London's Wellcome Collection dabbles in psychedelia and mind altering drugs
By Laura Burgess
11 November 2010
Exhibition: High Society, Wellcome Collection, London until February 27 2011
"Drugs are not just substances," says one of the curators at the
Wellcome's High Society exhibition, and that's exactly what the
collection of old and contemporary art pieces show. Beginning with
cabinets of tools tobaccos pipes, injecting kits and opium capsules
we move into an array of items that show another side to drug use
and its culture.
Whether we're aware of it or not, most of us are users of mood or
mind-altering substances, whether it's a cup of coffee, a glass of
wine or an Ecstasy pill. So it's interesting to see an exhibition
that looks at the huge spectrum of the dark yet seemingly bright
world of drugs.
There is a long history behind their use and purpose in different
cultures all over the world, and this show might open a few visitors'
eyes to leave them feeling surprised at what they have discovered.
The Wellcome has a reputation for its interest in science and medical
equipment, so the section From Apothecary to Laboratory shares
writings from John Jones, a physician from the 1700s. His book,
Mysteries of Opium Reveal'd, shows how keen he was to tell other
doctors about the powers and effects of the drug.
Fast-forward to the early 20th century and Keith Coventry's
still-life collection, Crack City, chillingly reveals how different
items, such as an asthma inhaler, can be used as a homemade crack pipe.
The title of his abstract series is the nickname given to a group of
tower blocks in London known for their social and drug problems.
Coventry's black and white still, Crack Den, shows three young women
lighting up while sat on a mattress.
Yet in non-Western culture, substance use is for traditional purposes
and religious sacrament as seen in Edwin Forgan Myers' photo
collection, Peyote Ceremony and Huichol Village Scenes, from 1938.
The villagers are preparing Peyote a small cactus that contains
mescaline as part of a ritual.
The people of the Colombian Amazon use ayahuasca, which is a drink
made from hallucinogenic plants. The video War of the Gods,
Disappearing World shows the Tukano people using the drug in rituals
for treating sickness and to ward off evil influences. In this
sequence the tribe are seeking visions through a dance ritual.
But in Western society drugs have evolved throughout the decades; be
it the swinging sixties or the rave scene of the 1980s, there is an
attachment between substances and music. In New York, during the time
of "free love", artist Joshua White designed lights for discotheques.
Eventually he became involved with lighting for rock bands The Who,
Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.
For his installation piece The Joshua Light Show, White joined artist
Seth Kirby to create what he describes as a "sculptural
interpretation of a real 1960s psychedelic laboratory."
Situated opposite a screen playing a montage of random images of the
sort found as screensavers on Windows Media Player, the laboratory
sees two tables full of science equipment filled with brightly
Beside these utensils, bottles and brushes, coloured wheels are
rotating. The two artists have brought art and drugs together in this
piece of iconography. White describes it simply as "something to look
at," but perhaps the word synaesthesia would be more fitting.
The collection closes by showing different means of advertising
posters, books and adverts teaching the dangers of using substances
and alcohol. It wasn't until the 19th century that drugs were at
their most potent and most available, so the trade had to be
regulated, and by the 20th century there was a national ban on drugs.
The exhibition highlights drug use as a form of social interaction,
whether in a village in South America or for recreational use in the
Western World. High Society shows visitors how drug-use goes back
hundreds of years. To us Westerners there is a dark and dangerous
stigma surrounding these substances, but to some cultures it's a way of life.
Watch the Wellcome Collection's promotional video for the exhibition:
[See URL for video.]