BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 15 JAN 06

Drug experiences no longer seem as threatening to our social fabric as they once did. Rather, in an unexpected reversal, our present is sewn together by psychoactive substances, a pharmacopoeia that includes hormones, birth-control pills, anti-depressants, caffeine, sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, pain killers, sexual enhancements, ‘triple cocktail treatments’ and more, to say nothing of such romanticized controlled substances as cocaine or heroin, which move through less regulated markets. Although the 30 artists included in ‘Ecstasy’ are said to transcend, expand and intervene in ‘everyday physical and mental conditions’, it might be more accurate to say that sobriety is the exceptional state.

‘Ecstasy’ presented several artists whose work assumes the signs and materials of drug culture: Tom Friedman’s pills and caplets, meticulously constructed of play-dough (Untitled, 1995 and 1997); Roxy Paine’s polymer magic mushrooms scattered across the MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary concrete floor (Psilocybe Cubensis Field, 1997); Klaus Weber’s fountain flowing with diluted acid (Public Fountain LSD Hall, 2003). Rodney Graham’s subtle noir video Halcion Sleep (1994) depicts a man under the effects of the mood-altering drug Halcion, grasping his head in the back seat of a moving car; we watch as tail lights recede into darkness through the car’s rear window.

The show’s premise made room for works that stimulated an ‘altered’ viewer’s pupils through psychedelic eye-popping effects: recession in space, kaleidoscopic colour, intense patterning and optical proliferation. These included Carsten Höller’s Upside Down Mushroom Room (2000), the pulsing target images of Ann Veronica Janssens’ video projections (Donut, 2000), Paul Noble’s immense, highly detailed stoner drawings (Ye Olde Ruin, 2003–4), several collages by Fred Tomaselli, and Chiho Aoshima’s quivering anime fairyland (City Glow, 2005.) Here the remit of the show grew too inclusive, crowding the exhibition and drawing together anything colourful or cinematic: Janet Cardiff, Olafur Eliasson, Franz Ackerman, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Pipilotti Rist and more. This made for the queer spectacle of a show about drugs jammed with parents and their spun-out children, with daunting queues for the most popular rooms. (Queuing is something you do at an amusement park; a true druggie would flee such a structured scene.) Some of this work was affecting – such as Sylvie Fleury’s glittering, spangled fibreglass pod 8 (2000) or Pierre Huyghe’s romantic clouds of pastel dry ice fog L’expédition scintillante, Acte 2 (The Scintillating Expedition, Act 2, 2002) – but the show would have benefited from clearer distinctions among the forms of experience on offer. Many works looked like spectacular business-as-usual, suggesting neither an ‘altered’ experience nor a very specific one.

‘Ecstasy’ presumed the autonomy of drug experiences from the mainstream cultures that surround them. Missing were considerations of the powerful markets that oversee the dissemination and sale of drugs, or of the vibrant visual culture that surrounds them and gives them meaning. (I’d have loved to see a biomorphic bong or a Pfizer advertisement inserted among the various works of ‘high art’.) HOMO CRAP #1 (2005), an installation staged by the collective assume vivid astro focus (on this occasion including works by Anna Sew Hoy, Giles Round and Paloma Mentirosa), was an exception. Its diorama of Berlin’s Panorama Bar, a night-club in a disused power station three miles outside Berlin, was filled with the paraphernalia of a very late night out – chain curtains, sadistic-psychedelic-erotic wall paintings, throbbing speakers wrapped in fleshy polyurethane and papier-mâché envelopes, a sticky floor strewn with filthy confetti and dry ice. HOMO CRAP #1 at least gestured toward the place that drugs might have as part of a collective social experience, as well as the wilder sensory side of ‘altered states’ in general. Photographs of political protests lining the entrance passage linked the installation’s hedonistic atmosphere to struggles for human rights and sexual freedom. It’s not escaping the everyday that matters most but engaging it on your own terms.

The autonomous approach paid off when the artists took a self-critical stance: for example in Charles Ray’s Tabletop (2003), a still life whose objects reveal themselves to be slowly, imperceptibly rotating, or Francis Alÿs’ Narcoturismo (Narcotourism, 1996), in which the artist strolled through the streets of Copenhagen for a week ingesting a different drug each day. ‘Ecstasy’ presented the latter project as a set of documents, including one that took the form of a palimpsest: scrawled notes in erased pencil overlaid by a sober typescript formalizing their ‘altered’ findings. In this work the described experience of inebriation persists, but in faded form, without the over-amplified plenitudes found elsewhere in the exhibition. Here, as elsewhere, ecstatic experience was obscured by the artist’s efforts to articulate it.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.