ECSTASY: In and About Altered States
BY PAUL SCHIMMEL WITH GLORIA SUTTON
The MIT Press, 2005, 252 pp.,
$26.37, ISBN 0-914357-91-3.
This full-color, oversized book is a companion piece to an exhibit of the same name held at the Museum of Contemporary Arts (MOCA) in Los Angeles in late 2005 through early 2006. Ecstasy serves as both a description of the exhibit, and a discussion of art, ecstasy, and the relationship between the two through recent history.
Within it are a series of new essays exploring these topics, comments on the artists and their works created for the exhibit, pictures of the exhibit and related pieces, along with a literary supplement containing an essay, a poem on cocaine, a fictional story, and personal accounts of drug use. All told, 11 authors contribute to the 12 pieces in the book, and the works of 30 artists are displayed in the exhibit.
The book starts out promisingly, with an excellent introductory essay by MOCA’s Chief Curator Paul Schimmel. Conceived and developed by him, the exhibit is meant to review the ancient tradition of depicting ecstatic states in art as reasserted by artists in recent years. He describes the experience of creating art as an altered state itself, and how the goal of the exhibit was not merely to include works depicting such states. On its own, that assertion casts quite a large net, qualifying any and all art to be included in the exhibit. Schimmel goes a step further though, clarifying that the wide range of media included in the exhibit falls into two categories:
1. Representations of altered states and visions experienced by the artists;
2. Installments that involve the viewer and are intended to simulate or induce altered states.
Particularly in the latter case, pieces implementing multisensory stimulation alter perception just enough to turn reality on its nose. Schimmel feels that altering reality through art creates a type of transcendence in which communication occurs between artist and viewer. This hallmark of the ecstasy subculture, a communication of mutual understandings, allows for the possibility of rising above feelings of alienation and confusion.
I found Schimmel’s historical exploration of the relationship between art and altered states to be quite revelatory. Although he claims this relationship began in ancient Greece with the cult of Dionysus (a metaphor for artists who explore altered states), he focuses on the last two hundred or so years.
It could be argued that this relationship long predates the Greeks, as evidenced by early cave drawings and religious iconography, which in some cases has continued into the modern day. But I suppose Schimmel’s focus is on art that at some point made its way into a gallery. That point aside, Schimmel’s historical discussion details how the evolution of consciousness and culture was reflected in the art of the time. Beginning with Romanticism (laudanum, opium, hash, altering the rational mind), through the mid-nineteenth century avant-garde era (absinthe, transcending rationality), on to the Surrealists (Freud, dreams, exploring the unconscious, mescaline), the New York School abstractionists (Jung, the collective unconscious, peyote), the 1960s (Leary, LSD, rebellion, etc.), and up to the present (MDMA, unity, utopia).
I particularly appreciated Schimmel’s comments on the drug ecstasy (MDMA), its subculture, and societal implications. He shows he’s done his homework as he classifies ecstasy as an empathogen (empathygenerating) rather than psychedelic (mind-manifesting) drug. He even touches briefly on its therapeutic potential, and on research with it. Schimmel asserts that the feeling of empathy and connectedness brought on creates a “utopian impulse” in the otherwise flat, alienated landscape of the normal waking state of consciousness.
This impulse is reflected in the art in the exhibit, as the artists attempt to communicate to the viewer that reality is not quite as it seems, and that there is something greater, some connection between us.
Unfortunately, the book stumbles after this introduction, as descriptions of the pieces in the exhibit, along with the new essays, fail to convey the feeling of ecstasy found in art today. The essays by multiple authors often cover the same ground in their pursuit of a definition of ecstasy and related topics, leading to debatable and contradictory assertions. Art historians or artists may find them to be of value, but from my perspective as a Psy. D. graduate student interested in altered states, they are of little use.
The actual exhibit, on the other hand, was wonderful. Steve Martin is often attributed with saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” and possibly a similar problem occurred throughout the book by those attempting to describe the art. I fully appreciate the irony as I now attempt to do the same.
My reaction to the actual exhibit was one of pure joy. Many of the pieces in the exhibit are playful, fun, and engaging. Although there are wonderful pictures of the exhibit contained in the book, they fail to convey the interactive experience, as well as both the grandeur and detail of the pieces. A strobe light flashing on falling water droplets, which appeared as colored crystals frozen in space, creates a feeling of awe in Your strange certainty still kept by Olafur Eliasson. The self-explanatory entitled Upside-down mushroom room by Carsten Holler may sound clichéd, but produces a giddy reaction upon entering it, evoking memories of Alice in Wonderland. Fred Tomaselli’s mosaics are sure to stir up a déjà vu experience for the initiated. At first glance, the psychedelic cornucopia appears painted, but upon closer inspection reveals itself to be three-dimensional, containing pills, cutout pictures, paint, and other objects suspended in a glossy resin set against a black backdrop. Paul Noble’s gigantic, intricate, fluid drawings also pull the viewer into a bizarre world where weirdness meditates in every corner. The LED lights suspended in rows in Erwin Redl’s Matrix II distort size and depth, and create a floating sensation in the viewer, as their eyes continuously adjust to the changing patterns. There are also several video pieces in the exhibit, of which I found Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow most enticing, in which an alternate world gradually reveals itself across five adjacent video screens. Altered states can have a profound effect on an individual, as they realize that the impossible is possible, reality is not quite as it seems, there is order in chaos, and the whole world is contained within a grain of sand. Many of the pieces in this exhibit have the same effect.
“Ecstasy—and not merely the drug—never was intended to be intellectualized” (p. 237). This sentence appears in the final essay, Confessions of a middle-aged ecstasy eater, by Anonymous, and I must confess my reaction upon reading this simple statement was mildly ecstatic, if that’s possible. The reason being that much of what was written on the previous 236 pages was nothing but intellectualizations, and tedious ones at that. I’ll concede that all the essays were well-researched, exploratory, and informative, but most were a chore to get through. (And this comes from someone who uses his free time to browse Jung’s Collected Works.) Where was the joy, transcendence, and sublimity? Where was the ecstasy?
Confessions, on the other hand, is a delight to read. I found it to be profoundly moving and somewhat reminiscent of the recent drugwar movie Traffic, considering the social, political, therapeutic, moral, interpersonal, and, most important, personal perspectives involved in ecstasy use. Even better, the author nailed the feeling on the head. Like all great art, this essay, much like Traffic and many pieces in the exhibit, asks more potent questions than it gives answers to. Of the many questions, one stood out for me: Is ecstasy use a response to an alienated flatland, or a reflection of a Peter Pan world?
This concluding essay and the introduction by Schimmel serve as wonderful bookends around a largely uneven work. Interesting bits of information are contained throughout, but they largely fail to convey the true nature of the relationship between art and ecstasy, as well as the wonder of the exhibit. Some may enjoy the book more than others, but for me, it will be the coffee table book I put out when my hip friends are coming over, and put away when my mom’s in town. As they say in the art world, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.