Limited Edition of 50 copies -
Signed and numbered
Linen Hardcover Case Bound -
30cm x 37.5cm
48 pages with 18 colour plates
Reading through Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people this week, I came upon an unfamiliar name. One Jose Mujica. He’s not a Latino pop star, or a film actor, or a major player on the international stage. But Jose “Pepe” Mujica has done something remarkable. This ruffled, somewhat Bohemian man famously eschews the luxury and privilege one would normally associate with his high office, as the President of Uruguay, and, like so many other South American leaders, he has struggled with the social consequences of an entrenched drug culture. Well, last year he did what no other national leader has been game to do. He signed a new law making it legal to produce and sell marijuana.
His motives may be more complicated than we will ever know. Undoubtedly the economic benefits of a regulated industry are substantial (witness the tobacco industry), and the drug barons may well resort to different kinds of mischief. But what is certain is that, with a piece of legal prestidigitation, what was illegal yesterday is legal today.
Presto! Just like that.
It is difficult to foretell what changes the country will oversee as a result of this groundbreaking legislation. Will Uruguay become the Latin version of Amsterdam- a mecca for drug tourism, that brings it’s own attendant virtues and vices? What regional tensions are probable? And how will it be greeted by the population? The range of jurisdictional problems would seem be to be imposing, and yet in an effort to combat the criminal culture in his country he chose to act decisively. The world watches.
The topic of marijuana and its place in western society has been much debated.
My own introduction to the subject came from a wildly hysterical account in one of our country’s major women’s magazines, that read like a lurid piece of 1930s propaganda.
24 hours of psychological torment! Satanic visions! Nudity! Reefer Madness!
Even in the 1970s this flummery seemed improbable to me.
The overnight change in marijuana’s status in Uruguay does little to diminish what is fundamentally a philosophical divide. There are those people who will never concede that it is anything but harmful, pernicious, insidious and plain wrong. And there is scientific research that endorses such thinking- even allowing for a divide in the scientific community itself. But evidence is not that hard to find when one is convinced by one’s own argument, and so the debate rages......
Typically though, and this is the point, the theory is advanced that marijuana leads to harder drugs- that it is a “gateway” drug. And we all know what “harder drugs” means. Heroin. Ice. Ecstasy. Amphetamines. The headline grabbers.
But is marijuana really a “gateway” drug?
In this collection of photographs Simon Bernhardt is asking us to contemplate that simple statement, and all the hyperbole, hysteria and brouhaha that attends it.
The eskimos are popularly said to have dozens of words for snow, and in our own culture it is difficult to think of another natural product that goes by so many names....
Spliff. Pot. Weed. Mary Jane. Cannabis. Dope. Grass. Wacky Weed. Ganja. Hemp. Skafe. Joint. Kif. Bhang. Durban Poison,Maui Wowie and Mullumbimby Madness - and all this attests much to the ubiquity of its use, its historical longevity, and pertinently, to the range of attitudes to this much maligned plant. But in this respect it is far from alone.
In 1879 cocaine was used to treat morphine addiction. In 1884 the Germans were using it as a local anaesthetic. The following year it was certainly for sale in numerous forms in the United States. It was famously used by Ernest Shackleton on his Antarctic expedition, and the fictional Sherlock Holmes similarly enjoyed its salve. The famous urban myth that holds that cocaine was, in fact, an ingredient in the original Coca Cola turns out to be true. But within a decade or so there was a serious legislative push for the supply of cocaine to be regulated, and the age of prohibition had begun. Interestingly, around the turn of the century, most users were middle class professionals. Only later was it commonly associated with the young, the marginalised or the criminal underclass. The inadequacy of sweeping generalisations was already apparent.
Similarly, alcohol endured its own fall from favour, most notably during the period of Prohibition in the USA in the 1920s and beyond, although the public’s thirst was as before. And in contemporary Sydney, Australia, the spectre of alcohol abuse and violence has played out prominently in the press, leading to major policy backflips in the notorious strip of Kings Cross. But in Western society generally, of course, alcohol is synonymous with the celebration of major milestones in one’s life: birthdays, marriages and personal successes. And pretty much any other time. Put simply, it’s not going away any time soon.
But in the USA the age of legal consumption of alcohol is 21, whereas here in Australia it is 18. (It seems an arbitrary choice.) In other cultures it remains a complete taboo.
So having the same drink in three select countries can lead to imprisonment in one, death, a beating in another, or a slap on the back and a hearty well done in the next. Go figure.
Pot smokers experience a similar situation.
Legal once, illegal now. This much for personal use, that much a trafficable quantity.
Laws differ from state to state, and the police enforce those laws with levels of zeal largely determined by the government of the time. In 1976 Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen ordered a raid on a small commune in far north Queensland. The raid was pure theatre for the media, and used to demonstrate a tough stance on drugs. But only a small amount of marijuana was found, and the show brought little joy for the hippies they found there, whose homes were shamefully burned to the ground. Similar raids were conducted around Nimbin in NSW. This 1970s melodrama seems to have resonated puzzlingly through the years, and seems to have typecast the image of cannabis users in a manner that is woefully misinformed.
“Gateway” is a new work from Bernhardt that seeks to address this issue in a contemporary context, well away from the hysteria that has characterised past decades.
Given the growing support for the decriminalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, it is a timely review. Late last month the NSW Premier Mike Baird was considering a private member’s bill that looks to do exactly that.
These images are obviously very striking. But what do we know about these people other than what we presume? The images are large, unavoidable, and stark. The lighting is harsh, deliberately so, and unflattering. We are not being romanced here. Clearly, the objective is not the creation of “wallpaper art”. Instead this is about art engaging with society in a debate of some significance.
This is art with precious little artifice.
In each instance the gaze is direct, unflinching and confronting, like the whole issue of marijuana itself, but also ambiguous, mysterious, and in a way, unhelpful. It gives us little to go on. It begs the question (the same question that “Gateway” proposes).....Who are these people? What is their life about? Surely not just drugs? What jobs do they have?
In the same way that Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile beguiles and intrigues, and is maddeningly elusive, the same intent is evident here.
The people who agreed to be a part of this exhibition come from a range of backgrounds. There are labourers, students, blue collar workers and skilled professionals. They live in the inner west, the eastern suburbs, the western suburbs, the northern beaches, and they live in houses like yours. They are someone’s brother, sister, husband, wife, son and daughter. Some have been using marijuana for all of their adult life, and some have just begun. They may smoke daily, or nightly, on weekends, or on holidays.
Alone. With their partner. Before sex, or sleep. They smoke to relax. To relieve the boredom perhaps. Or for reasons unknown. But to group them all together, as “pot smokers” is to ignore the many real differences between them. The 70s stereotype is redundant, and the zeitgeist has moved on. The Furry Freak Brothers* are dead.
More people are smoking pot now than ever before, across all demographic boundaries.
The use of hard drugs is not on the same scale. The government’s own research bears witness to this. And yet the perception becomes the reality. The only way to dismantle this furphy is to loudly and continually dispute its credibility. Social experiments like those in Uruguay (and some states of America) provide a unique opportunity to revisit the issue calmly, scientifically, with a measurable sample population. Clearly, the relevant authorities
in Uruguay and the USA are hopeful of positive outcomes. As I said, the world watches.
The debate will go on, of course, as it has been going on for as long as I can remember.
Art is part of the debate, and Bernhardt is bravely participating in it. Better known for his strangely beautiful depictions of urban environments, this work constitutes a departure from his usual motifs. Beautiful things have their place, of course, and Lord knows the world needs more beauty. But truth and freedom are beautiful too. We are blessed in this country to have access to both. And if the role of art is to fill a dead corner, and match the sofa, then the whole of society suffers.
Touchy subjects are grist to the mill for artists. Why, every day the daily newspaper’s cartoonists poke fun at the pompous and profane. It’s the Australian way. We are a nation of shit-stirrers. We are suspicious of unfettered power, and rightly so. We like to keep the bastards honest, because we know what happens if we don’t. And we know that a well placed boot can be used to great effect.
A bill to decriminalise the use of marijuana for medical reasons may be some way off, but Nationals MP Kevin Anderson, who has proposed the bill, has apparently found a sympathetic ally in the Premier. Given the profound success of cannabis oil in treating nausea experienced by the terminally ill and those going through chemotherapy, and also sufferers of epilepsy, the stakes are high, if you will excuse the pun.
I’ve been blessed to have worked with Simon on his other projects and books, and this certainly continues his development as an artist. It’s a welcome development, and one that I applaud. It is also wonderful to have the participation of Black Eye Gallery as a partner in this exhibition, and to see the role of a gallery being redefined, to an extent, to include this kind of social advocacy.
* 1970s comic book stoners