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Features: Commentary


High Society

Exhibition charting the massive cultural and economic significance of narcotics throughout the ages and around the world

The Joshua Light Show a kinetic sculpture by Joshua White and Seth Kirby.

The Joshua Light Show, a kinetic sculpture by Joshua White and Seth Kirby.
Wellcome Library, London

The most rewarding thing about High Society – A History of Drug Culture, on show at The Wellcome Collection, London, is the psychedelic lucidity with which it has been put together. It is rare for such a diverse combination of artistic, interactive and documentary evidence to make so much sense. Using the “universal human impulse” to alter consciousness as a starting point, the exhibition succeeds in giving a multifaceted exploration of the world of drugs, from coffee to crack, and prohibition to rave culture.

There are paintings of opium ships, photos of crack dens, printed acid tabs, prohibition posters, medical apparatus, medicine bottles and drug-inspired art. Each exhibit is of historic, scientific and artistic interest all at once. Perhaps the best examples of this are David McCandless’s stunning wall-sized diagrams comparing the global value of the illegal drug trade with the war against it and the scale of the international pharmaceutical industry. Never has a glorified pie chart looked so beautiful, and never has a piece of art been so informative.

The Wellcome Trust has a reputation for strong and original curating, but this melting away of generic exhibition boundaries is particularly suitable to reflect the world of drugs. It’s interesting to see the results of NASA’s experiments with narcotics on spiders reproduced on the wall. The webs woven under the influence are widely shared on the Internet, but there it is easy to assume that, like most pages beginning with “MUST SEE!!! Actual NASA experiment with drugs!!!” it was a hoax.

There’s a fantastic collection of pipes and drug memorabilia. Keith Coventry’s crack pipes and crack photos are deathly and depressing, but it is ‘Laudanum’, Tracy Moffat’s series of photogravure images, that really draws viewers in. The mock Victorian photographs, sometimes distorted, sometimes etched onto, intensely capture the anarchic, sexual and hazily malignant feeling of stumbling around a deserted mansion on opium with your Asian servant girl.

An object of intrigue is the dream machine, constructed from a cylinder containing a bulb which shines out through regular apertures and is sat on top of a record player. It pulses at eight flashes per second – the frequency of certain relaxing ‘alpha’ brainwaves. Sitting in front of it with your eyes closed for ten minutes has a moderately wonderful effect, although it is hard to get away from the fact that you are just having a light flashed in your eyes.

Surreal, educational and entertaining, High Society is highly recommended, even for those who are easily bored by ‘drug shit’. Suitable for children? This reviewer would cautiously say so, but it might be worth doing some reconnaissance for yourself before leaving your toddler in front of the dream machine for an afternoon.

‘High Society – A History of Drug Culture’ runs until 27 Feb 2011 at the The Wellcome Collection, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE

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