The Pick - Under the influence

November 18, 2010

High Society: Mind-altering Drugs in History and Culture

The Wellcome Collection, London, until February 2011

"Every society", claims curator Mike Jay, "is a high society." A Cypriot "juglet" from around 1500BC, lent to the Wellcome Collection by the British Museum, is in the shape of an inverted poppy head. Chemical analysis revealed that it originally contained papaverine, one of the components of opium.

Anyone who doubts that getting high is a universal human impulse will be arrested by a statistic that appears at the start of this powerful new exhibition: the illegal drug market is now estimated to be worth £200 billion a year. This is illustrated by an opening display case full of amyl nitrite capsules, bongs, Congolese fetish pipes, digital cannabis vaporisers, homemade crack pipes, silver betel boxes and trays for hallucinogenic snuff, not to mention good old booze and fags.

Drugged-up spiders, as scientists at Nasa discovered, produce very strange webs - although caffeine seems to have a stronger effect on them than either Benzedrine or marijuana. As one would expect at the Wellcome Collection, High Society includes a good deal about the role of science in making drugs, in analysing their effects on individuals and society, and - it is claimed - in minimising the damage they cause. Yet there is equal emphasis on history and culture.

It was drugs, the exhibition argues, that largely fuelled the rise of the British Empire. When silver proved insufficient to satisfy the demand for Chinese silk, tea and porcelain, the opium produced on the Ganges plain proved the perfect substitute. Lithographs from the mid-19th century depict the huge examining hall, drying room, balling room and stocking room in Patna as an utterly respectable business. Little wonder that the poppy in David Cameron's lapel caused such offence in China.

Drugs have always inspired moral panics. A hilarious poster for an anti-cannabis film from 1938 called Reefer Madness threatens (or promises) "drug-crazed abandon", noting that "women cry for it - men die for it!" Yet many cultural responses to drugs have been more amused or positive. Thomas Rowlandson's aquatint from 1823 depicts "friends experimenting with laughing gas". Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud were both cocaine enthusiasts. Projectors, rotating filters and strangely coloured bottles recreate Joshua White's celebrated late-1960s psychedelic light show at the Fillmore East theatre in New York.

The Wellcome Collection has also assembled a number of recent artworks addressing the experience, history and politics of drugs. Tracey Moffatt's Laudanum (1999), for example, is a series of enigmatic and distorted photographs looking at the phenomenon of the genteel 19th-century female addict.

There is comparatively little, one could argue, on the real damage that drugs can do. Yet at a time of what Jay calls a "polarised and repetitive public conversation" on the subject, this is an exhibition to open minds.

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