing life as it is, has shaped the way I see my world. It’s made dealing with the more difficult moments like the death of one’s parents more bearable. It helps me to see life along a continuum, in flux, between peaks and valleys, and to try to embrace the tragedy along with the triumphs.
Some of the darker moments of my life have greatly influenced and contributed to my becoming an artist. So the obstacles become the way, so to speak.
What do you think of Terrence McKenna’s alien spores theory?
I love Terence! His writings and talks continue to live on and inspire long after his passing. In regards to an alien engineered spore designed to travel through space, he said, “An extraterrestrial is going to be subtle. The trick will be to recognize it. They’re not going to appear with a trumpet blasting and ships the size of Manhattan over every city on Earth.” I think McKenna is brilliant to imagine an ancient alien civilization with technology so advanced, they would choose the most energy efficient way to send a message to any other lifeforms in the universe. Essentially a message in a bottle holding the genetic code to the mushroom.
You’ve spoken on the role of mushrooms in nature, clearing the clutter of dead matter and decay, and you say this role is mirrored by its effect on our psyche.
Mushrooms are decomposers and eat only dead organisms. They release an enzyme that breaks down and feeds on the nutrients in this dead matter and returns it to the food web. So the mushrooms provide a service of clearing away dead clutter in the forest.
And the same is true for us.
We experience a clearing and cleaning of the mind via the psychedelic experience. Normally our lives are like records with difficult and traumatic moments etched deep into us, scratches in vinyl. And our needle keeps finding that scratch pulling us back into those terrible moments. But we can avoid this by connecting with psilocybin. The mushroom experience is like freshly fallen snow covering up all the old trails that have led to pain, bad habits, and addiction.
You told a story about how you discovered psilocybin growing on what you describe as hallowed ground, an experience that led to your piece The Mother of Mystery.
My connection with the divine is deepened through consumption of the mushroom or ‘flesh of the gods’ as it has been called.
One of your repeating themes is the intersection between religion and mushroom in pieces such as Consumere Corpus Natura.
In the Eucharist and transubstantiation where consuming the body of Christ makes us more Christ-like and brings us closer to God through this ritual. But in this case, the Corpus or ‘body’ is both Christ and the psychedelic mushroom. For me, my connection with the divine is deepened through consumption of the mushroom or ‘flesh of the gods’ as it has been called.
My snowglobe loving little-kid self is obsessed with your biodome sculptures. How did this idea come about?
The dome worlds are many things…
I grew up watching sci-fi films from the 1970s.
The domes pay homage to the dystopian bubble worlds that often preserve and separate the thriving, healthy ecosystems inside from the poisonous, desolate landscapes outside. The bubble is a thin, delicate skin between a protected space and something more wild and feral living beyond that wall. The film Zardoz (1974) is a good example of this.
What’s a bigger threat to art / the artist — AI or capitalism?
That’s a big question and there’s a lot to consider.
But the short answer… I’m confident that art will persevere.
Art is tenacious.
Art eludes capture and containment. Like a weed growing from the side of rock, it thrives in the most inhospitable environments.
And when there’s an obstacle in the way, it grows sideways.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Michael. It was such a treat for me, as I am a longtime fan of your work.
Thank you, Dia! I really appreciate that.
The readers who are already fans will enjoy this extra peek into your vision and those who haven’t discovered you yet, well, it’s their lucky day. I’ve never told you this but, for me, that discovery had an actual life-changing effect. I’d been on my own fungal project for the past decade and for most of that time, I was in hermit / hoarder mode. Coming across your work, I felt like one mushroom in a mycellium network. It definitely inspired me to emerge from the depths and start publishing PZR, a story where the fungi run all through the plot, and we’re not totally sure on motives, but they’re our only chance. Maybe if we could somehow evolve….
I absolutely believe that mushrooms have played a role in human evolution and that they will continue to do so. There’s the quote about humanity having Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And as that divide between our emotions, institutions, and technology continues to widen, the stakes get higher.
Part of the mushroom’s ‘magic’ is its ability to downgrade human ego by suppressing the ‘default mode network’ in our brains.
Emotional temperance on a global scale may be a key to our survival.
You’re working with themes of life and death, there’s a warning there – a sounding mayday – but hope glimmers. That hope is fungus. Where do you lie on the spectrum between Paul Stamets and The Last of Us? Will fungus end the world or save it?
I’m optimistic about our new relationship with fungi. The message in the zeitgeist now is that mushrooms heal people. Even my most square friends and family are now aware that there’s a new conversation about mushrooms and they’re curious. And as attitudes about psilocybin change, with legalization and more research, people who suffer from chronic mental health issues like PTSD will have more tools and treatment options available to them.
As for the question, ‘Will fungus end the world or save it?’, I suspect that depends on who’s world we’re talking about…
The world goes on with or without us.
My art explores the mystical experience and its connection to the natural world. In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote: “One may say, truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.” Our relationship with the natural world is complicated and often troubled. Our collective Western attitude towards nature has been one of conquest rather than cooperation. And we have become more and more removed from our natural origins as a result. This alienation from nature is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian view that divinity and nature are separate. Nature is wild and subordinate to humanity and must be tamed. And to not tame our own nature, to allow it to run unbridled, is utterly sinful in the eyes of God. I’m curious about death and what lies beyond the veil of life. I’m interested in crossing that bridge by exploring our connection to the mysterious hidden kingdom of fungi. As decomposers of dead, organic matter, mushrooms are symbols of the imminent life and death process. They release enzymes to break down and feed on dead matter. It is fascinating that an organism that makes room for new growth by clearing away dead matter from the forest floor is also an entheogen that, through transcendent states of consciousness, clears our own cluttered spiritual pathways.
There is divinity in nature.
All life is interwoven and truly what we do to nature we do to ourselves.
‘Manifest Destiny: the Peacemaker’ (Metal, Wood, Epoxy Clay, and Vinyl)
‘Beneath the Shadow’ (foam, steel, wire, epoxy clay and paint)
‘Mother Bear: Spirit Companion’ (wood, steel, epoxy clay, and paint.)
is the Matriarch, guardian, and overseer of the forest.
‘Golden Teacher’ (Foam, steel, epoxy clay, and paint.)
‘Born Again’ (Wood, metal, epoxy clay, paint, and plastic.)
‘Gnosis’ (Deer skull, wire, foam, epoxy clay, and paint.)
‘Consumere Corpus Natura’ (Wood, steel, wire, epoxy clay, and paint.)