Ashkan Sahihi: The Drug Series
July 1–September 20, 2001
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center presents Iranian artist Ashkan Sahihi's The Drug Series, an exhibition of large-scale photographs that document the experience of taking controlled substances. Far removed from the typical social context associated with drug use, these stark, intimate portraits emphasize the individual's physical reaction to a drug. Presenting a reality that contrasts with stereotypes, The Drug Series illuminates the political and cultural attitudes that shape our perception of drug use. Ashkan Sahihi: The Drug Series is organized by P.S.1 Senior Curator Klaus Biesenbach.
The eleven cibachrome prints in The Drug Series—Crack, Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, Ketamine, Ecstasy, Amphetamine, Hashish, and Mescaline—depict a cross-cultural sample of adults ranging in age from 24 to28 years who had little or no prior experience with drugs. During the sessions, only the artist, the volunteer, the volunteer's choice of companion, and a nurse were allowed in the studio. After signing releases, the volunteers took a dose of their designated drug and waited for the chemical to take hold. This "clinical" approach was motivated in part by Sahihi's desire to see how the traditional relationship between a photographer and his subject is changed, when a third party, such as a hallucinogenic drug, asserts its own force. For each drug/subject cycle in The Drug Series, Sahihi then selected the one image that he felt best represented the volunteer's experience on the particular drug he or she ingested. The resulting images of the anonymous subjects suggest the unpredictability of a drug's force; some people smile or laugh, others appear pensive and detached, another is disoriented, unreachable.
Sahihi's attempt to control the experience underscores the specificity of an individual's reaction based on variables such as body weight, gender, or mental history. However, the portraits make manifest a general reality of drug use that often remains unseen. In Sahihi's white-walled, brightly-lit studio, the photographs become a visual record of the physiological effects of drug use—blotchy skin, bloodshot eyes, and dilated pupils—that often go undetected at night. By attempting to present an objective image of drug use, the artist addresses the cultural politics that allow our society to simultaneously glamorize the "drug look" in fashion magazines and the entertainment industry and meanwhile turn a blind eye to the complicated, and vast, problem of drug abuse.
Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1963, Sahihi moved to New York in 1987. His work has been presented at two solo exhibitions, John Connelly presents: Ashkan Sahihi, and at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, 2000. Group exhibitions include Basel Art Fair 31, 2000; Millennium Warm up, New York, 1999; and Quiet, an artificial society of people living under surveillance at 353 Broadway, New York, 1999.