(Paris.) "Welcome on board of flight 777 from Paris to Kathmandu, soon we will reach our cruising altitude of: very high."
La Maison Rouge (The Red House) is an exhibition space close to Bastille square; its name does not per se refer to opium dens or stoned visions, but pays reference to a little hut that, once facing the street, has been preserved on the inside of the new building.
The institution's full name is La Maison Rouge - Fondation Antoine de Galbert. If your reaction is now: "Antoine de... ?", take a look at their website and you will learn, the honourable benefactor studied political science before working in management, then successively became an art dealer, an art collector and the founder of La Maison Rouge.
Why, you have studied political science yourself and never been offered a position in management? The only job you could ever grasp is burger slave at our favourite fast food chain? Well, maybe it helps to be one of the inheritors of Carrefour supermarket empire.
Nothing is known about Monsieur de Galbert's personal drug habits (Bordeaux wine? Cuban cigars?) - if he has any at all - but this exhibition, called Sous Influences (Under the Influence), is focused exclusively on the high side of life.
The first works any visitor will see are Antoine Perpère's (the artist is also the exhibition's curator) installation with opium essence sticks to which he was inspired by a quote from Pablo Picasso - "The least stupid smell in the world is that of opium" -, and an Assyrian relief from the 8th century BC with a man harvesting opium poppies. Drugs have been man's faithful companion since the beginning of time (not to talk of mythology, that darn wisdom-apple in paradise being just one example). Somehow humanity has never been satisfied with only one reality.
Visitors are led further on through a white tunnel (Carsten Höller's Shawinigan Corridor, 2007) to adapt their vision and open those doors of perception, before the scenography sets out to create a labyrinth with a chaos of sensations, in which you are bound to lose yourself.
First of all, La Maison Rouge is to be congratulated for the extent of this exhibition that offers a really thorough overview on the subject.
Contemplating these works, we find them belonging to one of three categories: Works that show drugs, works that show drug users and works that imitate drug induced hallucinations. Surprisingly, the last category is the least convincing, the least innovative, of all. Not only because of its doubtful success in copying the experience, but because drugs are not essential to these creations.
It is an interesting fact, that no artist has ever made a career based on drug use. No visual artist, that is. For visual artists drug use never is the focal point of his career, no painter or sculptor is associated with this topic alone. The situation is much different in literature with the likes of de Quincey, Bourroughs, Hunter S. Thompson or Carlos Castañeda, amongst so many more, whose whole oeuvre turned around drug use, its interpretation and metaphorical description. The accent lies on "metaphorical" here; art has to rely on metaphors and descriptions. It has to leave room for interpretation and the beholder's own mental constructions.
Art should not be a mere simulacrum of reality. Paintings can imitate visual sensations, but drugs change the way, how sensations are processed in our brain. A painting like Hans Bellmer's Red Embryo, one of many examples that try to reproduce what hallucinogenic substances may let you see, can be accurate only to a certain degree. A painting can present us with a landscape we have never seen in nature, we can even imagine an installation that adds all of the accompanying non-visual sensations (a desert should be easy), but for drug experience this seems impossible. The most exhaustive approach offers Yaioi Kusama with her fly agaric painted balloons in a mirror room; for which the artist has been more influenced by drugs than by Smurf village. As soon as the doors are closed, we - or at least our eyes - travel to another three-dimensional world. But we can close our eyes and leave on our own behalf whenever we want to. Hallucinations are different from sensations in that they are not just seen, but felt. A sensation can be controlled, a hallucination (or a vision, if you prefer) cannot, or not to the same degree. I might regard these images and think, "so that's how the world would look like, if I sat down with some nice shaman guy for a chat with the gods at the banks of the Amazonas, in the African jungle or the Siberian plains". Yet I don't live it.
Drugs do not only affect the sensations but the sensory apparatus. The internal stimulation of the brain cannot be copied by any artistic means. However an artwork changes, the spectator stays the same - on drugs the world stays the same, whilst the change occurs within the spectator.
It may be useful to point out how different drugs work. There are those that show the world in a different light (your good old bottle of Scotch) and those that show a different world (hallucinogens, but also, of course, three bottles of Scotch when delirium tremens settles in and winged white mice sing in the windows of humming red houses). It is not necessary to have a first hand experience of delirium tremens, to be certain, that a painting of the proverbial pink elephant has little in common with the actual impression of its apparition. You don't see drunk, but you feel drunk and there is no reason to suspect, that this would be different with any other drug.
When art cannot be a healthier substitute for drug use, is it true that drugs can come in handy for artists in search for a personal visual language?
Dali's surrealism is not fundamentally different to Bellmer's, yet the Spanish star did not depend on drugs to create his images. Probably they are latently present in our subconscious and can be explored without the influence of drugs.
When a drugged artist does not try to copy what he sees, but just paints for the sake of painting, the result is equally comparable to non drug related works (see Henri Michaux, Untitled/Mescaline Drawing).
However, it exists a form of pure abstract painting that is accepted as truly and only psychedelic. Kaleidoscopes of geometric, yet organic forms as are frequently used for posters, album covers and advertisements since the 1960s. Though unique and comparatively new, they do not tell of artistic individuality and their variations seem limited. They appear rather uniform and supra-individual, regardless of who "created" them (different conclusions can be drawn here).
Artists have much more to tell, when they describe the circumstances of drug use, when they don't try to show what is, but the fundaments of what can be. These works are the best reason to visit the exhibition; they create a unique atmosphere and unfold an emotional power that is hard to escape.
Daniel Pommereulle's still life Objets de Tentation (Objects of Temptation) with instruments for drug use is one such example. The classic Memento Mori motive taught about the meaninglessness of all worldly occupations; people tend to convert it into a celebration of death and otherworldliness. Drug use is a related phenomena; it is motivated by a rejection of life (for different motives from poverty and suffering over hedonism to honest spiritual interest) and craving for a different reality. Religion may be opium for the people, but drugs are also religion for the people. Works like this don't show the act, but its premises. The uncanny impression of razorblades, pillboxes and syringes is not owed to the present work alone but to information we have internalised before, to more or less accurate knowledge and presuppositions.
Art is not the thing, but its metaphor. This can be equally funny and smart: The Chapuisat brothers cut a stone horizontally, then put the two parts on top of each other again and stuck a joint in the hence formed "mouth" (La Pierre Philosophale/The Philosopher's Stone). There is hardly any work telling more about meditative "stoners"; about counter culture drilling into establishment; about the eternal search for wisdom and how a relaxed smile might be the best answer to everything. A special kind of stone Buddha.
The same drug is used by Abdel Abdessemed for a bullet-holed sheriff star from cannabis resin. Reach for the stars, but get in (deadly) conflict with the law.
Artists have often depicted themselves and others under the influence, in ecstasy and misery alike. It is a pity that La Maison Rouge could not borrow Edgar Degas' Absinthe Drinker, which is undoubtedly the most famous work belonging to this category. Instead we get photographs, for example of a pregnant teenage junkie by Larry Clark.
Lucien Clergue's picture of Jean Cocteau shows the multitalented opium addict lying down smoking, and his eyes reveal that tobacco is not the cigarette's main component.
Damien Hirst's serigraphs of medication packages labelled as food (The Last Supper series) point to the contemporary phenomenon to tread nutrition as medicine in our obsession with health as a ersatz religion. Illegalised drugs seem to be more in line with unworried pleasure eating than with the calculations of nutrition values to attain the most "useful" result of a meal.
The religious motive actually returns in the messianic action of every artist who takes drugs "on behalf" of the public.
There are medicaments and drugs, uppers and downers; Jeanne Susplugas puts it in the words: L'Aspirine, c'est le champagne du matin (Aspirin is the Morning's Champagne).
Artists' drug fixation is a phenomenon of the 20th Century and as such closely related to pop music. Whereas Susplugas reminds of the Rolling Stones (Mother's Little Helper), Robert Malaval directly adapts the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for the painting of a girl floating towards drug heaven. (The best drug song ever, Lou Reed's Heroin finds no direct equivalent here).
And there they are, our friendly tribe of natives, in a magic lantern installation from Art Orienté Objet (Object Oriented Art, a pseudonym of Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin). Drug use as a means of salvation, that grants access to a higher, a universal knowledge. We turn around their faces but we don't understand, the mystery rests unexplained. We stay on the outside, and the event keeps its aura.
Gianfranco Rosi's documentary film El Sicario on the daily routine of a Mexican cartel hitman shows another aspect of drugs and their distribution. El Sicario quit the business after a moment of epiphany and is happy to tell the filmmaker all about his life and (sincere?) remorse. His memories graphically describe the effects of failed politics (not prohibition was the hardest blow ever dealt to organised crime in the US, but the re-legalisation of alcohol was).
There are many more works in this exhibition worth to be discussed. Go there, sober or not, and don't be surprised to get a sticker on your coat instead of a paper ticket after paying your entry fee. This is NOT because people started licking on the paper, but perfectly normal for La Maison Rouge (don't sniff the glue from those stickers, either). Drugs are bad, mmkay?
Sous influence, La Mason Rouge - Fondation Antoine de Galbert, 15 February 2013-19 May 2013