Altered states brought on by drugs or drink have always inspired artists. Now a show at Riflemaker allows us all to be armchair trippers
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot famously captures our predicament with aphoristic concision. No wonder that for generations artists have worked to transcend the limitations of a mundanely normal world as they struggle to visualise those wild possibilities that lie on the far side of the safe garden fence. Fortunately, when it comes to taking a trip to this alternative world, most of us go for the package-tourist's option. We drift away safely into literary fictions; we get lost in films and flow with the music; we go on forget-it-all beach holidays once a year.
But package tours aren't for everyone. Those with a creative bent tend to thrive on a less predictable experience. They set off, often with the help of drink, drugs and other treacherous friends, on the psychological equivalent of the gap-year adventure. Some never come back. Others return with better-than-average holiday snaps.
This month Riflemaker in Soho is inviting us round to look through the old albums. It is a staging a sprawling exhibition looking at the work of a wide selection of artists, writers, musicians and dancers, all of whom have made their own type of journey to another reality. Voo-Doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit explores the important role that an alternative mindset can play in the creative process. It leads the spectator into a weird mesmeric world of drink and drugs, of spells and shamans, ritual and sacrifice.
The relationship between art and alternative reality is ancient. Archaeologists have studied the eye-dizzying spirals of pre-Columbian carvings, the inscrutable daubings of indigenous American tribes. They have discovered hallucinogenic plants in Neanderthal burial sites. Some of our first impulses to creative expression, it appears, arose out of experiences with psychotropic drugs. And the origin of the artist may be found in the shaman figure, the guide who can travel into the spirit world.
“I is another,” declared the restless Arthur Rimbaud, who danced on the tightrope that leads into the land of new vision. The artist could become a seer, he suggested, only by a prodigious disordering of the senses. As far as the painter Francis Bacon was concerned, it was only by going too far that there was anything to be gained at all.
Cultural history is crowded with extravagantly compulsive sorts who, undaunted by risk, sought the heightened perceptions that can be discovered in an altered state. Keats wrote his Endymion fuelled by laudanum; Theophile Gautier met friends around a hash pipe; Edgar Allen Poe discovered his muse at the bottom of a bottle; Van Gogh plunged and soared with his bipolar depressions, drinking anything from absinthe to paint thinner.
Artists have experimented with every form of transgression. For Caravaggio it was violent street brawling that set his creative blood beating. Hieronymous Bosch played with sacrilegious risks. The Marquis de Sade was transported by masochistic sex. Jean-Michel Basquiat dabbled in voodoo. The Surrealists experimented with psychic trance states.
As Hunter S. Thompson said: “A cap of good acid costs $5 and for that you can hear the universal symphony with God singing solo and the Holy Ghost on drums.” Artists are supposed to feel and think and imagine - and often about themselves. The sort of person who is drawn to an artistic career is also often drawn to try out drugs. “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence,” was how Aldous Huxley put it as he opened the doors of perception and peeped through. But why, with visions like this on offer, does the artist not decide to stay in his trance land for ever? Why does he come back?
The state of altered consciousness, it would seem, is a bit like one of those Spanish seaside resorts. The pleasures seem so tempting. But those who decide to buy the villa and retire there eventually grow sad and disillusioned. Who wants to spend all day doing nothing all alone? The artist has his drives and ambitions. And alternative reality is not a creative spot.
A very few may work in a state of altered consciousness. The Polish painter Stanislaw Witkiewicz, for instance, would sign each of his wildly expressionistic portraits not only with his signature but with the coded names of the drugs he had taken while producing it. But for the most part the creation of anything of artistic worth demands scrupulous honesty, brutal self-censorship, clear-headed percipience and a bit of good commercial sense. None of these qualities is associated with being squiffy.
When that infamous person from Porlock popped into Coleridge's consciousness, his writing came to an abrupt halt. It was his staunch friend Wordsworth who had to put in the hours on Lyrical Ballads. Eugene O'Neill may have been a heavy drinker but he would still be snoozing it off halfway along his long day's journey into night if he had not remained lucid for a few hours a day. Francis Bacon may have frequented the Soho drinking dens by evening. But every morning he was up, working alone in his studio. Certainly Miles Davis's talent was impaired by his heroin habit. Basquiat's career was utterly destroyed by his addiction. And would Hemingway have blown his brains out if he hadn't been drunk?
Nor is a trip into alternative reality guaranteed to make an artist of anyone. Hallucinogens may send even the most mundane mind whirling, but only a person with extraordinary talent can translate such memories into work. The profound subjectivity of such experiences acts, paradoxically, as a barrier to communication.
Even as hallucinatory trips promise complete liberty, they start encircling the imagination in a new form of cliché. From the 19th-century spookiness of the Gothic brand to the mad spinning fractals of the psychedelic Sixties, alternative reality can become a trap. Which is why, for most of us, the safest trip to take to the far side is through the art of the people who have been there for us, who have committed temporary suicide in haunted trance states. The forthcoming show at Riflemaker can be this year's first fix.
Voo-Doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit is at Riflemaker, W1, Jan 19 to April 4 (www.riflemaker.org)
By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
January 6, 2009