Thursday, 25 November 2010



I’m standing in the middle of a poppy field. To be fair, it’s more of a rectangular space drenched in floor-to-ceiling videos of poppy fields. And not poppy fields as you and I know them: cheery, scarlet carpets ruffled by the wind. For a start the poppies are as tall as I am, or taller. Each stalk, stiff as a ram rod, is topped by a tightly packed bomb full of seeds. There are a few petals left fluttering, like white flags of surrender. Despite what the picture shows, the colours are mostly faded bronze, khaki and sleepy grey-greens. As you can see, any person in front of you throws a ghostly shadow on the screen. The images float in and out of focus. It is very powerful. There is a folding stool in case you feel the need for a little sit down...

The Wellcome Collection - - has an enviable reputation for mounting world-class exhibitions. High Society examines mind-altering drugs, past and present, reminding us that over the millennia human beings have been vastly imaginative in their use of them: as medicines, sacraments, status symbols, to investigate the brain, to inspire works of art, to encounter the divine, or simply as an escape. And drug users have variously been described as sinners, weak-willed, criminals, deranged or diseased. The show also addresses our current anxiety as to whether, in the light of history, we are in the grip of an unprecedented level of addiction – or not? 

There are at least three ways of enjoying High Society.

The Joshua Light Show will please those who appreciate an approach which is both aesthetic and visceral. Their videos are kinetic sculptures of great beauty and power. 

The pragmatist and historian can pore over documents, instruments and paraphernalia like Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' manuscript; a description of a ship’s crew's experiments with Bhang - a cannabis drink - in 17th-century Bengal; a bottle of cocaine eye drops; and a hallucinogenic snuff set from the Amazon.

For those who can take their information neat there is a further art work: Painkillers by David McCandless  It’s a wall map which at first sight looks like a calm pastel Mondrian painting but turns out to be a lucid, elegant and pleasurable way of answering more questions about the world-wide economics and distribution of drug use than you knew you had. To see more examples of this kind of work go to

High Society runs until  February 27. Mike Jay the co-curator has written an illustrated book. 

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