High Society

A disturbing exploration of drug culture.

"Is it a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?" asked the temperance advocate Dr Norman Kerr of the supposed menace of alcoholic inebriation in 1884. It's a question still asked of drugs today, with politicians and scientists often coming to very different conclusions requiring very different solutions. Shouting matches about legalisation and prohibition dominate our discussion of drugs, which makes "High Society", the Wellcome Collection's exhibition on drug culture, an agreeably thoughtful intervention.

Although there's some material on addiction - a striking Eugène Grasset art nouveau painting of a woman injecting morphine that looks like the cover of a 1950s thriller - and some damning statistics on the war on drugs, "High Society" is more interested in looking at how drugs influence artists, how they have been developed by scientists, and the part they have played in trade and empire. In typical Wellcome fashion, the exhibition begins by asking us to unthink what we already know, confronting us with a medicine cabinet of drug paraphernalia containing everything from opium pipes to fag packets; electric bongs to bundles of khat. The intention is to demonstrate how deeply ingrained drugs are in all cultures, from the west's daily cup of Starbucks to the elaborate tools used to prepare betel nut, a stimulant that is chewed by millions throughout Asia and the Pacific.

If there's a theme, it's scepticism about contradictory and self-centred western attitudes towards drugs. This is most glaring in a section on the opium wars, which uses images and artefacts - including a ball of opium the size of a coconut and some gorgeous lithographs of a huge opium factory - to relate the sorry tale of how the British smuggled opium from India into China. London later developed a terror of Chinese immigrants, as shown by Gustave Doré's sinister engraving of an opium den in Limehouse. More subtle is the juxtaposition of Josh White's assertive, trippy, 1960s psychedelic light show with documentary footage of mass hallucinogen-taking rituals among Amazonian tribes. Getting high together, we're reminded, wasn't invented by Jerry Garcia.

One of the difficulties with drugs is trying to describe the experience after the fact, and the exhibition looks at how people have met the challenge. It is hard not to be fascinated by the Nasa experiment that fed spiders various drugs and observed what transpired, from the half-finished web spun by the spider on marijuana to the crazed and incoherent web made by the one on caffeine. But this cannot explain what goes on inside the human brain, so doctors tried self-medication - on display is the French neurologist Jean Martin-Charcot's dense 1853 drawing of a "tumult of phantasmagoric visions" brought on by hashish. Scientists then encouraged artists and writers to experiment, and the resulting splurge of activity is represented by manuscripts of De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and Huxley's Doors of Perception. This reaches its apogee with the always watchable footage of the Labour MP Christopher Mayhew taking mescaline and then describing his feelings to the BBC.

“High Society" tries to re-create the drug experience with contemporary art, as well as using historic pieces such as Brion Gysin's 1962 Dream Machine, a random light show meant to create a "drugless high". The best new work is Mustafa Hulusi's Afyon, a tracking shot of a field of Turkish poppies projected on to four screens that is simultaneously enveloping and disorientating. But it is the western misuse of drugs that dominates. Displays demonstrate how various substances make the same journey - from herbal remedy to mass-produced commodity to criminalisation. Coca, we are reminded, was chewed harmlessly for centuries before German scientists discovered you could extract from it something far more potent. This stage in the process is particularly fascinating. What to make of the box of 19th-century throat pastilles containing heroin and cocaine? Or the Infant's Preservative, cherry-flavoured morphine advertised by a chubby cherub? Best of all could be the wonderfully named Forced March. These cocaine tablets were sold by the pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome, and their popularity went some way towards paying for the Wellcome gallery in which they are now displayed.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle