Ecstasy: In and About Altered States


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Ecstasy: In and About Altered StatesSchimmel, Paul, and Mark, Lisa (Ed) (2005) Cambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 0914357913. 21+252 pp. $39.95.They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If true, this makes it hard to review the art catalog of the exhibition, Ecstasy, which took place from October 9, 2005, to February 20, 2006, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It is really hard to do full justice to the sociological and iconoclastic display of the art of 30 internationally known artists. Their works address agents and effects of altered consciousness. From a psychiatric point of view, ecstasy is defined as a trance state in which religious ideation or similar ideas of dedication and complete surrender occupy almost the entire field of consciousness. Ecstasy, however, is also the street name for the drug MDMA and brings to mind psychedelic agents, and the phenylethylamines used in American and European club culture as a facilitator of huge raves: Thousands of revelers come together to dance until dawn in abandoned warehouses to the beat of acid techno-music.Having lived through the l960s as a young and aspiring medical anthropologist, I can state that the art of this exhibit is quite different from that of earlier times. Very neatly ensconced in separate units of the museum, covering thousands of square feet, artists' works display images of ecstatic states. The artists appear to be driven by utopian faith in the capacity of art to expand and alter perception and consciousness. The chief curator, Schimmel, argues that the experience of art is, itself, an altered state. The catalog comments on how youth attain physical release through dancing and consumption of substances such as ecstasy, marijuana, mushrooms and LSD. Grob, a psychiatrist, has written widely about this substance (2005), emblematic of a social movement that has attracted increasing numbers of disaffected youth in Europe and North America. Large groups of young people congregate to engage in collective trance dances or raves, often fueled by ingestion of the synthetic psychoactive substance, ecstasy. One could be quite sociological in approach to the catalog, the exhibition, and the utopian impulses among users, as ecstasy provides intense feelings of connectedness with one's companions and humanity in general. Anthropologically speaking, this mirrors numerous tribal societies who have incorporated psychedelics into adolescent initiation ceremonies to create such feelings of connectedness (Grob et al., 1992). In contemporary society, ecstasy is just one more scheduled drug with legal repercussions for youthful offenders. Without control or vigilance, their use of the substance is merely a form of escapism and irration hedonism Psychiatrists have perused the anecdotal literature about the short historic period in which ecstasy had a use in facilitating psychotherapy with anecdotal experiences of its effectiveness.This drug has eluded definitive understanding and the societal and medical controversies continue to be quite persistent. The art displayed in the exhibition is different from that of tribal societies. Lacking religious values, meaning, and the sacred connected to the chemical, the art displayed in the Museum of Contemporary Art is clever, challenging but contained in itself. It doesn't flow from one space to another, like the psychedelic experience itself, and aside from some pieces of spectacular color, the exhibit is muted with lots of gimmicks such as a space with red and white Amanita muscaria mushrooms in polymer plastic suspended from the ceiling. The artworks function to enable the viewer to enter into the altered state of the artist himself who portrays visions that lie beyond the rational perception in representation form.

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