High Society: London's Wellcome Collection dabbles in psychedelia and mind altering drugs

By Laura Burgess | 11 November 2010
a photo of a psychedelic light projection with the outlines of people in the foreground
The Joshua Light Show, a kinetic sculpture by Joshua White and Seth Kirby, features in the Wellcome's High Society show© Wellcome Library
Exhibition: High Society, Wellcome Collection, London until February 27 2011

“Drugs are not just substances,” says one of the curators at the Wellcome's High Society exhibition, and that’s exactly what the collection of old and contemporary art pieces show. Beginning with cabinets of tools – tobaccos pipes, injecting kits and opium capsules – we move into an array of items that show another side to drug use and its culture.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us are users of mood or mind-altering substances, whether it's a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or an Ecstasy pill. So it’s interesting to see an exhibition that looks at the huge spectrum of the dark yet seemingly bright world of drugs.

There is a long history behind their use and purpose in different cultures all over the world, and this show might open a few visitors’ eyes to leave them feeling surprised at what they have discovered.

a photo of a an old small cardboard box containing a group of paper wrapped cigar shaped items
Opium - a Victorian medicinal object© Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain
The Wellcome has a reputation for its interest in science and medical equipment, so the section From Apothecary to Laboratory shares writings from John Jones, a physician from the 1700s. His book, Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d, shows how keen he was to tell other doctors about the powers and effects of the drug. 

Fast-forward to the early 20th century and Keith Coventry’s still-life collection, Crack City, chillingly reveals how different items, such as an asthma inhaler, can be used as a homemade crack pipe.

The title of his abstract series is the nickname given to a group of tower blocks in London known for their social and drug problems. Coventry’s black and white still, Crack Den, shows three young women lighting up while sat on a mattress.

Yet in non-Western culture, substance use is for traditional purposes and religious sacrament – as seen in Edwin Forgan Myers’ photo collection, Peyote Ceremony and Huichol Village Scenes, from 1938. The villagers are preparing Peyote – a small cactus that contains mescaline – as part of a ritual.

The people of the Colombian Amazon use ayahuasca, which is a drink made from hallucinogenic plants. The video War of the Gods, Disappearing World shows the Tukano people using the drug in rituals for treating sickness and to ward off evil influences. In this sequence the tribe are seeking visions through a dance ritual.

But in Western society drugs have evolved throughout the decades; be it the swinging sixties or the rave scene of the 1980s, there is an attachment between substances and music. In New York, during the time of “free love”, artist Joshua White designed lights for discotheques. Eventually he became involved with lighting for rock bands The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.

a colourful mounted painting of various exotic mushrooms and fungi
Various fungi - 20 species, including the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), death cap (Amanita phalloides) and Boletus and Agaricus species. Coloured lithograph by A. Cornillon (circa 1827), after Prieur
For his installation piece The Joshua Light Show, White joined artist Seth Kirby to create what he describes as a “sculptural interpretation of a real 1960s psychedelic laboratory.”

Situated opposite a screen playing a montage of random images of the sort found as screensavers on Windows Media Player, the laboratory sees two tables full of science equipment filled with brightly coloured liquids.

Beside these utensils, bottles and brushes, coloured wheels are rotating. The two artists have brought art and drugs together in this piece of iconography. White describes it simply as “something to look at,” but perhaps the word synaesthesia would be more fitting.

The collection closes by showing different means of advertising – posters, books and adverts – teaching the dangers of using substances and alcohol. It wasn’t until the 19th century that drugs were at their most potent and most available, so the trade had to be regulated, and by the 20th century there was a national ban on drugs.

The exhibition highlights drug use as a form of social interaction, whether in a village in South America or for recreational use in the Western World. High Society shows visitors how drug-use goes back hundreds of years. To us Westerners there is a dark and dangerous stigma surrounding these substances, but to some cultures it’s a way of life.

Watch the Wellcome Collection's promotional video for the exhibition:

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