DMT SUBJECTS SEEK BLISS, FIND GUMMY WORMS
Jack Goldstein Under Water Sea Fantasy, Jeremy Shaw DMT at Presentation
House Gallery Until October 24
The entrance to DMT, Jeremy Shaw's eight-monitor DVD installation, is so
dark that it is disorienting. It's even more disorienting coming out than
going in--appropriate enough, given the psychic and perceptual dislocations
that are represented here.
Simultaneously broadcast from eye-level monitors in the installation's
black-walled, low-ceilinged, octagonal room, eight young men and women
(including the artist) trip on the synthetic hallucinogen DMT
(dimethyltryptamine) while the unmoving video camera records their
experiences. Eyes closed, eyelids fluttering, heads rolling back and forth,
they undertake brief, ecstatic journeys into the beyond.
Subtitles on each screen counterpose the subjects' post-trip attempts to
describe their essentially nonverbal experiences. "I was sorta, like,
whoah...like, what's going on..." "It is like melting...like this buzzing
is kind of in you..." "I don't even know how to describe it....Holy
shit....It was all gummy worms and the most vibrant colours..." Sighs,
groans, hyperventilation, and each subject's chosen background music
contribute to the textured sound environment within this cocoon of altered
perception and near-terminal inarticulateness.
Shaw, aka March 21, is a fast-ascending Vancouver media artist and
electronic musician with a standing interest in representing youth
subcultures. Here, he has assumed the academically trendy model of
artist-as-researcher, and his project suggests a pseudoclinical or
mock-anthropological study of recreational drug use among a particular
subgroup. (There's an implication of privilege: DMT is expensive; six of
the eight subjects are white; all look preppily fresh-faced and well-groomed.)
In the exhibition brochure, curator Helga Pakasaar describes DMT as the
synthetic version of ayahuasca, which, "in its natural form, is used as a
spiritual device by shamans in South America for coming of age rituals".
Pakasaar's observations about the deep differences between the uses of
ayahuasca and DMT are absolutely germane: although Shaw's subjects may
experiment with the drug recreationally, they cannot duplicate its original
cultural significance. In traditional tribal societies, as religious
historian Mircea Eliade observed, initiation rituals employ the ecstatic
trance to enact a symbolic journey of suffering, death, and resurrection.
The journey is made in the com
pany of a spirit guide, helper, or guardian
and culminates in the entrance of the initiate into either adult society or
the shamanic vocation.
In Shaw's "study", there is no social or religious context to hook the
experience onto, no supernatural animals and beings to coalesce as guides
out of the trippers' formless hallucinations. Thus, the trivial analogies
to, say, gummy worms, and the inability to meaningfully describe inchoate
perception and sensation. The profane never transforms into the
sacred--although one of Shaw's subjects, a woman who thrashes, howls, and
drops out of view of the camera, later attempts to align her drug
experience with a book she's read about ecstatic trances and visions.
What DMT conveys is not only the inadequacy of verbal language but also a
sad sense of disconnection from community and belief. Still, this woman
brings off the work's best line: "You're on these Web sites and you're,
like, wow, you make shitty art....You really can't distinguish between
trend and archetype."
Although it is presented here as a separate and distinct exhibition, Jack
Goldstein's experimental film Under Water Sea Fantasy enters into an
inevitable dialogue with Shaw's installation. With its brilliant and
bleached-out colours, shifting forms, fluid movement, and otherworldly
sounds, Goldstein's continuously looping, six-and-a-half minute film can
itself be read as an ecstatic journey. Instead of the archetypal cycle of
birth, death, and rebirth, however, we seem to be watching a vast,
primordial round of creation, destruction, and oblivion, inspiring both awe
and existential dread.
Unfortunately, we're experiencing the film at a remove from its context,
too--from Goldstein's life, times, and multidisciplinary career. During the
1970s and '80s, he produced sound recordings, still photography,
performances, and paintings as well as film. However, the local viewer
can't draw immediate comparisons between the present film and his other
works, nor place it within the ambit of his avant-garde themes and
strategies. Goldstein was born in Montreal in 1945; his art education and
tumultuous career took place in and near Los Angeles and New York, where he
cycled in and out of acclaim, obscurity, and despair. Despite a recent
revival, his work is infrequently shown in this country.
Goldstein began Under Water Sea Fantasy in 1983, set it aside, and finally
finished it in 2003, shortly before his death. Montaging and altering found
footage of erupting volcanoes, underwater life, and a much-accelerated
lunar eclipse, Goldstein gives a knowing nod to Hollywood and the notion of
the spectacle. But he also, Pakasaar argues, employs a small scale and a
gallery setting to explore the pictorial rather than theatrical aspects of
Much more eloquently than Shaw's stoned subjects, Goldstein seems to be
describing the ineffable, from primordial cataclysm to the oblivious void.
Except for that weirdly concrete title, he does so without the obstacle or
compromise of verbal language.