It’s clear now the compounds are working their way through every terrain, from Silicon Valley and psychiatric medicine to music, literature and fine arts. The 60s dream of dumping it in the water system might be an anachronistic fantasy, but in some ways it’s come true. The culture is saturated, has been for a long time, but this is an era of direct acknowledgment.
Tai Shani is a British artist who uses performance, film, photography, sculptural installations and experimental texts, whose work has been called feminist science fiction. Her new book is called “The Neon Hieroglyph”, published by the very psychedelic Strange Attractor Press, whose publication came with an option of a limited-edition vinyl LP and an artist’s edition of 50 copies of Shani’s visual art. Tate Britain has featured her performance work and she was awarded the Turner Prize in 2019.
Even more than having the full attention of the art world waiting for what comes next, what makes “The Neon Hieroglyph” something of an Event, is that it is about ergot/LSD and the psychedelic potential for collective liberation. The psychedelic compounds and their effects have been inferred in countless works but here Shani names them directly. This opens up a very materialist inquiry into what LSD does to language. Eric Davis’ description of the psychedelic as a non-specific amplifier can also be applied to an ethos present in art and literature movements. The Pattern and Decoration Movement that emerged out of 1970s feminism is one example of a psychedelic ethos. These artists moved the focus away from a central figure, and imbued the frivolous and symbolically weighty with the same value. Tai Shani’s visual works in “The Neon Hieroglyph” are similarly committed to a decentralization of focus. They depict a mapping of energy flow amidst anchor points and portals. Looking at them knowing they are intended to communicate ergot/LSD’s transmission has me seeing them differently. I approach the art more as an independent organism than an artifact of a singular person.
Tai Shani was researching women’s communes and was led to the discovery of Alcudi, a small volcanic Island off Sicily where legend has it that the food supply was poisoned with ergot contaminated rye for the last 450 years. While this isimpossible, the story was a mycelium that deeply saturated the cultural consciousness of the people. “The Neon Hieroglyph” is an exploration of the failure of historical inquiry and a proposition that psychedelic inquiry can glean an artwork of resonant value.
The sun is a ghost that haunts the night
Point St. Esprit 1951
Clouds cross and contaminate the sky, travel across catastrophes and love.
The text is an incantation, an invitation to an altered state. The entirety is a spell. The voice is trustworthy and uncontrived. I feel her collaboration with ergot in this alternate reality. What is evoked is a world of feral women, witch flight and rituals of survival and creation. Its effect lies not in what’s happening, but the sound, a sensory pile-on that catalyzes synesthesia. “Les Guerilleres” by Monique Wittig, about a tribe of warrior women told in visceral vignettes, shares space with this book in a cannon that could be named feminist sensory maximalism.
The sexual and asexual reproduction of fungus that grows parasitically on common grains, which contain alkaloids from which LSD can be derived.
It was time, our fruiting bodies, abundant and excessive, our pollinated ovaries, our multiple spores brimming. We were club-headed, erect, and swelling. We survived the winter on sterile rye in the face of the deficient copper in the soil, and germinated, reproducing both asexually and sexually, bound together by the sticky sap, to make pathogenetic neon hieroglyphic, code-writer fungus.
The voice in the text could be one woman or many. The voice is part of a “we,” each one existing equally among all things invoked. Images emerge because they exist and are alive. I don’t know their function, how and why they are working on me, the mystery behind why I am moved. “My eyes, you broke my heart,” she writes, in a beat that nods to the weight of too muchness. I know this place, as do many who have traveled on LSD.
Gold, yellow, but will not go clear like butter does in the heat. Into the gold extracted with cyanide.
Bitter almonds, cassava, Zyklon B, cherry stone, apple seed, in the smoke of combusting plastics, in the production of paper and textiles, in the stabilizing of the photographic image on paper.
Gold ring of Saturn rubbed against a stye on a puffy red eyelid. Eyelash fans shut. Venus flytrap, beneath neon hieroglyph and solar pulse, yellow, golden glow.
Gold heirloom, white gold cocktail watch for scrap metal, melted white gold, will not go clear like snow in first light. Forever night white gold.
Our mouths open, my tongue deep in your mouth against a gold filling of a dead, unnerved, tooth. In this erotic kiss we are resurrected, my tongue pressed against your unresurrectable biology. Baby Osiris.
“The Neon Hieroglyph” is bookended by an introduction by Amy Hale and an essay by Caspar Heinemann. The introduction tells us “The Neon Hieroglyph” is a work of “speculative feminism,” and that it “does not chronicle a singular change in state from one thing to another. It characterizes a pulsing network of consciousness.” In an age where psychedelics have been marked by the masculinist hero’s journey and ego death, this text shows us an anarcho-communist vision of collective welfare and care. The intro read to me like a grant proposal, checking all the boxes from science to historical facts and political ideology. I didn’t want to be told what the book was about before reading it.
The closing essay by Caspar Heinemann compares the psychedelic state to that of dissociation. He writes about walking into the woods of his favorite cruising spot and scrolling on Grindr, with no response. Yet he was in the midst of a sensory experience imagining the possibilities. The experience was complete. Is this similar to Tai Shani’s visioning of the island of Alcudi? “Acid Communism” and other work by Mark Fischer, he suggests, points to “the danger of positioning the imaginal as politically frivolous, as surplus to the main event of revolution, when in fact there is no revolution without it.” The problem here is that the LSD experience and imagination are not the same thing. The state of dissociation is similar but not like LSD. The being, the compound that is LSD, is an otherness that acts upon “The Neon Hieroglyph” in a way that is non-human. Critical theory is going to have to up its game to catch up with the psychedelic ethos. We need linguists and mathematicians on board, cross disciplinary geniuses, dancers and students of “states,” and others to transform how we talk about work like this, to be birdsong. “The Neon Hieroglyph” is deeper than its function.
All we hear is midnight birdsong on the longest night of the year.
Sounds like the end of the world when birds sing in deep darkness.
The Neon Hieroglyph By Tai Shani 72 pp. Strange Attractor Press. $24.95.
Featured Image: Tai Shani