The words death and decay can conjure up many different images, from mourning to urban blight, but for Zainab Thompson `22 they mean something both simple and infinitely complex: the surreal nature of the circle of life. Thompson’s recent exhibition at the Smith Gallery, “Death, Decay, Redefined”, explored these terms in detail with interactive elements and additions throughout the two-week exhibition.
Thompson credited an interest in “reading and writing horror surrealism” for inspiring many of his complex, otherworldly pieces, stating that “Death, Decay, Redefined” combined novel mediums and methods. and unknown.
“The show was really about combining things that I love and then adding in a few elements that are out of my comfort zone, like sculpting and a full human body,” Thompson said.
The roots of inspiration for Thompson’s show weren’t roots at all: they were mycelium. She had long wanted to take a class in fungal biology at Grinnell but had never
successfully enrolled in the course due to its popularity, so when she met fungal biology professor Kathy Jacobson, Thompson asked for recommendations on where to start her own research.
The professor mentioned a documentary called “Fantastic Fungi,” which Thompson drew heavily on for “Death, Decay, Redefined.”
“I would pause it in parts and draw mushrooms on the screen that I really liked the way they looked, searching mushroom databases and choosing species that I liked,” Thompson said.
“I realized that I wanted to group together groups of species that I found. The piece “Death”, for example, features three species of fungi that cause death through consumption or are indirectly related to death in some other way.
The exhibit involved an interactive element in which visitors are invited to fold and decorate their own origami mushrooms to place around the exhibit, as well as more intricate 3D paper-sculpted mushrooms that were part of the original installation. Thompson expressed that the sculptural element was one of the most complex aspects of her show.
“The 3D paper mushrooms went through several iterations,” Thompson said. “The versions that ended up in the series were probably the fourth, fifth, and sixth design iterations that I came up with.”
Thompson said the hardest part of her show was maintenance. Payable
to the fluid and ever-changing nature of the show, Thompson had to constantly re-evaluate his space. “It was a living space that changed and was added over the course of the show,” Thompson said. “I was spending a lot of time even after the show opened going there and doing updates.”
Even when working in the third dimension, Thompson used pen and ink as her primary mediums to convey the symbolism she aimed to achieve. This medium was also conducive to his desire for human interaction with the show.
“Somewhere in the show is a metaphor about death and growing up and how we’re all recycled,” Thompson said.
Thompson said her favorite piece on the show was her piece “Death”, explaining that it pushed her as an artist. “I love the way she came out,” Thompson said. “Figure drawing isn’t one of my strengths and pushing myself to pull out something that looked as anatomically correct as possible was a fun challenge.”
Thompson said the most rewarding part of “Death, Decay, Redefined” was being able to see his pieces come to life through interaction.
“The feeling I would get walking into Smith and seeing people working on their own origami mushrooms, it was something they chose to do, and it always seemed like people were enjoying it,” Thompson said. .
“I definitely didn’t do the show myself, but it was still mostly my job, in a play with my name on it, and it felt really valid to me in a lot of ways. It really meant a lot.