Art that transcends

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Late last year, US design magazine Communication Arts asked me to write a piece about psychedelic art, past and present. The resulting feature has been out for a couple of weeks in the May/June issue (no. 56) but I hadn’t seen it in print until a copy turned up today. Attempting to wrangle discussion of a very wide-ranging and amorphous field into 1500 words isn’t an easy task but I managed to sketch a history of psychedelic art beginning with Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond’s mescaline experiments in the 1950s. Art that can be considered psychedelic goes back into prehistory but Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) is the first book that considered art in general from a psychedelic viewpoint. That book, and the later Heaven and Hell (1956), are still valuable for their aesthetic meditations however much Huxley’s optimism may have been tainted by the ferment of the 1960s.

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Primitive And Deadly (2014) by Earth. Art by Samantha Muljat.

The psychedelic art of the 60s isn’t exactly overlooked so I paid more attention to tracing the influence of the psychedelic style, and also mentioning painters such as Ernst Fuchs, Alex Grey, Martina Hoffmann and Mati Klarwein. Among the more recent artists, I was pleased that Samantha Muljat‘s album cover for Earth was featured. I’ve been listening to this album a great deal over the past few months, and loved that cover as soon as I saw it. One of the other contemporary names, Brazilian artist Duda Lanna, works in a very different style: bold, vivid, and often abstract. There seems to be a lot of this kind of work around at the moment, so much so that I kept spotting new examples after the article had been delivered. It’s difficult to say whether this is a developing trend or simply a case of there being more of everything around these days. I’ll play safe and suggest it’s probably a bit of both although, as I say at the end of the article, if the movement to legalise drugs gains momentum we can expect to see a lot more psychedelic art.

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Garden of Psychedelic Delights by Duda Lanna.

Enter the Void

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It’s taken me a while to see this but the long search for a genuinely psychedelic feature film is over. That’s genuinely psychedelic not in the debased sense of a handful of garish or trippy visuals, but in the full-spectrum expanded-consciousness sense for which Humphrey Osmond invented the term in 1956:

I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents [psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, etc] under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision. My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind-manifesting.

Other films have given us flashes of this kind of unfiltered experience—Chas’s mushroom trip in Performance (1970), for example—or attempted to relay LSD states through Hollywood conventions: The Trip (1967) and Altered States (1980). Then there are inadvertently psychedelic moments such as the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Some of the most successful works from a psychedelic perspective have almost always been abstract, micro-budget films such as those made by James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Ira Cohen and others. But until very recently no one had attempted to combine the narrative-free intensity of abstract cinema with a film narrative that would warrant placing psychedelic experience at the heart of the story. I was hoping A Scanner Darkly (2006) might do it but, good as it was, it didn’t really get there. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void is the film that gets everything right.

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Linda and Oscar.

The narrative is a simple one (Noé calls his story a “psychedelic melodrama”): Oscar, a young American drug-dealer living in Tokyo smokes DMT, trips out for a while then goes to exchange some goods with a customer in a small club called The Void. While there he’s shot and killed in a police raid. His disembodied consciousness leaves his body and for the next two hours wanders the streets and buildings following his beloved sister, Linda, and his friends while they cope with the aftermath. Later on he starts to re-experience memorable (and traumatic) moments from his life. The Big Signifying Text in all of this is introduced in the opening scene: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oscar hasn’t read much of it so his friend Alex quickly relates (for the benefit of the audience) how the book describes what happens to the soul between the moment of death and rebirth into a fresh human body. A few minutes later we’re with Oscar experiencing this very process in dizzying, miraculously-filmed detail. Flicking through my own copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (OUP, 1960) one paragraph in the introduction had particular relevance:

The deceased human being becomes the sole spectator of a marvellous panorama of hallucinatory visions; each seed of thought in his consciousness-content karmically revives; and he, like a wonder-struck child watching moving pictures cast upon a screen, looks on, unaware, unless previously an adept in yoga, of the non-reality of what he sees dawn and set.

WY Evans-Wentz

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This is your brain on drugs: the DMT trip.

Continue reading “Enter the Void”

Psychedelic vehicles

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Further: the second version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus.

The word psychedelic, like surreal before it, slipped from its original meaning through appropriation. Humphrey Osmond’s neologism was first coined in drug-related correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1957 and was specifically intended to describe the “mind-manifesting” quality of the hallucinogenic drug experience. The drug-inspired art and music which came after the experiments of the Fifties quickly assumed a gaudy and chaotic aspect derived from the intense visual abstractions of LSD trips. Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954) rejected these fractal visions as trivial and distracting—he was more concerned with the deeper spiritual revelations—but a new way of seeing in a new era required a new label. Art and design which is vivid, florid, multi-hued and quite often incoherent is where the term psychedelic is most commonly applied today.

Of the three vehicles here, only Ken Kesey’s bus can be regarded as psychedelic in Osmond’s sense, this being the renovated school bus which travelled the United States in the mid-Sixties dispensing free LSD to those it met along the way. These events were recounted in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and the creators of last year’s Milk, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black, have a film in preparation based on Wolfe’s book. Milk was a film about gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, and Ang Lee (director of Brokeback Mountain) has a new film of his own due shortly, Taking Woodstock, which concerns Elliot Tiber, the gay organizer of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Both stories bracket the psychedelic era. Is this coincidence or do I detect something in the air? But I digress….

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For the chaotic and decorative nature of the psychedelic style, look no further (so to speak) than Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche. I saw this in 2005 at Tate Liverpool when it was touring with the Summer of Love exhibition of psychedelic art. One of  Joplin’s very last recordings before her death in 1970 was a birthday song for John Lennon so it’s perhaps fitting that the third vehicle here is Lennon’s lavish Rolls-Royce. His 1965 limousine came originally in black livery but two years later he decided he wanted it painted like a gypsy caravan. There’s a great page about the car here including details of its decoration, created in consultation with Marijke Koger of Dutch design group The Fool.

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In a small way these three vehicles encapsulate the psychedelic period, from optimistic, proselytising origins following the revelations of hallucinogenic drugs to decline into a mannered, highly-commercialised graphic style. Ken Kesey died in 2001 but his second bus is still active while the cars are now museum pieces. Perhaps the real psychedelic spirit prevails after all.

See also: George Harrison’s Mini Cooper

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dutch psychedelia
The art of LSD