Alighiero Boetti, Jedediah Caesar, Joyce Campbell, Adam Chodzko, Andy Coolquitt, Thea Djordjadze, Jason Dodge, Richard Hughes, Gülsün Karamustafa, Phillip Lai, Jim Lambie, Mike Nelson, Kate Owens, Mungo Thomson, Jennifer West
It is believed by some that the legend of the ‘flying carpet’, a folk tradition within Central Asian literature (popularised in Western culture through translations of One Thousand and One Nights, and more recently by Walt Disney Studios) stems from the use of Harmal (Perganum Harmala) or Syrian Rue, a psychoactive plant, in the red dye found in ancient woven carpets.
It is thought that Harmal was not only employed to create so called ‘Turkish Red’ dyes but with its hallucinogenic properties, also inspired the repetitive, geometrical, mandala-like designs in which they were used.
Harmal’s significance is however far from confined to that of a carpet dye and recreational drug. This woody perennial shrub with small, white flowers has been ingested through history by different cultural groups in different ways to different ends. For example, in the second millennium B.C. the pastoral Aryans left the greater Iranian region for what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. Their sacred texts, derived from long, oral tradition, are found compiled into the Rig Veda written variously between 1700 and 1100 BC. This document, one of the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, contains numerous hymns to soma – a sacred plant, sacrament and god – able to transport the worshipper to other states of consciousness. In 1794, Sir William Jones, a language scholar responsible for the first translation of Sanskrit into a modern European language, identified Harmal as the long-lost soma in his translation of the Indian Laws of Manu.
Elsewhere the same hallucinatory agents that are found in Harmal are also found in the Americas within Yage (Banisteriopsis caapi), the shamanic ‘drug for flying’ used by numerous peoples of the Amazonian basin and beyond. According to William Burroughs: ‘Yage is space-time travel… Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains.’ Just as the use of Harmal can be seen to influence carpet pattern so yage has been found to have impacted upon the decorative art of its users: such as the Columbian Turkano people’s geometrically patterned longhouse walls and ceremonial ceramic vessels, aprons, masks, rattles and drums.
Such psychedelics permeate much of our culture. Although condemned by religious orthodoxies their influence can be seen clearly in the pattern of Celtic stone crosses and in the stained glass, ocular windows and floor tiled dromenrons of Gothic cathedrals. In the concentric Yantra and Mandala diagrams and meditative aids respective to branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. And in the prayer mats and marble, mosaic wall tiles of mosques. Such deeply coded language even evolves and mutates into the secular designs of utilitarian, concrete social housing with Russian émigré architect, Berthold Lubetkin’s designs for public housing in Bethnal Green, Finsbury, Paddington and Southwark which owe their facades to his knowledge of Caucasian kilims.
Altogether Elsewhere explores ‘psychedelia’ in contemporary art practice. Largely avoiding clichés of psychedelia that simply adopt bright colours and refer to synthetic, laboratory produced hallucinogens, this exhibition instead attempts to frame apparently opposing conceptual, craft and media-led practices within a timeless art history that looks back to the shamanic, drug induced rituals of prehistory.
Rob Tufnell is a freelance curator and writer.