Reflections from Damaged Life: An Exhibition on Psychedelia

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(1user review)
Pierre Huyghe (L'Expédition Scintillante, Act 2 (light show), 2002)
L'Expédition Scintillante, Act 2 (light show), 2002Photograph by Marcus J. LeithMuseo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León(MUSAC)
Öyvind Fahlström (The Little General (Pinball Machine), 1967–68)
The Little General (Pinball Machine), 1967–68Collection Sharon Avery-FahlströmOn long-term loan to Museu d'Art Contemporani deBarcelona (MACBA)Photograph by Marcus J. Leith
David Medalla (The Raven mask for ‘The Bird Ballet’ performed at the Roundhouse, Camden, October 1967 by The Exploding Galaxy)
The Raven mask for ‘The Bird Ballet’ performed at the Roundhouse, Camden, October 1967 by The Exploding GalaxyPhotograph by Marcus J. Leith
Jordan Belson (Still from World, 1970)
Still from World, 1970Courtesy Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles
Exhibition view (Reflections from Damaged Life. An exhibition on psychedelia, Raven Row, 2013)
Reflections from Damaged Life. An exhibition on psychedelia, Raven Row, 2013Photograph by Marcus J. Leith

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?

Eddy Frankel


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The best way to enjoy this show (and that's what it is) is to forget all that stuff about psychedelic art and the 60's (if you remember it you can't have been enoying it anyway) and just appreciate the laid-back atmosphere in this relaxing and though-provoking space.