High Society Exhibition at the Welcome Collection

Until 27th February 2011
183 Euston Road London NW1 2BE
Admission Free

Annemarie Papanikitas

The latest exhibition on display at the Wellcome Collection claims to address the rich history of mind altering drugs used from the times of the ancient Egyptian poppy seed tinctures to the use of cocaine in Victorian times. It presents the idea that the alteration of consciousness is a universal human desire. Most importantly it also probes the question raised in 1884 by Dr. Norman Kerr, the pioneer in addiction medicine and founder of the Society and Study of Inebriety, as to whether drug taking is to be considered a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease. Throughout the exhibition the viewer, giving full consideration to the cultural and political facts, is challenged to answer these ongoing questions.

Amongst the exhibits on show is a show case containing a variety of implements from the various corners of the world that have been used in drug-taking ceremonies and rituals over the centuries. The items range from some ancient carved opium juglets from Cyprus to exotic highly decorated nineteenth century Chinese pipes. Juxtaposed are the more commonplace household implements used in the indulgence of less addictive substances such as wine glasses, coffee cups and ashtrays. Several coherent displays of explicit photographs covered themes on self experimentation and collective intoxication. These images show the variety of attitudes to drugs around the globe and how certain drugs might be manageable in one culture but not in another. Pictures of the Barasana peoples of the Amazon Basin illustrate the importance of the traditional ritual and ceremony associated with the experience of sharing drugs in their tribal ceremonies. The ceremonies are both symbolic and practical and in many ways vital to the communities. Through this type of social interaction relationships are established, acts of warfare are set aside and contracts are sealed. Through cartoons and illustrations the exhibition also emphasised that many new drugs in the nineteenth century were in fact discovered by doctors experimenting on themselves. An amusing early nineteenth century satirical cartoon by James Gillray highlighted Sir Humphry Davy, Thomas Beddoes assistant, operating the bellows while his distinguished audience sample nitrous oxide, the gas with which he had been dangerously self-experimenting.

A large area of the exhibition is concerned with the opium drugs trade and its politics. There are many references, visual and literary, to its usage on show. In particular the illustration of an opium den in Victorian London by Gustave Dore atmospherically portrays, through his chiaroscuro effects, the sinister side of such establishments. Without doubt one of the most impressive exhibits on show was an installation by the established French visual artist of Chinese extraction Huang Yong Ping. His giant long gun barrel, representing a giant opium pipe sits aside a pile of giant opium cannon balls. This contemporary artist's response was triggered off by a lithograph, mounted on the adjacent wall, of an Indian warehouse packed with a dense store of large opium balls awaiting shipment to China. This installation entitled `Frolic' had supposedly just knocked down Lord Palmerston who was widely considered the initiator of the opium wars in China in 1840 and 1854.

Bombarding musical effects accompanied by flashing lights and psychedelic patterns, which were projected onto screens at various sections of the exhibition. Though distracting at times, their effects helped to set the scene and provide the viewer with a constant reminder of the hallucinating effects of the drug experience.

In the latter part of the exhibition several charts of facts and figures inform the public of the colossal revenues obtained in the illicit drug market. The international drug market has been estimated by the United Nations to be worth two hundred billion pounds a year and provides an interesting contrast with the estimated revenue of the Roman Catholic Church — around thirty four billion.

Towards the close of the exhibition the viewers are left with a meditative vision of a vast expanse of opium poppies growing in Afghanistan and one cannot help but think where do we go from here?