When you walk through the Wellcome Collection’s doors (and get past the monster queue), you are greeted with High Society’s defiant introductory message, that “altered consciousness is a universal human impulse”. This sets the tone for the rest of the collection: an objective examination of society’s relationship to drugs throughout history. The fantastic free exhibition is in its final weeks, and whether you’re a junkie or teetotaller, it is well worth checking out.
The exhibition is a dynamic little space, packed with drug-inspired artwork, scientific studies and artefacts. A fascinating piece is Dream Machine, an installation that involves walking into a small, darkened room where you are mesmerised by a spinning pink and orange lantern. The work aims to produce a drugless high and it makes your pupils swell and dilate in rapid succession, a sensation similar to the first inklings of getting high.
Other works of note are Keith Coventry’s series of bronze crack-pipes which make something beautiful out of something so vile, a series of intricate paintings that French artist Henri Mischaux created while tripping balls on mescaline, and Phonokinetscope, an utterly boring video of a man bicycling around Berlin while on acid – proving that watching someone hallucinate is no fun, in case you were wondering.
The most fascinating thing I found about High Society for me was learning how radically society’s attitude to drugs has shifted in the past hundred years. In the 19th Century, respected scientists combined scientific exploration with pleasure as they experimented with new recreational drugs. In a video on display, an uptight scientist feeds his equally prim friend mescaline who describes seeing bright colours and no longer being able to concentrate ‘quite so well’. One particularly hilarious artwork is a colourful, etched print depicting high-class lords and ladies can-canning and joyously bounding around a living room, high on laughing gas – which had become a craze in social gatherings.
A cabinet full of illicit drug-based medical products are also on display, including cocaine eye-drops and an opium ‘carmitive’ prescribed to babies with disorders like wind, stomach ache and acidity. It’s amazing that drugs went from being prescribed to babies at the turn-of-the-century to being demonised just decades later. Despite anti-drug and alcohol movements from the First World War onwards (a temperance poster at the exhibit reads, ‘Men begin with wine, soon the palate is palled and he asks for something stronger’), I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t until 1961 that narcotics were internationally criminalised.
High Society examines the meteoric shift in what we consider a ‘bad’ drug, and shows that this categorisation is all dependent on your time and place in history. Getting high has, and always will be, a fixture of civilised society. It seems all that changes is the drug of preference.
High Society is at the Wellcome Collection, NW1 2BE until 27 February.