Reflections from Damaged Life: an exhibition on psychedelia
Raven Row, London
26 September - 15 December 2013
Review by N.W. Johnson
This is not an exhibition of works from the past; there are works here from the 1960s, but they’re here in a new context. Raven Row’s ‘Reflections from Damaged Life: an exhibition on psychedelia’ is an attempt by the curator Lars Bang Larsen to reframe psychedelia, a concept that for most of us, I suspect, is firmly rooted in the past, and that for many establishment artists of the period was seen as ‘compromised’. Larsen here works to establish psychedelia as a conceptual mode which is more critical in its approach than the art-nouveau aesthetics of concert posters and inherited kitschy signifiers of bears dancing on Mars might suggest. Larsen considers how certain artistic practices inflected drug culture and questioned its expectation of the re-enchantment of life through transformative experiences and altered perception.
Larsen speaks frequently in his catalogue essay about events and effects. An event (a drug or social space) produces an effect (an unforeseen mode of exchange between subjects). He speaks of LSD as ‘new media’ - akin to the computer and space travel, inventions that present vistas previously imperceptible and promise a new mode of interconnectedness - opening up a new sensorial field.
One spectacular work - as in spectacle - is Pierre Huyghe’s ‘L’Expédition Scintillante’ (2002), which presents this new sensorial field as a rarefied rock concert, a miniature display of coloured, spot-lit will-o-the-wisps shifting amidst billowing fog, rendered transcendent by the decidedly non-rock accompaniment of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopédies’. This is what rock concerts are supposed to be, not all sweat and elbows, the ‘revelations’ of the drug experience imitated by the slicing strobes, oil-and-water ‘wet slides’, light shows and the amplification of already amplified sound. The duo Dexter Sinister address the tropes of period psychedelia in an equally rarefied and conceptual form: they present a poster for an eternal solstice party displayed on a projector, that great aestheticising weapon of amplified basement happenings. But it’s a durational piece and will eventually fade to white. The date of the party’ June 21st, forever.
In the adjacent room is a recording and schedule of Willoughby Sharp’s LSD fuelled performances (1975). This man took an enormous amount of the drug, but all I can see is his ego as his ‘attendants’ race round to clean up his - near fatal - mess and he screams about ‘no control’. The unsettling visceral slapstick of this performance will reinforce any idea you may have held about the chaos of the drug experience. Often I suppose the reason a lot of psychedelic art is so bad is because it tries (and fails) to recreate the drug experience, which is not something just visual or aural, but which alters the entire sensorial field.
As antidote, the visitor can have a seat and space out to Jordan Belson’s infinitely more subtle meditations on form, movement and colour. Tracked by a trance-inducing drone, Belson’s films (1959’72) are the new age counterpoint to Sharp’s prankster. But they outlive their time, and operate now as delicately pioneering abstractions. Their modern analogue is probably something like the screensaver, which Larsen cites as a kind of left over sub-specie psychedelica that watches over office workers clicking away on the internet; another technology of the 20th century that, like LSD, can be seen to violently confront anthropocentric world views with the possibility of an infinite network of interconnectivity (DNA, the cosmos, file sharing).
Shot through this exhibition is the lingering sense of a failed utopia - a brief flowering of psychedelic experience which sparked our imaginations but did little ultimately to alter the violence of modernity to which the title ‘Reflections from Damaged Life’ (borrowed from Adorno) alludes. ‘Learning Site’ (2011) an installation of oyster mushrooms that colonise and devour the substrate they require for life, is presented here by Cecilia Wendt and Rikke Luther alongside an essay, ‘The House of Welfare’, by Jaime Stapleton. This fungal network consuming its papier-mâché termite mound alludes to that deformed utopianism that seems categorically predetermined to unsustainably devour itself.