Friday, February 04, 2011

Drugs are God for You

There are only a few more weeks to catch High Society at the Wellcome Trust, an interesting exhibition looking at drugs through history, culture and art.

All drugs at one time or another, in one culture or another, for one reason or another (medicinal, spiritual, religious, recreational, experimental), have been both legal and illegal, socially accepted or frowned upon: tobacco, coffee, alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, LSD. It goes without saying that the legal ones – tobacco, alcohol – are the most lethal. Make them all legal I say. Even though in a way it takes an objective approach, the exhibition, by showing how drug illegality has caused more widespread crime and misuse than it would have if legal (there's a look at prohibition in the States), states the case quite plainly that legalising them all is the obvious thing to do.

There's quite a bit of art in the exhibition to illustrate various points. A print of a morphine addict (possibly a prostitute) by Eugéne Samuel Grassett; photos of a 'Crack Den' by Keith Coventry; a watercolour by J F Lewis of a Constantinople Drug Bazaar; an etching of an East End of London opium den by Doré. Also of note is something I'd been wanting to see for ages, Brion Gysin's Dream Machine, a 'stroboscopic flicker device that produces visual stimuli' (read: makes you dizzy). A cylinder with holes in is placed on a revolving record player with a light bulb in the middle. It's apparently meant to be 'viewed' with eyes closed; we didn't do this so perhaps didn't experience it fully. Anyway, it produces nice patterns with eyes open. Gysin was a close friend of William Burroughs (surprisingly, there's no mention of him in the exhibition), and is credited with influencing and shaping Burrough's writing from Naked Lunch onwards with Gysin's cut-up technique (since employed by numerous artists and musicians including the Stones and David Bowie). Gysin was also a painter and performance artist.

For hundreds of years we've expected our artists – usually, writers (Burroughs is the ultimate example) and musicians, but sometimes painters – to take drugs. If you're a rock star (or even a jazz musician – classical musicians, less so), it's positively expected of you. Whereas if you found out your best mate was taking heroin on a regular basis, you'd probably be a bit concerned. Essentially we want our rock stars to do it for us. To live our (fantasy) life.

My boon companion forwarded a theory – which he'd told me before, at least once – that all addictions are circumstantial. If we're removed from the situation, the addiction is alleviated. He cited the example of posh people in the 1920s who would take copious amounts of cocaine at weekend parties but never became addicted; whereas, say, smack addicts take the drug where they live and hence are never removed from their situation, their environment. I don't know, it's just a theory, he probably read it somewhere anyway. Funny thing though, we did really feel like taking some illicit drugs after seeing the exhibition. Unfortunately they didn't sell them in the exhibition shop.

High Society at the Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, runs until 27 Feb.

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