One of the most striking pieces at the Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition is a set of images of webs spun by spiders on drugs – the results of an investigation commissioned by Nasa into the effects of narcotics on behaviour. Strangely, the most psychedelic web is the one spun on caffeine – an asymmetric tessellation of wonky polygons – while the one spun stoned on marijuana looks sloppy and unfinished. Drugs are habit-breaking, as well as habit-forming: the spiders had spun webs the same way for years, but were suddenly prompted to experiment. Bored of hexagons, why not try trapezoids?
Since the 1960s we’ve become more familiar with the dangers of drugs, more inclined to be wary of their benefits; and the apparatus of drug-use has changed to fit our disillusion. The glamour of 19th-century gentlemanly experimentation – the haschischins et al – has dissolved. At High Society, alongside a Victorian heroin user’s engraved silver syringe case and an ornate Indian pipe inlaid with gold coins is a ‘digital cannabis vaporiser’ – the reefer pipe’s latest mutation – a sleek instrument with a chrome base and digital display. In Keith Coventry’s photographs, crack-users squat on mouldy carpets clutching pipes cobbled together from plastic bottles and tin foil. Contemporary drug-taking looks either pseudo-medical or impoverished and desperate.
None of the drug-users exposed at High Society seem to be having a very good time. The crack-heads look hollow-eyed and sly. Laudanum-users, if we are to believe Tracey Moffatt’s series of staged photographs of a maid and her mistress under the influence, look catatonic. The only party you’d want to join is the one portrayed in T. Rowlandson’s 1823 aquatint Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a Party of Friends, Experimenting with Laughing Gas; a genteel set enjoying a drawing-room knees-up, squawking with mirth.
On High Society’s evidence it’s the psychedelics that we’ve benefited from most. They don’t look fun either, exactly, but like spiders on coffee we’ve been inspired by taking them to make beautiful, unusual things. Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings, for instance, a series of fiendishly intricate pointillistic abstracts. Also impressive are the ayahuasca paintings by the Amazonian Tukanos, playful geometric conundrums in bold lines and energetic splashes of colour. Psychedelics are good for creativity insofar as they give people experiences that they feel driven, once back in the real world, to explain to others. What’s more, they don’t provoke the lassitude that other narcotics can, which means the attempts at explaining often get finished.