Lauren Henschel MFA EDA ’20: “Fibers of Being”

Lauren Henschel

As Lauren Henschel was finishing Fibers of Being, her MFA EDA thesis exhibition, the world changed. The work, an intensely personal examination of vulnerability and mortality, was made suddenly, universally relevant by the coronavirus crisis at the same moment it became impossible for the public to visit.

“A lot of what we’re going through now, I’ve had to go through in different periods of my life,” said Henschel. When she was fifteen, she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune form of arthritis that manifests on the skin as well as the joints. “One day I was going to play college basketball, and the next day I couldn’t do anything at all,” she said. “It felt like cement had been poured into my body.” To protect her vulnerable immune system as she underwent treatment, Henschel finished high school from home.

She also began taking photos, prompted by her mother, Nancy Meister ‘85, who encountered photography at Duke through a course taught by Alex Harris, founder of the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). “I fell in love with capturing bodies as they moved in space,” explained Henschel, who went back to the basketball court to make some of her first photos. Her mom put her in touch with Harris, and Henschel applied to Duke.

A still from one of Henschel’s films in “Fibers of Being.”

“I dug myself out of this hole I never thought I would be able to get out of,” said Henschel, reflecting on her undergraduate experience at Duke. She took as many courses in documentary studies as she could; “I think I hold the record for all-time most classes taken at CDS.” After graduating, Henschel was awarded the Lewis Hine Fellowship and moved to New York City to develop a youth photography program at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Ultimately, however, she knew she had not quite found her voice as an artist.

Henschel returned to Duke as a MFA EDA student in 2018. “I knew I wanted my work to talk about my experience, about the body, genetics, and mortality, but I didn’t know how.” A 16mm film class with Josh Gibson transformed the trajectory of her work—she had found a medium suited to the ideas she wanted to express. She felt like she’d found her voice.

A view of the installation in the Power Plant Gallery.
A view of the installation in the Duke Sculpture Studio.

“A Living, Breathing Experiential Installation”

Photo of Henschel editing 16mm film by Archer Boyette.

Fibers of Being includes two silent 16mm films unfolding to the sound of a conversation between Henschel and her father, who also has psoriatic arthritis. As you hear her ask him about the weight of passing on this condition, one screen shows Henschel injecting her medication while the other surveys the landscape of her father’s skin.

Henschel pushed the inherent tactility of 16mm film to its limit, processing it all by hand, adding her own medication and bodily fluids to the development solution, and stitching the edits together piece-by-piece. There are unknowns and risks with every step of making 16mm film. Henschel found this limit to the artist’s ability to control the medium especially suited to her subject. A finished 16mm reel also has a life of its own—it can only be screened so many times until until the emulsion wears away and the image is gone. “I saw this as an opportunity,” she said.

“My work is intended to compel people to not only re-encounter the human experience of inhabiting a body but also invite them to consider film itself as a body. . .

My purpose is to foster consciousness around this ‘condition,’ of residing in the temporary shelter of a body, of the impermanent and illusory concept of being well, and to engender empathy for people who live inside this awareness every day.”—excerpt from Fibers of Being Artist’s Statement

Excerpts from the films in “Fibers of Being.”
The micro views of Henschel’s father’s skin in the film evoke the branching filaments of mycelium.

Fibers of Being is also, quite literally, alive. In the center of the installation is an 8’ x 10’ room, with walls made of 800 blocks of living mushrooms.

Why mushrooms? They are the more visible “fruit” of mycelium, a mass of branching filaments that aid in decomposition. “Mycelium lays underneath the surface and when it feels it has been attacked it reaches out of the earth and fruits a mushroom in defense,” said Henschel. The process embodies the reciprocity of life and death and the tension of our immune systems, reminding us of the “mortality we share with all living things.”

The mushrooms also turn Fibers of Being into a multi-sensory experience, which is important to Henschel because she wants to make her work accessible to “as many bodies as I can. I was hoping the ability to touch the mushrooms, to smell the earth, could bring a new layer of accessibility to the piece.” She planned to have interpreters and assisted listening devices, and to hand-transcribe the recorded conversation so people who could not hear it could still experience its personal texture.

Lauren Henschel at work
Henschel installing mycelium blocks in the structure at the center of her exhibition.

As she installed Fibers of Being, Henschel knew it was unlikely that anyone would be able to see it in person, so she produced a video that moves through the space and incorporates pieces of the audio and projections. She debuted this adaptation over Zoom, to a gathering of almost 100 family, friends, and mentors. And—despite removing all physicality from the work—the themes and ideas she hoped to convey landed with her audience.

“The film makes the piece accessible in a different way,” shared Henschel. “My grandparents, who could have never come to the exhibit, could see the piece. And it worked.”

Henschel intended for the installation to open pathways for viewers to consider thoughts that typically get pushed away. “My hope for this work was to force people, on the most basic level, to have to confront their own body, and what happens when that body doesn’t work anymore,” explained Henschel. “Now it feels like the whole world is experiencing these ideas.”

Henschel in a film still from Fibers of Being.

“It’s humbling to see how people were able to get something from this piece, even now.” After the Zoom “opening,” she received texts from family and friends who were prompted to begin their own difficult conversations with loved ones.

Fibers of Being asks the viewer to confront mortality, but in so doing, makes new experiences and empathy possible.

And the installation lives on. When Fibers of Being can safely be visited again, the work itself will have morphed, the mushrooms likely will have died, and with that change something new will be created.

Lauren Henschel’s Website