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At the Wellcome

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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.

Comments on “At the Wellcome”

  1. jaspreetsinghboparai says:

    I’m going to see this exhibition in a few weeks. Is there anything about the art inspired by the drug trade? Narcocorridos, for example; or those artists of one’s youth “rolling down the street, smoking ganja, /Sipping on gin & juice”, mente in pecuniis (vel pecuniis in mente).

    • There’s a fantastic painting of opium ships, but very little (nothing, if I remember rightly) on hiphop culture.

      • jaspreetsinghboparai says:

        Damn. Curators do have to impose limits somehow I suppose…. I wonder when it became broadly acceptable to celebrate dealing drugs in popular culture? Gangsters and bandits and suchlike have probably always attracted admirers, who immortalise them in ballads etc.; I suppose Gatsby’s a rum-runner; opiates in literature go at least as far back as the Lotophagoi; but the drug trade itself has acquired a patina of glamour at least from the time of ‘Scarface’. This sounds like the germ of an idea for another exhibition, if not an incredibly dull Cultural Studies textbook.

      • jaspreetsinghboparai says:

        The Rowlandson, by the way, is incredible.

  2. Joe Morison says:

    “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”; i think NR may be confusing his generation’s attitude to drugs with not society’s.
    Since the 60s, illicit drug use has always been predominately a youth thing, and what i see of the youth of today, which is a fair amount as my children are 20 and 24, they are far more enthusiastic and wide ranging in their drug use than we ever were. And even among the generation who have grown up and become disillusioned, there is far more drug use than was in the same aged people in the 60s and 70s.
    The only real difference in today’s use is that almost no-one thinks drug use is going to make us better people and be part of mending the world, now it is unashamedly about pleasure.

    • I don’t think there’s less drug use now, just that people take drugs differently. They tend to see themselves as self-medicating – taking a chemical to make themselves feel better –rather than opening the ‘doors of perception’ etc.

      There’s a high level of ‘wariness’ even among frequent drug-users, who will often possess detailed knowledge of the chemical make-up of the drugs they take, and of the dangers of taking them. I get the impression that contemporary users are also, on the whole, pretty sceptical of the idea that taking drugs could give them any kind of metaphysical insight. This has changed since the 60s, hasn’t it?

      • Joe Morison says:

        Well, i did make the doors of perception point in my final paragraph, but i’m still a bit sceptical about your ‘wariness’ point. At the sixth form college my girls went to (and it’s one with a very good reputation) there was, and i imagine still is, a degree of reckless drug use that i seldom saw at that age (end of the 70s). My girls had friend with serious hard drug habits, and at the weekend the sort of people who in my day would be getting pissed and having a few smokes and perhaps a bit of speed were shovelling huge quantities of ketamine and E and coke into themselves. The young are as they’ve long been: convinced they will live for ever and contemptuous of the wisdom of their elders. They are more cynical and more hedonistic; whether the latter is from opportunity or, perhaps, a result of the former or something else, i couldn’t say.

      • Breathnach says:

        I think so, yeah. I’m in my early twenties and take quite a lot of drugs. But other than the first few times I took acid, I’ve never really taken drugs in an attempt to access some Platonic realm of forms. Say ‘transcendental’ to the majority of young drugs-takers, and they might well think you’re talking about your teeth.

        I’m by no means a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, but I think he writes well about the end of that type of drug taking, at least on the scale in which it was once engaged.

        “We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”

  3. outofdate says:

    Or how about this? ‘Cosmic habituation’?

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