’It is very difficult to be trippy and classy at the same time,’ muses Mike Jay, co-curator of the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition about drugs. Yet Jay’s brief to the show’s designers – Jonathan Hares, Laurent Benner and Michael Marriott – was to achieve this very feat. ’And yes, I do think they have managed to avoid corniness while not underselling the show’s mind-expanding material,’ says Jay.
For High Society, the Wellcome Collection plundered its own vaults, those of the Victoria & Albert Museum and several other collectionsto lay on a compendium of paraphernalia, medical fact, cultural context, drugged-up art, and graphic and packaging design from across the centuries.
More than 200 exhibits include a new installation by 1960s light show designer Joshua White, whose stage backdrops of projected coloured oils are synonymous with the psychedelic movement. Meanwhile, fractal art – never classy, always trippy – inevitably finds its way into Thomas Lyttle’s collection of blotters (sheets of perforated paper dipped in acid), which are also featured in the show. Bottles of heroin and a ball of 19th-century opium make their appearance, causing havoc with the Home Office, Jay reveals. ’We had to check everything into the gallery under police supervision,’ he says.
Jay, who has also written a book to accompany the exhibition, finds the subject of drugs – both legal and illicit – fascinating, ’because it allows us to explore anthropology, medical history, music, art and dance. It opens doors in so many different directions’.