Review: High Society at the Wellcome Collection

Review: High Society at the Wellcome Collection

Review by Robert J. Wallis, a Professor of Visual Culture & Director MA in Art History at Richmond The American International University in London.

“Every society on Earth is a high society”: from the caffeine in our morning tea and coffee to over-the-counter pain-killers and a “drink” on the way home from work, to hallucinogenic snuffs used by shamans in Venezuela, drugs are a universal part of human existence. This is the overarching theme of the excellent High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London (until 27 February 2011). Lead curator and widely published expert on the topic, Mike Jay, author of the stunning catalogue, makes no judgements as to whether drugs are “good” or “bad”, should be illegal or legal (the illegal drug trade is estimated by the UN at $320bn a year, around half that of the pharmaceuticals industry), but demonstrates in great variety how they figure in all cultures, through time.

The first cabinet displays a wonderful miscellany of drug-related paraphernalia to demonstrate this diversity: two contemporary glasses of “Wine”, packaged in plastic and ready for consumption are juxtaposed with a “Heavy fetish pipe” (Congo, late 17th or early 18th century), “Fly Agaric mushrooms”, a “Bundle of qat twigs”, “Betel nut cutters in the form of a human head with the wings and tail of a peacock” (Indian, 19th century), a “Kava bowl” (Vanuatu, contemporary), “Amyl nitrate capsules”(London, 19th century), a “Homemade crack pipe”, and a “Digital cannabis vaporiser”, to name but a few examples. The objects are uncluttered by labels although having to look back and forth to the labels on the wall behind was a bit awkward, but the point is made, enticing visitors into an exciting show.

The gallery space is spacious, though surprisingly subdued and clinical in tone(blue, black, white) for a show on drugs. The great range of mixed media is organised according to six themes: A Universal Impulse, From Apothecary to Laboratory, Self-Experimentation, Collective Intoxication, The Drugs Trade, A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease?; in a clockwise-direction, visitors broadly follow this format. A free exhibition guide repeats the introductory text to each of these themes, and an exhibit captions catalogue supplements this and the text in the displays by fleshing out some of the detail – only reading this would I have learned that Rossetti’s Study of Elizabeth Siddal for “Beata Beatrix” (1860) is included because the later painting on which it is based has the girl holding poppy flowers, alluding to Lizzie’s addiction to and overdose from laudanum.

A 7th century BCE Assyrian tablet from the Royal Library of Assyria at Nineveh recommending “azallü” for paralysis, flabbiness and “forgetting worries”, is the oldest object displayed. A ceramic “Opium Juglet”, c.1500 BCE, made in Cyprus and found in Israel is shaped something like a poppy head and painted with stripes which are suggestive of the incisions made on the capsule to leak sap and harvest the drug. Drug use clearly has great antiquity. Rare films of Tukano Indian shamans using the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca vine (1971) and the Waika Palm Fruit Festival in Venezuela (1959) involving the collective use of hallucinogenic snuff, show how drugs are embedded in ritual life in many indigenous communities today. There are also displays on the use of Kava in the Pacific, the “divine plant” coca among the Incas, and Peyote among the Huichol Indians of Mexico, but the ethnographic material is limited in a show otherwise dominated by Western encounters with drugs.

These encounters, though, are fascinating, particularly the influence of drugs on visual art and literature. The first illustrations of magic mushrooms appear in 1803 after Dr Brande published his 1800 description of a family afflicted by symptoms including hallucinations after eating fungi they collected in London’s Green Park (Andy Letcher’s book Shroom is worth a mention here). Thomas De Quincey, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Conan Doyle were some of the earliest self-experimenters with opium, cocaine and morphine to leave records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and early editions of their work are on display. An 1822 coloured aquatint entitled “Doctor and Mr Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas” satirises the trend for laughing gas “parties”; pictures by Henri Michaux of incredibly detailed doodles were drawn while under the influence of mescaline in the 1950s; and LSD blotter art colourfully signals the drug culture of the 1960s. An entrancing psychedelic light show reproduced for the exhibition by Joshua White (who worked with Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and The Doors), with a behind-the-scenes view, is a highlight.

Contemporary art is represented by Mark Harri’s (1999) fun video “Marijuana in the UK”, with the artist reading Benjamin’s Hashish in Marseilles and Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels to cannabis plants to make them grow faster, and Rodney Graham’s even funnier Phonokinetiscope (2001) in which he drops acid and cycles around Berlin just as the accidental discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffman, did in 1943. The socially-destructive impact of drugs today is marked by Keith Coventry’s disturbing photolithograph Crack (2000) and his memorial-like Crack Pipe (1998) series of bronzes. Mustafa Hulusi’s sublime video work Afyon shows fields of poppies growing in Turkey: a source of Europe’s opium from antiquity to the nineteenth century, destroyed in return for compensation from the USA in the 1960s, with renewed production today for legal medical opiates, this ‘Epilogue’ to the show points to the enduring role of drugs in society and our ambivalence as to their rightful place.

Highly recommended – an unmissable exhibition.

Copyright Wellcome Library, London. From: Order this large Guinness for the home : the large economical family size : Guinness is good for you / Guinness (Firm), Redgate,Nottingham : [1925?] 19 cm. Library reference no.: GC EPH573:27. Wellcome Library Catalogue