The subject of drugs in art is a longstanding tradition. In the nineteenth century, London’s dens of iniquity would go on to inspire several works of literature, poetry and art, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ode to opium dreams, Kubla Khan. In 1821, Thomas de Quincey’s serialised Confessions of an English Opium Eater first appeared in The London Magazine. Charles Dickens’ last, and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Erwin Drood, featured in its first edition an illustration of an opium den; frequent haunt of the novel’s protagonist John Jasper; by prolific artist and print-maker Gustave Doré. In 1862, the artist, poet, and Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddall was killed by a laudanum overdose and a broken heart.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the Impressionists were getting acquainted with the green fairy. Edouard Manet’s first major work is considered to be The Absinthe Drinker, painted in 1859, allegedly causing Thomas Couture, under whom Manet had once been instructed, to exclaim: “My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker! It is you who have lost your moral faculty.” Much of Vincent van Gogh’s tragic circumstances are attributed to his dependence on the same and its role in the exacerbation of his various posthumous diagnoses. The narrative of the creative who takes drugs to sharpen their practice, often meeting tragic ends for the sake of their art, is by now hackneyed and stale.
Jac Leirner’s solo exhibition at White Cube Mason’s Yard however, takes a simpler approach to drug use and dependence. Represented as neither a moralising tale nor a necessary side effect of genius, simply a collection of discarded ephemera purportedly collected over several years and assembled during a drug binge in 2010. It is the minimalism of the first piece, an installation entitled The End and constructed from steel cables which cross over one another across the room, hung with cigarette ends, roaches, and other articles, which is evocative in its simplicity and its obstinacy; moving around the room is difficult when the art is hanging by a thread.
The lower ground floor contains several plywood boards on which multicoloured rolling paper packets are mounted, as well as prints of rocks of cocaine sculpted into heart and head shapes, placed amongst various objects, both sinister and banal; coins, knives, stones, dice and blood-soaked bandage.
The careful arrangement of the exhibition evokes the sharpness of the subject; whilst a cocaine binge might be seen as excess or libertinism, the meticulous construction of the exhibition betrays more pedantry than debauchery. Born in São Paolo in 1961, Jac Leirner’s practice is known for its celebration of the ignored and undesirable pieces of everyday life. She had her first solo exhibition in the UK at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1991 and participated in DOCUMENTA (IX) in 1992. In 1997, she represented Brazil at the 47th Venice Biennale.
Junkie is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 14th May. www.whitecube.com
1. Brasil Heart (2016). Solvent UV inkjet print to 9mm plywood 4 3/16 x 5 7/8 in. (10.7 x 15 cm) © Jac Leirner. Courtesy of White Cube.