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A Guide to Drug Art from the BB team | Part II


Expert Pharmacologist
Jul 6, 2021
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Baron comics
«The auto-aggression of an LSD trip can be seen as homeopathic medicine for a person who is surrounded on all sides by horrifying events. Like a battle of one absurdity against another», Larsen attributes the need for an extreme drug experience to traumatic memories of World War II and the growing American militarism in Vietnam.

On an artistic level, the defense against absurdity is often expressed in the emphatically childish, naively-oblivious aesthetics of comic books. In the United States, it was also born in the 1960s and also under the influence of LSD.

«I remember coming to work on Monday after taking LSD on Saturday. [...] My coworkers were asking, «Crumb, what's the matter, what happened?» Because I was looking at everything like I'd never seen anything like that before. And it changed my creativity. I went back to the rougher style of the 1940s, a grotesque interpretation of it»
— recalled Robert Crumb, creator of the popular Zap Comix magazine and founder of the underground comics movement.


Another example of infantile substance-related art is the paintings of the Colombian artist Camilo Restrepo. But for him, drugs became a source of life's absurdity, rather than helping him cope with it.

Since the early 1970s, South American countries have become US drug colonies. In less than 10 years, people from marginalized backgrounds made multimillion-dollar fortunes exporting cocaine. They exploited less enterprising locals and kept the authorities in fear.

Although, mindful of their origins, the drug lords did social work for the state — building roads, infrastructure, even schools — the level of daily aggression was prohibitive.

«It was Halloween, I was in my superhero costume. All of a sudden we saw a dead body in the middle of the street. It was like a scary dream» — Restrepo told the LA Times.

The aesthetics formed in the drug environment seem no less aggressive.

Men were supposed to wear white suits, wide-brimmed hats and an abundance of jewelry. Not only chains and plaques on belts, but also young girls were adorned. Girls were supposed to meet strict, if not cruel, standards of beauty through plastic surgery.

Liposuction, implants, nose correction — all became part of a huge industry of exaggerated sexuality.


Although since the end of the last century Colombia and other drug exporters have positioned themselves as safe and attractive destinations for tourism, narcotic aesthetics remain at the core, if not of everyday life, then of cultural memory. Artists use familiar images of barons and their girlfriends to uncover common sore spots and help make sense of them.

For example, Juan Obando and Esteban Garcia in their ritual performance Dead Druglords appeared in front of the gallery audience dressed as drug lords and demanded total submission. Thus began a whole night of «narcotropical decadence» with narcocorridos, dances and a collective outburst of energy.

Others work in a more restrained way. José Ignacio Garcia, for example, created the Narco Nation series, in which he commented on South America's neocolonial dependence on the United States. Although the countries are not formally subordinate to the states, their economies still depend on the supply of drugs to the border zones. Garcia therefore changed the flags of four states-Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico-constructing a new nation, the Narco States of America.

Provocateurs and lab technicians
In 1998, artist Rob Pruitt presented his work Cocaine Buffett — a 50-meter cocaine track — at the opening of a small gallery. A few days later, there was nothing left on the floor: visitors had come into contact with the art object — quite in the spirit of the then fashionable relational aesthetics.

In other words, the cultural status of drugs is not only a topic for South American art. Pruitt demonstrated how greedy the art world is for cocaine. A little later, the street art group Plastic Jesus was installing a cocaine Oscar in Hollywood to point out drug addiction among celebrities. More recently, Dutch artist Diddo created a life-size skull out of cocaine titled Ecce Animal, which he urged to be interpreted as talking «about the animal instincts within us» and with which he immediately hit newspapers like The Independent.

In addition to provocative works of varying degrees of subtlety, there are also explorations of the very mechanisms of the drug trade.

Many artists are fascinated by the aesthetics of pills, which for advertising purposes are often released in the form of symbols from popular culture. For example, Zeus, in his Love is a Drug series, has created enlarged copies of designer ecstasy — with Apple, PlayBoy, Chanel logos or in the shape of Homer Simpson.


Mediengruppe Bitnik programmed a robot that ordered a different item from the shady Internet to the gallery every week and once (randomly!) chose 120 milligrams of the same ecstasy.

That's when the German police came for Random Darknet Shopper. It seems that this step towards posthumanism is even more serious than the experiments with LSD.

The artists continue to explore internal reactions to drugs as well. By the way, the first person for whom art became almost a scientific laboratory was the mid-century French poet Henri Michaux.

Michaux began taking mescaline after the tragic death of his wife when he was already 55 years old. Surprisingly, his attempts to cope with his depressive state developed into a large-scale aesthetic project. In it, the artist developed a long-standing interest in surrealism and a poetic attentiveness to the rhythm of formal micro-elements.

Michaux's paintings can be described as scribbles and blots, but more often they are seen as masterful fixation of the smallest nervous impulses.

Here, for example, writes the Nobel laureate in literature Octavio Paz: it is «a vibration; an unrecognizable movement that accelerates with every second; a wind, a long creaking whistle, a hurricane, a torrent of faces, forms, lines».


Michaux's paintings are now in MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum. For later artists, who openly recognize the drug experience as their subject, but work specifically with painting, this is almost impossible. Their approach, however, has become even more scientific.

Brian Lewis Saunders, for example, painted a series of self-portraits, in the title of each of which he indicated the substance taken before the work and its dose. These images are interesting to study not only from a biological perspective, but also for the influence of cultural stereotypes about the drug on Saunders' style. And chemist Kelsey Brooks published a book «Psychedelic Space», each chapter of which began with a pencil sketch of the molecular structure of LSD, mescaline, ecstasy, even oxycontin. True, the artist then developed the sketch intuitively. So it is difficult to see the chemical reality behind it — rather, again, a cultural stereotype about this or that substance.

A near-scientific approach is also developing in video art. Jeremy Shaw took close-ups of the faces of his friends who had taken DMT shortly before filming. He also titled all their lines and collected verbal recollections of hallucinations. Exhibited in the gallery and aesthetically sterile, shot against a washed sheet or a white cube, these videos offered an unusually attentive outsider's view of the tripping process itself.


Sensuality is outlawed
At the request «drugs art» on the Internet, one can immediately find Damien Hirst's medical rooms — installations of boxes of drugs arranged one after another with neurotic meticulousness. The coincidence of the words «medicine» and «drug» in English, of course, will not surprise anyone. But in a conversation about art, it seems particularly significant.

Opium surrealism, neon psychedelia, mescaline neuroticism — all of these were born when future dangerous drugs were legal drugs, often medicines. And yet, each of them generated a special experience that demanded precisely artistic comprehension, the creation of a new language.

It is important to realize that the new language was shaped to a large extent by cultural realities. Here it is enough to recall the difference between neon trip-art and plague visions. Or, on the contrary, compare the comics of Restrepo, for whom substances were an external context, with the similarly grotesque art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of an overdose at the age of 27.


But also remember that art doesn't just document the drug experience, but manifests its place in culture. Contemporary artists often do this consciously, offering institutional critiques of Purdue or asserting shamanic alternatives to Western rationalism.

Medieval craftsmen, romantics, and even primitive people must have realized that they were manifesting an important cultural code. Sometimes it broke through without their will, as in psychedelic auto-aggression.


In general, the drug experience is surprisingly deeply woven into modernity: the economy is subordinated to drug trafficking and pharmaceutical empires, the politics of legalization and prohibition determine approaches to health, interest in substances and fear of them provoke a good half of generational conflicts.

So «drug analysis» of art is not just about finding hallucinogenic sources of inspiration for artists in their biographies. It is also one of the fastest — and yes, safest — ways to experience drug culture and learn to talk about it.
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