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Worth the trip?: High Society exhibition ~ Wellcome Collection, London (until Feb 27)

February 16, 2011

Heroin heroics or caught out and cuffed?: Artist Richard Hamilton’s famous work Swingeing London, featuring Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser during arrest for heroin possession in 1967, currently on display as part of Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition

According to the official blurb for the latest exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection, every society on Earth is a ‘high society’; an interesting point and one that this free exhibit does its utmost to make.

Indeed, if you’ve any interest in the drug-related counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s or the history and realities of hallucinogenic drugs in general and have the means to visit this venue, then High Society could be something of a must for you. It sets itself a tough act in trying to reveal to peeps both the background and historical/ present use of mind-altering drugs, as well as the paraphenalia and controversies associated with them, but mostly through presenting a large and diverse collection of objects, images and artworks, it’s fair to say it succeeds.

Heroin, hashish, cocaine, ectasy, tobacco, alcohol and caffeine; they’re all covered here. And in a way that, while likely to reinforce some generally accepted opinions (drugs and their international trade are bad), may also make one think a little differently about one or two things (coffee was once illegal and Coca Cola originally contained cocaine). Smartly, the latter point is maybe most ensured by the exhibition’s dedication to displaying where the major drugs of today came from and how they got started with us.

Take, for example, heroin. An impressively comprehensive gathering of documents and images are on hand detailing 19th Century China’s growth in production of opium (the basis of heroin), the spread of opium addiction from there as Chinese immigrants moved to the US and Europe and, of course, the British Imperialist ambition of creating an opium-dependent population among the part of China it once controlled and the so-called Opium Wars with China this policy created (not exactly the UK’s finest hour). Yet, so much for a history lesson because in the same room a glass cabinet can be found containing objects that look like they were looted from a Victorian pharmacy, including heroin in a jar. Here’s a collision then of well documented, wide-sweeping history and lesser known, eyebrow-raising, far more domestic history.

Just (don’t) do it: a jar that once contained heroin and would have been available over the counter in Victorian Britain (l); a poster advocating the US alcohol prohibition in the 1920s (r)

And this unapologetically frank combination of objects, art and literature is to be found throughout High Society, as early copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (as well as footage of Jonathan Miller’s deliberately trippy 1966 film adaptation for the BBC), mingle with cocaine eye-drops, images of modern-day crack addicts, hashish and marijuana pipes of all shapes and sizes, photos of Native Americans consuming peyote (a mescaline-containing cactus), posters for and against alcohol temperance in the UK and US, essays on drug experimentation from 19th Century scholars and, thanks to a NASA project, prints of web patterns created by spiders while on benzedrine, caffeine and marijuana. You’ll be surprised by which of those three substances most intereferes with the arachnid web-spinners.

Maybe most interesting to readers of this blog, though, is the exhibition’s treatment of Western counter-culture drug usage. While photos and one or two drug-related artworks of the period (such as Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing Sixties above) are worthwhile, they’re most likely exactly the sort of thing you’ve seen before – probably on google, let’s be honest. What is far rarer and far more impressive is what’s maybe High Society‘s centrepiece, namely The Joshua Light Show.

Created by ‘visual musician’ Joshua White, it featured as a late ’60s and early ’70s backdrop at the Fillmore East venue in New York’s East Village while artists like The Doors, The Who, Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane played. Sitting in front of it, as you can here, this psychedelic lumiere to those bands’ son gives you something of an idea of the trippy, hip atmosphere of such a place, with splattering and bubble-like vibrant colours and pop art-esque shapes crossing the screen before you. Behind the screen, you get to see how the thing works – whirring cameras create the continuously locomotive images with help from bottles of ink and plates containing film, magazine and photo shots. Mind you, this contribution to the exhibit was, in fact, recently created by White with Seth Kirby; it was intended, in the former’s words, as a ‘sculptural interpretation of a real 1960s psychedelic laboratory.’

Perhaps High Society‘s greatest success, however, is that it doesn’t make any judgments itself; it shows the visitor the origins of the drugs we’re familiar with, how they’ve been indulged in both illegally for a high and traditionally in communities for spiritual, medicinal and diplomatic purposes and how, in relatively modern society, they’ve become fetishised, demonised, regulated and the source of a $200bn a year business. In short, it makes you think – surely a perfectly acceptable and healthy addiction for us all.


Further reading:

Thanks to Wellcome Collection for the images.

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