Still curious about drugs?
The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, High Society
, charts the history of the drug industry from an 11th century manuscript of poppy remedies written by monks, via the opium trade and wars of the 19th century and the 1930s Prohibition, to modern day usage. One of the most curious trends has been the massive growth of ‘recreational’ experimentation with drugs, to the point that drugs are now considered to be mainstream. The illicit drug trade is estimated by the UN at $320 billion a year and illegal drug use is reported to be rising both in the West and across the developing world.
Mike Jay, co-curator of High Society says, “The drug experience has been as widely documented by artists and writers as by scientists and medics, often inspired by their personal subjective experiences. We’ve been able to draw on a wide range of material from across disciplines, creating an exhibition that invites the visitor to question our modern attitudes in the light of other times and cultures.”
As far as I can see, the main problem with drugs is that you don't have to be stupid to use them, just curious. But would you allow your curiosity to literally kill you?
I spoke to Joshua White, who created psychedelic backdrops in the 1960s at the Fillmore East theatre in New York, and for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other significant artists of the time. Along with his younger colleague, artist Seth Kirby, he’s recreated his Joshua Light Show at the exhibition.
Joshua informed me that the drugs scene has changed almost beyond recognition since his youth, when San Francisco was at the cutting edge of all things experimental to do with opium, mushrooms and marijuana. “When Donovan first sang Yellow Mellow in 1967, people were cooking banana peels because they thought they could get high…” he explains. “These days drugs are mainstream.”
Seth commented that the new generation of drug users and ecstasy taking rave party-goers
is very different. “These days it’s hard to find acid and young people are much more sophisticated, “he says. “Young kids use coffee filter paper to shave off bits to see what’s inside their pills.”
It never ceases to amaze me that anyone would want to swallow or inject themselves with something without knowing what the substance is and what harm it could potentially do them. However, with Ozzy Osbourne now a health tsar for The Sunday Times and Elton John apparently acting as adviser to friends with addiction problems, one can only hope that drugs are starting to lose their appeal. After all, mainstream is boring.
It's refreshing that, rather than fetishising addictive substances, High Society presents drugs and drug paraphernalia in a clinical, yet cultural context – as curiosities and expressions of history and art. Above all, this show highlights the true value of drugs in the prevention and cure of illness and disease, and as a welcome (no pun!) part of the pharmaceutical industry.
Here are some examples of the wide-ranging curiosities on show, in no particular order:
During the nineteenth century, many drug preparations containing opium, morphine, cannabis and cocaine were on open sale in high street pharmacies – including the very dangerous sounding Glyco-heroin for cough. Most were withdrawn from sale as a result of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920.
Alexander Shulgin is a Russian-American psychopharmacologist who, as a student, developed aninterest in psychoactive drugs such as mescaline. He set up his own laboratory in the 1960s. He was prosecuted in 1994 for violating the terms of his laboratory licence.
Tracy Moffat’s collection of 19 framed photographs (see above left), entitled Laudanum explores the relationship between a maid and her mistress and the hallucinations and disorientating effects resulting from laudanum. In Victorian times this drug could be obtained over the counter and there were many female addicts.
A bronze crack pipe (above right) from Keith Coventry’s ‘Crack City’ series of ‘still life’ paintings, sculptures and prints.
Frolic, a giant-sized installation by Huang Yong Ping, was made in response to the prints of the Patna Opium Factory. Patna opium was smuggled in to China by British traders, supported by pro-free trade British politicians, such as Lord Palmerston - seen here at the end of a pipe.
Various fungi from a coloured lithograph c.1827
Eduard Levinstein’s 1877 book, Die Morphiumsucht was published in Britain as 'Morbid Craving for Morphia' and was one of the first to describe ‘morphinism’ as a physical disease. His remedy was forced confinement and substitute drugs, including chloroform and brandy.
Mustafa Hulusi’s four screen, walk-in video projection, named after the poppy fields of Afyon in Turkey. This region was s source of much of the opium grown for European consumption in the 1960s, but in the 1960s the Turkish government agreed to destroy the crops in return for compensation from the USA. Poppies are now grown again here for legal, medical opiate production.
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