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EcstasyReview - Ecstasy
In and About Altered States
by Paul Schimmel
MIT Press, 2005
Review by Christian Perring
Dec 18th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 51)

This nicely designed book is based on an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art of the same title from 2005.  The dust jacket has the word "ECSTASY" in silver reflective holographic letters, and the cover of the hardbound book are unfinished thick card.  The book has many color reproductions of psychedelic works of art, and it is a great pleasure to browse.  It includes a broad range of different kinds of art: Carsten Holler's "Upside-Down Mushroom Room, 2000" gets discussed in several places. A detail from Fred Tomaselli's photograph "Echo, Wow and Flutter, 2000" is given a two page spread.  Roxy Paine's 1997 "Psilocybe Cubensis Field" is also featured.   The work with LED lights by Erwin Redl is especially pleasing.  So the book is a wonderful introduction to artists whose work will probably be unfamiliar to most readers. 

The book starts with an introduction by Paul Schimmel, who organized the original exhibition, and then it has nearly 100 pages devoted to the 29 artists whose work was used.  These are illustrated with well chosen photographs, and each artist has a few pages each.  There are then five essays by scholars on different aspects, which are also illustrated.  The book ends with 48 pages of a literary supplement, mainly concerning the use of drugs to alter mental states. 

The essays are not particularly approachable for general readers.  They use technical language, and are printed in a bold sans serif typeface which is hard to read.  They often refer to philosophical or theoretical work, and tend to be enigmatic.  For example, Lars Bang Larsen writes that, "Due to its innate lack of reason, ecstasy can culminate in ascension or de-focusing."  Midori Matsui draws on the work of Deleuze, and writes sentences like, "In contemporary art in particular, the epistemological dislocation that results in new perceptions of the body, mind and world is primarily realized in two ways: through optical experience and what I provisionally call 'flexible sculpture.'"  There may be some illuminating ideas in these essays, but they are buried, although I did find "Transcendence and Immanence in Some Art of Today," by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had worthwhile discussions of particular pieces of art. 

So Ecstasy is definitely a book best for dipping into rather than for reading from beginning to end.  It manages to make a case that art based on psychedelic experiences or ideas is interesting and forms a relatively coherent genre, and it demonstrates powerfully that it is a feast for the eyes.

 

© 2007 Christian Perring

 

 

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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