The head of a rotting cow carcass lies pensively on the floor of an art museum exhibit, enclosed by a large glass casing. Despite the repulsive maggots and flies buzzing around its head, the cow fascinated Ricky Cordova (Bioengineering ‘18).
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “By making the mental leap to label something differently, [the artist] showed that something so commonplace can be a powerful symbol of the beauty of death … of the metamorphosis of materials after life leaves it.”
The piece, “A Thousand Years” by Damien Hirst, showed Cordova the power of showcasing biological materials and processes as art. Inspired, Cordova decided to combine his two passions for bioengineering and art by pursuing “bioart” of his own. From mushrooms to bread mold, Cordova seeks to push the boundaries of traditional art by utilizing natural, though somewhat disgusting, materials in provocative pieces.
A former participant in Stanford’s immersive art residential program, ITALIC, Cordova was exposed to the theory of art practice early in his freshman year. Similarly, his interest in bioengineering runs deep; his mom was a microbiologist and his dad a systems engineer.
“I loved hearing about synthetic biology and programming organisms, using their DNA as if it were computer code,” Cordova said. “Just realizing the power of biology as a nanofabrication factory.”
Cordova said he had the opportunity to “bridge the two worlds” by doing art projects in STEM classes and assignments for ITALIC. He hopes that these intersections will help him “become a better bioengineer and a better artist at the same time.”
One such project was the construction of a life-size sculpture of a man made of living mushrooms. Cordova conceived of the idea when talking to Philip Ross, a fellow member of the Drew Endy Laboratory. Ross’s start-up, Mycoworks, uses mushrooms to make alternatives for building materials and leather.
After collecting various species of mushroom from the wild, Ross places them in a substrate — a cocktail of sawdust, energy drinks, cat food, and other ingredients — to support rapid growth. Next, the network of mycelium (the branching roots of mushrooms) expands to fill the container in which the substrate was held. Once baked in an oven, the material becomes sturdy and good for insulation. This allows engineers and artists alike to repurpose these biomaterials.
Inspired by trips to the Rodin sculptures at the Cantor Arts Museum, Cordova decided to apply Ross’s process to the art of sculpture.
“I thought it would be really neat to make a powerful, Renaissance sculpture, but instead of metal or marble, make it out of mushrooms using the same technique as Ross,” he said.
With the help of Eda Benites (Bioengineering ‘18), Cordova set out to create a prototype using a Visible Man anatomy model for kids as a mold. They purchased the mushrooms from Mycoworks and grew them for two to three weeks so that the mycelia could spread their network and fill up the plastic mold.
“After three weeks we opened it up and it held its shape and we could hold it,” Cordova said. “It was a little man made out of mushrooms!”
The artists decided to scale up the prototype with the help of a grant to make art for the FROST music and arts festival. Packed with mushrooms, the headless, full-sized manikin lurked in the corner of Cordova’s dorm room, as he waited in anticipation for the mushrooms to grow.
“Within that lack of control — the control you’re leaving up to the piece of art — there’s also a level of uncertainty of whether it would work or not,” he said.
Although they allotted the same three weeks for the mushrooms to grow, the network did not fully spread in time for the festival. As a result, they decided to keep the mushrooms inside the transparent mold when displayed at the festival.
“It looked really cool and otherwordly,” Cordova said. “I think that piece is really interesting because it’s a man that was grown; it’s a totally living art piece in the shape of a man.”
Although the artists composted the sculpture after the festival, Cordova imagines burying the man whole and allowing the mushrooms to grow and spread their roots in the earth.
“I feel like it said a lot about life and death and moreso the continuation of life,” he said. “It makes you think, we are kind of just a gathering of materials from the environment that exists for some period, and then is recycled back into the environment. It’s just a big cycle.”
Midnight and Mold
Cordova’s quest to label commonplace materials as art does not end with mushrooms. For his final project in ITALIC, he drew inspiration from Josef Alber’s “Interaction of Color,” a book detailing the theory of mixing and juxtaposing colors in art. On display at Cantor is a series of paintings by Alber entitled ‘Midnight and Noon,’ showcasing squares of color that illustrate the concepts in his book.
“Following this desire to create things out of natural materials, disrupt what you see as high art, I decided to recreate these paintings by growing mold on bread,” Cordova said. “Just the thought of ‘I’m going to grow this painting instead of paint it’ was a weird thought and something interesting to look at.”
In order to accomplish this task, Cordova obtained loaves of bread from the dining hall, moistened the slices with water and rubbed them on the insides of dumpsters around campus. He sealed the dirty bread in a trash bag and covered it with a blanket to create a dark, humid environment suitable for mold growth.
“I suppose in some way the organism itself is the artist,” Cordova said. “I’m just giving it form.”
Cordova brought the moldy bread into Burbank’s art studio, cut each slice into neat squares and placed them inside plexi-glass cases with the help of Benjamin Atin ‘18. Cordova got to display his work at Cantor as part of the project, titling it ‘Midnight and Mold,’ a play on the name of Alber’s original series.
“It was an interesting take because you can apply the same theory and principles to evaluating its artistic value, even though it’s a piece of bread with mold on it, which is something you just throw away,” Cordova said.
Content with his projects so far, Cordova said he hopes to continue exploring bioart as he pursues graduate studies in bioengineering. In the future, Cordova hopes to engineer mushrooms to express fluorescent proteins to create glowing sculptures.
Overall, Cordova encourages anyone to find intersections between their passions.
“I feel like no matter what you’re studying or what you’re interested in, there’s a way to meld it with art,” he said. “Everything is a network, just like the mushrooms.”