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Issue 160

Reflections from Damaged Life

Raven Row, London

BY Natasha Soobramanien in Reviews | 04 JAN 13

'Reflections from Damaged Life', 2013, Installation view, Raven Row, London

The title of ‘Reflections from Damaged Life’ was borrowed from the subtitle of Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno’s prismatic (read: kaleidoscopic) response to the question of how to negotiate life under late-stage capitalism in the West, written in Los Angeles while in exile from fascist Germany. Adorno’s assertion that the ‘teaching of the good life’ is a ‘melancholy science’ came to mind when I considered Pierre Huyghe’s installation L’Expédition Scintillante, Act II: Untitled (light show) (2002), a display of coloured lights choreographed to Erik Satie’s exquisitely melancholy Gymnopédies (1888). But the sublime, disconcertingly mechanized spectacle of it gave way to something more discomfiting: first the piece, and then the darkened room, became gradually obscured by dense dry ice. Meanwhile, in a claustrophobic space next door, Willoughby Sharp was struggling to put out a fire in his ‘videoperformance’ Cough Up (1975). He was on acid. In his essay accompanying the show, curator Lars Bang Larsen pointed out the significance of LSD’s popularity at the time of the Vietnam War: ‘A way of fighting fire with fire […] and pitting one kind of delirium against another.’ Venom is the best anti-venom, at the right dose: fight fire with fire by all means, but don’t lose control of the weapon.

‘Reflections from Damaged Life’ was billed as an exhibition on – rather than of or about – psychedelia. This wasn’t about art inspired by or resulting from the effects of experiences with psychoactive drugs (though such works did feature). Instead, the show proposed an art that, through its experimental and conceptual excesses, engaged with the psychedelic, rather than claiming for itself psychedelic status. Whilst the focus was on work from the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibition spanned from the ’50s to today. In its attempt to go beyond a West Coast countercultural context for psychedelia, ‘Reflections from Damaged Life’ included work from Scandinavia and Japan, as well as India and Latin America.

Larsen may have been at pains to define this show as other than psychedelic, but his accompanying essay, ‘One Proton at a Time’ – a vivid, dense piece of writing – was gloriously psychedelic. Visitors needed to ‘drop’ this essay before viewing the show, which, on the whole felt spare, orderly and – smoke and drug-addled firefighting notwithstanding – intent on resisting received notions of the psychedelic. There was more monochrome than might have been expected: Pramod Pati’s Trip/Udan (1970), comprising black and white time-lapse footage of Mumbai, wrong-footing Western hippie conceptions of a languorous, polychromatic India. Or a lengthy essay on the history of social security and the welfare state, which was part of Learning Site’s specially commissioned work, House of Welfare (2013). As a counterpoint, nearby vitrines held pages from the hand-produced psychedelic magazine edited by Marta Minujín, Lo Inadvertido (The Inattentiveness), published in Buenos Aires in 1969. Its lo-fi fanzine style tripped a connection to that most amateur of art categories, Outsider Art, and its overlap with art of the drug-deranged psyche. The exhibition’s centrepiece, Öyvind Fahlström’s installation The Little General (Pinball Machine) (1967–68), further enforced this connection. Its accompanying drawings were ostensibly visual glossaries to each of the work’s puzzling pictorial elements, which included defaced politicians, hybrid celebrities and subverted company logos. But the glossary to a private language or myth system whose grammar or narrative is known only to its creator can only ever cause confusion: as with much Outsider Art, explanation equalled obfuscation.

In the calm, self-possessed space of Raven Row, the more chaotic works (such as The Cockettes’ satirical restaging of Tricia Nixon’s wedding, 1971) or those which spoke of self-mythology (David Medalla and The Exploding Galaxy's 1967 Bird Ballet), or those which, like Fahlström’s, hinted at private codes (such as Sture Johanesson's Japanese Omnedelics (1956–59), seemed at once disruptive and considered, strategic in their esotericism. These were works in communion with a self-conscious, self-administered derangement.

The exhibition’s focus was on ‘singular artistic interpretations of how the psychedelic promise of transformation and estrangement might lead toew possibilities for experience’. Notice the word ‘singular’. If taken to mean 'individual', this pointed to a schism at the heart of the psychedelic project: the will to collectivity, communality and dissolution of boundaries conflicting with the solipsistic nature of the movement's foundational ritual/experience, the acid trip. This was a paradox that Tricia’s Wedding set out to confound, with its climactic LSD-spiked orgy. And a paradox inherent in Robert Horvitz’s fractal-like drawings or patterns (1970–ongoing), which from a distance gesture towards the whole but, up-close, their tiny, precise marks are clearly individuated. At a talk during the exhibition, Larsen insisted, rightly, on a historical contextualization of psychedelia as a specifically postwar phenomenon (as opposed to a continuation of ancient shamanistic practices), contingent on the discovery of LSD, one that configured this chemical catalystot as quasi-religious sacrament but as technology (it was first created in a lab) – as much a technology of its time as the atom bomb. In this sense, psychedelia could be seen retrospectively as the aesthetic fallout from this biochemical technology, ‘Reflections from Damaged Life’ an exploration of this fall-out and its legacies.

During Larsen’s talk, Medalla gave a poetic account of his first acid trip in the 1960s, the tab having been given to him by Yoko Ono’s husband (‘the first husband’). He gave the lie to the truism that other people’s trips, like their dreams, are of interest only to themselves (excepting, perhaps, their analysts). Larsen’s curatorial proposition was sufficiently esoteric that it too was a trip that at times was hard to follow but, as with Medalla’s, there was much to wonder at.

Natasha Soobramanien is a British writer based in Brussels. She is currently collaborating with Luke Williams on a novel-in-instalments, Diego Garcia. The novel will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2020. She tweets at @soobramanien.