The idea to use hallucinogenic drugs in connection with one’s art practice is not new. One of the pioneers who explored this relationship was French painter and poet Henri Michaux, who in the 1950s did a series of drawings titled “Mescaline Drawings”. In the 1960s, the Flower Power era started and there was a cultural boom for hallucinogens among bands like The Beatles, The Byrds and The Grateful Dead. Meanwhile, photographer Karl Ferris cemented the visual language for the new “psychedelic movement” with his iconic album covers and posters filled with colorful and distorted motifs. The sixties also inspired artists Sture Johannesson and Öyvind Fahlström to use hallucinogens as backdrops to their works, which resulted in moral panic in the Swedish cultural sphere. Now, six decades later, almost every known hallucinogen is outlawed in Europe as well as North America. This has left the shelves rather empty for artists who want to experiment with mind-altering substances to infuse their practice. However, in Sweden, there is still a hallucinogenic drug that is legal and that grows commonly in our forests from July to September – Amanita muscaria (in Swedish known as röd flugsvamp).
I have been told since I was a child that the red and white spotted fungus is as deadly as it looks. Despite that, or maybe because of it, I have always been intrigued by it. With its striking visual appearance, it looks like something that is taken out of a fantasy novel. Today you can find visual representations of fly agarics in everything from Christmas trees to clothing, and it also has its own emoji. Even though a big symbolic interest exists in the mushroom, my opinion is that common knowledge about what actually happens to a human who eats it is rather small. In fairy tales the red fly agaric has often been given the role as a possessor of magical powers of transformation, the most famous example of this is perhaps Lewis Carrol’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In popular culture, similar attributes have been assigned to it, for example in the video game Super Mario Bros where it appears as the “Power-up Mushroom” that makes the character grow big and powerful. But what actually happens to a human who eats it in real life? Furthermore, is it something that can help an aspiring artist create interesting work?
In this article I will recount what happened to me when I ate a portion of Amanita muscaria in the spring of 2019. I will also explore different ways of transforming my mushroom experience into art.
Amanita muscaria is a mushroom that grows throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is a poisonous mushroom, but many seem confused about the dangers of eating it. The response I have received from a lot of people when I have told them I was going to eat it has been that they had thought it to be deadly poisonous. The simple answer is that it is usually not[i]. My guess is that its deadly reputation has its roots in the vicious appearance of the mushroom’s bright red hat combined with confusion about the effects of Amanita virosa (white fly agaric), which is indeed deadly poisonous. Amanita muscaria can, however, especially if not dried properly, cause severe stomach aches and vomiting. The mushroom contains, among other things, the hallucinogenic compounds ibotenic acid and muscimol. Ibotenic acid is usually blamed for the stomach issues. However, when the mushroom is dried a majority of the ibotenic acid is transformed into muscimol. Muscimol is a much more potent hallucinogen, so by drying it you not only reduce the physical harm but you also enhance the hallucinogenic effect[ii].
To understand the effects of a hallucinogenic mushroom or plant, let us first define what hallucinogenic means. In his book Hallucinogenic Plants, biology professor Richard Evans Schultes explains it this way:
“We call these plants hallucinogens, because they distort the senses and usually produce hallucinations – experiences that depart from reality. Although most hallucinations are visual, they may also involve the senses of hearing, touch, smell, or taste – and occasionally several senses simultaneously are involved.”[iii]
I picked two specimens of Amanita in the beginning of September 2018. I picked them in northern Sweden, more precisely in northwestern Jämtland, in an isolated mountain area I have visited many times since I was a child. I chose them carefully and picked one smaller and one bigger. They both had bright red hats, clean white flesh and no marks or insect bites. The location where I picked them was chosen with much consideration. The reason for this was that I felt that if I would get a bad, or a somehow scary experience, it might give me some comfort in knowing that the mushrooms I had eaten originated from a place that I held very dearly.
I dried the mushrooms thoroughly then put them in a plastic bag in the fridge until seven months later when it was time to undertake the experiment. Thinking about set and setting, I decided to conduct the experiment in the same place that I had picked them. The simple explanation for this is that I wanted to do the experiment out in nature, in a place where I usually feel at peace and where the risk of meeting other people is limited. I felt like such a meeting could interfere with the effects of the mushrooms and that it might make me censor both my acts and my feelings.
Even though I did not want to interact with strangers during the event, I did not want to be completely alone. I therefore asked my girlfriend, Hanna, to come with me as an observer, for safety and for social reasons. She is the one person I feel closest to and I know she would not judge me no matter how I would react to the intoxication. We also brought a simple compact camera with us to document the process.
I started chewing on the cap of the first mushroom in the afternoon. It was sunny and the wind was calm. I sat on a stone on the shore of a small woodland pond. The surface of the pond shimmered with upside-down dwarf birches and snow spotted mountains. Amanita muscaria tasted better than I had expected. I had imagined a sharp flavour that would somehow match the bright colour of the hat. Instead, my mouth was filled with a mild indistinct mushroom taste resembling an uncooked porcini fungus. I took small bites and tried to chew as thoroughly as possible before I swallowed. The dry texture made me thirsty, so I drank handfuls of water from the pond between the bites. Hanna and I chatted a bit and I felt how the anxiety that had been built up for this moment was now completely gone. I felt calm and ready.
After about 20 minutes, a growing warmth started to spread from my chest. At the same time a feeling of euphoria started to rise in me. It reminded me of the feeling you get when you drink a shot of liquor, except that the inebriation did not wash over me, it flowed through me at a calm pace. The warm, joyful feeling spread until it had taken over my whole body and mind. I felt excited, and things that I had pondered over earlier lost their meaning. It was like someone had cleared my mind of all the noise that usually embeds it, and the only thing that mattered was the present. I felt a jerking sensation in my muscles and I wanted to go out on adventures. I wanted to climb mountains and hike to lakes that I saw glimmering at the horizon.
We took off over a mire and into the woods as I chewed down another mushroom. I did not feel any nausea or dizziness, I felt sharp and alert. I watched the trees and the stones we passed and I felt I could sense their different personalities. Nothing looked weird or strange but at the same time everything seemed to be an enhanced version of itself. It was like I had been walking around with a pair of foggy glasses for a long time and then had finally taken them off. This was nothing I pondered over, and I felt no need to stop and lose myself in the beauty of the things around me. I just wanted to keep walking and see whatever was on the other side of the next hill.
When we had hiked for a while, my energy suddenly ran out. It was not enough to just sit down, I needed to lie flat on the ground. I dropped down in the moss a couple of meters from a great fir tree. I looked up at the tree and I thought, “If I do not concentrate, I will get sucked in under that tree”. I relaxed and felt how my body slid towards the tree and down under the thick layer of branches. I felt safe under the fir and I lay there until Hanna kneeled down to check in on me. She was now much bigger than usual, she was huge (or I was tiny). Between the branches I saw her gigantic arms searching and reaching for me. I knew that her intention was to grab me and carry me away from my safe, newfound home. It made me feel uneasy, but I did not panic. I recognized who it was and even though she was strangely big, I figured that she meant no harm. I let her grab me, she helped me stand up and I saw then that we were the same size again. During this whole event I was fully aware that my perception was altered by the Amanita and I thought that the only explanation for it all was that the mushrooms wanted to show me how it feels for them to be picked by a human being.
The rest of the day I felt a strong connection to fir trees and I felt a need to put their branches in my mouth and suck on them. This did not strike me as funny or odd, I just went along with every impulse I got without reflecting upon them. At times it felt like someone else steered me and I just followed along. My strength and eagerness came back shortly after the experience under the tree and I decided to run back to the pond to rinse my head in water. Somewhere here I got the idea to urinate in a glass jug we had with us and then use the jug to attract reindeer. The idea came from a story I had read about reindeer in Siberia that came running from all directions when an Amanita-influenced man urinated in the snow. The animals almost overturned him and then eagerly chewed down the yellow snow and the psychoactive substances that followed with it. So, with the jug in my hand, we went looking for reindeer. We had heard distant barks in the woods earlier, so we knew that they were somewhere close and after a short hike we found a whole herd on a mire. I approached them slowly and held up the jug in front of me. I was hoping that they would feel an emotional bond to me because of the amanita in my system. Sadly, the reindeer did not seem to care much for me, nor my urine, and they began to scatter away as soon as they saw me. I left the jug on the mire in case any thirsty reindeer would change their mind and return.
On our way back to the pond we passed the rocks where I had picked the amanitas six months earlier. I felt a growing fear when we approached the site but Hanna thought that I should stop and say some grateful words. Hesitantly I walked up to the stones, put my hand down on one them, mumbled “thanks” and then quickly backed away, eager to put some distance between the site and me. I felt like some great force dwelled under those stones, a force that could easily consume me if I did not treat it respectfully.
The perceptual phenomena known as Macropsia, when objects seem to shift in size, came back several times during the day. One of the strongest memories of this was from when I lay on the ground and picked up my knife and held it over me. The knife was huge like a sword. It glimmered in the afternoon sun and I could see every detail of the carved handle. I also realized I could control my eyesight in a new way and zoom in on the parts of the picture that I was interested in. Strangely enough the change was not only visual, the knife weighed more as well, and I could not hold it up for long before my arms started to tremble.
During the rest of the day my energy levels kept shifting between low and high. As it got later, the lows became deeper and the peaks smaller. In the end, I could not do much more than to lie down. Unfortunately, we were not equipped to spend the night outside, so we had to hike back to our camp a couple of miles away. By then I had lost all of my previous strength and sometimes I had difficulties keeping my balance even when I was standing still. If Hanna had not helped me, I probably would have tumbled over and fallen asleep on the ground somewhere. I do not completely remember the hike back; I remember I was happy, but tired, and that it took a very long time.
That night it was blowing and raining a lot outside the shelter and although I wish I could, I cannot recall what I dreamed. The next day I woke up with a feeling resembling a slight hangover from alcohol.
Obstacles and psychedelic norms
I do not believe that I can create a visual representation that will fully mediate my Amanita experience. The text you just read about the experiment does not do that either. So if I do not think I can make a truthful representation, why should I make one? One answer to that question would be to look at the visualisation process as a means to create “memory aids”. This term has been used when describing the works of walking artist Hamish Fulton, who states that his long walks are the actual artworks and that the experience of walking in solitude never can be replicated through representation[iv]. Viewing my project from that perspective would mean that the actual art was produced when I ate the mushrooms. However, just like Fulton, I also want to create some sort of physical piece to exhibit for posterity.
There are many visual artists that have tried to replicate visions experienced while in altered states, but the successful results are rather few in my opinion. One can compare this to the number of musicians and authors who, as I see it, have made remarkable works about their hallucinogenic encounters. Bands like The Beatles, The Byrds and The Grateful Dead all made beautiful songs about LSD trips. Since then, the phenomenon has spread beyond “psychedelic rock” to other genres like rap, death metal and a variety of electronic music. In literature, prominent writers such as Walter Benjamin, Allen Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley have written wonderfully vivid stories of their experiences with hallucinogens[v].
An obvious difference between a written text or a song about a hallucinogenic trip compared to a photograph or a painting on the same theme is that the works of the author and the musician are not focused on the visual aspects of the representation. Of course, a book or a record usually comes with images in forms of cover pictures et cetera, but the main images are produced in the reader’s or listener’s head. My experience is that these inner visualisations are very different from the ones perceived via the eye. The main difference is that they are not fixed, they transform freely as your fantasy moves along. In that way they have more in common with dreams than visual eyesight. My Amanita experience also had a lot in common with a dream. During the experiment my visual perception did not follow logic or rational laws of physics and, just like in a dream, the strangeness of it all was nothing that I pondered over. For me it made total sense when Hanna was suddenly transformed into a giant. What is also peculiar is that, even though my experience was rather easy to put down in words the morning after, the images in my mind now slip away or change when I try recapture them.
I often have difficulties appreciating the typical “psychedelic art” (usually containing fluorescent colours or perhaps kaleidoscopic or spiral patterns) that is supposed to directly mimic something that has been seen during a “mind-expanding” experience. It reminds me of when you rented a movie on VHS in the early 2000’s and before the movie there was usually a commercial for the new DVD format. The ad was supposed to show how crisp and vivid the pictures could be on a DVD compared to the standard VHS format. The problem was that you of course saw these ads on a VHS tape with its very limited definition and colour depth. No matter how hard they tried to tweak the colours and sharpen the image, it still just looked like a manipulated VHS picture. My point is that I could try to manipulate photographs from the forest where I ate my mushroom and try to make them look like the forest as it appeared to me then, but I do not think I will succeed. I do not think I will come closer to the truth than they did in those old DVD commercials.
Another path to take would be to distort the pictures by adding light phenomena, double exposure or perhaps some kind of dripping aesthetic to the images. Maybe not because that was how the world looked to me, but because that is what we have learned that a hallucinogenic experience looks like. I believe that this is another difficulty with recreating a “trip”: the common idea of how the world appears when you are under the influence of hallucinogens has been taught to us already, most convincingly perhaps by the visual language of the Flower Power movement. One of the pioneers in creating this colourful look was photographer and painter Karl Ferris. Ferris made many iconic album covers for artists like Jimi Hendrix and Donovan, and is often given the credit for inventing what many today refer to as psychedelic photography. An image search on Google for “” yields thousands of examples of how this aesthetic has been appropriated, a very large percent of these pictures showing distorted motifs in fluorescent colours. Today there are even several mobile apps that can instantly turn your own photographs into mimics of colourful hallucinations.
The conventions of psychedelic photography do not have much in common with what I experienced, yet still I found it hard to shake this visual norm from my mind when I first thought of how I should re-visualise my experiment. Interestingly enough, my camera seemed to have the same problem: when I got the pictures from the experiment back from the lab, the first thing I saw was a photograph with a strange, bright red dripping pattern. The photograph I was looking at was a portrait taken by Hanna of me taking a bite from the first mushroom. The red slimy effect covered parts of my face and hand and what is even stranger is that it was not only red, it also had light whitish spots in it. It is hard to not see this as a reference to Amanita and how it at that moment had started to take over my body. If this were someone else’s photograph, I would have no doubt that this effect was a deliberate idea by the photographer to add a “psychedelic” feeling to the picture.
The real story about how the red dripping pattern appeared in the photo is more coincidental. The camera that I had brought with me was a small, simple analogue pocket camera. I brought it so that Hanna could document the event and also for myself to use if I got the feeling that I wanted to take some pictures. However, almost as soon as the mushroom started to affect me, I became very skeptical towards the camera. I wanted to be fully present in the moment and not think about how myself or my surroundings would appear through a lens. In fact, I was so skeptical towards the camera that I threw it away. It landed in the water and by the time it was saved, the water had already entered the back of camera and influenced the emulsion. I personally like how the picture turned out and the story behind how this colour pattern occurred. However, one could argue that even though the pattern is not fluorescent, it still validates one of the norms of how a psychedelic trip is usually visualised – by adding strange colour effects. I did not experience any red dripping patterns and my intention with this project is to try and make a visual representation of what I experienced.
FIG2 – Image text: Detail from the photograph of me taking my first bite of Amanita
Macropsia and aura
If mediating my whole experience through an artwork is impossible, maybe I could narrow it down and focus on one small part of my impressions. With this idea in mind I choose to focus on the perceptual phenomena of Macropsia, when some objects appear larger than normal. I decided to make a piece based on my experience with the gigantic knife. I have owned this knife since I was a child, I see it as a dear piece of art in itself and, to use the words of Walter Benjamin, I have always felt it possesses the “aura”.
Since I mainly work with lens-based media I immediately started to think of ways to visualize my “Macropsic” moment with the knife through a photograph. My goal was to mediate the physicality of this gigantic knife, as I saw and felt it, when my trembling arms barely managed to hold it up. I twisted and turned the idea, hoping to come up with a solution that would recreate the experience in a somewhat truthful way. During this process I started to doubt that it was even possible to recreate this feeling through a photograph. I could of course take a photo of my hands holding the knife towards the sky, then digitally manipulate the photograph and enlarge the knife. However, this solution felt too simple and, to be frank, I could not see how the aura of the knife would go unharmed through that transformation.
Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” can be hard to follow and it has been attacked for its ambiguity[vi]. One explanation given is that the aura of an original artwork is lost when it is reproduced through mechanical processes[vii]. In other words, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa possesses the aura, while a photographic reproduction of it bought in the Louvre’s gift-shop does not. This way of seeing it would make it impossible for me to reproduce the knife in a way that keeps the aura intact. Struggling with Benjamin’s concept of the aura, I came upon Thoreau R.A. Bakker’s thesis Objects in the Age of Virtual Reproduction: Aura and the Elusive Third Axis[viii](2018). Bakker here argues that it is not so much reproduction alone that devalues the aura of an artwork, but the flattening of an object from three-dimensional (3D) to two-dimensional (2D) representation.
This argument made me think of artists like Mat Collishaw and Nikolina Ställborn who in my mind have successfully re-created past events (or created new ones) with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in their photographic works. Perhaps I could go back to the forest, re-enact my knife scene, photograph it from all angles and then create a 3D version of the event. I would still need to enlarge the knife digitally, but perhaps the VR-technology could bring the viewer’s experience closer to my own. To enhance the physical part of the experience I could make the viewer lie down on the floor and lift something heavy while they look through the VR goggles. This could work.
I believe that VR technology could be an effective tool to recreate hallucinations and other strong visual experiences, but in this case I felt like it might be to overcomplicate things. If my goal is to communicate how the knife appeared to me, why not just make a huge replica of it and exhibit it as an object? If the replica is as exact as possible then the aura might go unharmed through the process. My only problem then would be that the work will be sculptural and not photographic.
My main artistic tool is photography. The natural way for me to recreate an object is to photograph it and then make a print of it. Therefore I will approach the knife the same way, by photographing it through the lenses of a 3D scanner and then make an oversized (160 cm long) physical replica of it in a 3D printer/carver.
I believe that 3D reproductions are a natural step in the evolution of photography and something the photography community should welcome with open arms. I am of course not alone with this view; for example, world-renowned Anthropocene photographer Edward Burtynsky states on his web page that “3D printing is essentially Photography 3.0. From film/chemical to digital to three-dimensional form, photography’s capacity to capture moments, objects and places has expanded exponentially”[ix].
Thinking beyond the two axes of standard photography, using VR technology or 3D printing is a way to make the audience present inside, or together with, your photographic work. While VR can create a perceptual presence, 3D printing can create an actual physical presence. In both cases it gives the viewer an opportunity to interact with your photographs in a new way. In the specific case of re-creating a hallucinatory state I believe that this interaction is the key – the audience needs to be transformed into a participant. Whether my oversized 3D print of the knife is enough to successfully create this transformation, I am not sure, but at least it is a truthful glimpse of what I experienced. No fluorescent colours, no kaleidoscopic patterns, just an object enlarged in size.
[i]North American Mycological Association (NAMA) states on their website: “no reliably documented cases of death from toxins in these mushrooms in the past 100 years”. Retrieved 12 Dec, 2019 from https://web.archive.org/web/20090404122352/http://www.namyco.org/toxicology/poison_syndromes.html
[ii] Schultes, Richard Evans. Hallucinogenic Plants. New York, Golden Press, 1976. pg 27.
[iii] ibid, pg 5.
[iv] Wells, Liz. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011. Pg 288
[v] Benjamin, Walter. On Hashish. Boston, Harvard University Press, 2006.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception, Heaven & Hell. New York, 1954
Ginsberg, Allen & Burroughs, William S. The Yage Letters. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1963
[vi] Knizek, Ian. Walter Benjamin and the Mechanical Reproducibility of Art Works Revisited. British Journal of Aesthetics 33, 1993.
[vii] Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a commentary by Gareth Griffiths. Helsinki, Aalto University, 2011 (original text written in 1936).
[viii] Bakker R.A, Thoreau. Objects in the Age of Virtual Reproduction: Aura and the Elusive Third Axis. Toronto, OCAD University, 2018.
[ix] Quote retrieved from Edward Burtynsky’s official webpage 7 Dec, 2019. See: https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/t2t