If even the gallery admits that ‘psychedelic art’ isn’t really a genre, you can be pretty sure that the show is on shaky ground. There was no psychedelic art movement, no defined aesthetic, no group of artists working towards a common goal. It just never happened. So is this all just made up? Kinda. If psychedelia for you means dropping out of life with bong in hand and following the smoke to the riff-filled land (to quote stoner poets Sleep), then you’re only part of the way there. In the hands of curator – and owner of one of the best names in art – Lars Bang Larsen, psychedelia appears to be anything loosely related to art that pushes the boundaries of sensory experience.
Unless you have a penchant for dry historical documentation, there’s a fair chunk of this show that can be dismissed. Invites to gallery openings from the 1970s and clippings from Argentinean zines from the late ’60s don’t really let you experience psychedelia in any way.
Some of the more contemporary pieces fall a little flat too. The Otolith Group’s grainy digital film about consumerism and capitalism is interesting but feels misplaced and a little wide of the psychedelic mark. Learning Site’s immense, mushroom-filled papier-mâché tube works better, but the accompanying documentation – an essay attached to the wall –is a lesson in how not to make a thrilling art encounter.
The best works in the show are the ones that were either made under psychedelic influences or were designed to imitate them. In the first camp we have a video of 1960s weirdo drug-drag-freaks The Cockettes performing an outlandish play, pretending to have sex with baseball bats and just generally doing everything you’d expect hippies on LSD to do. Then there are Robert Horvitz’s series of incredible geometric ink drawings, made up of endless identical marks. They’re obsessive pieces of magic-eye trickery, laboured over for hours to create trippy fields of abstract meaninglessness.
From there, we have works that go some way towards replicating the psychedelic experience – art that makes you feel like you are tripping balls. Jordan Belson’s trio of short films (1959-1972) blast your retinas with swirling abstract shapes – circles and rhombuses dissolving and then reappearing from the dark, spinning and contorting.
Then there’s the (ailing) star of the show, Pierre Huyghe’s ‘L’Expédition Scintillante, Act 2 (light show)’ (2002). The curtains are drawn, and out of the darkness a miniature stage billows smoke as lights swirl and Erik Satie’s melancholy piano masterpiece ‘Gymnopedie No.3’ plays. It’s totally engrossing, with a clever nod to psychedelic art master Gustav Metzger, and aesthetically beautiful in a way that very little conceptual art manages to be. But the sculpture keeps breaking and was sat there lifeless on our last visit. It’s a shame for the visitors who miss it, but what’s a psychedelic experience without some kind of meltdown?