In his forward to the book counterpart of Jeremy Shaw’s DMT video installation, Clint Burnham notes that in the aftermath of Gulf War II, sentiments can quickly give way to nostalgia. In fiction of this era—Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, for example—characters default to nostalgia in a post-traumatic universe. The novel’s protagonist collects images, frequently of events that predate his own birth. In DMT, the work’s volunteers, 20- and 30-something acquaintances of Shaw’s who agreed to be filmed while tripping on the eponymous hallucinogenic drug, partake in a sort of “drug-stalgia,” or, as Burnham puts it (referencing a song by Shaw), they try to “get high like we used to.”
This nostalgia is readily apparent in the text of DMT, the post-drug-trip recollections of the work’s subjects. Film (recall Frederic Jameson’s evocation of the genre of nostalgia film) is referenced on several occasions. Shaw himself draws an analogy between his trip and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator— an act he says he also did when he would take LSD with a friend as a teenager. Here a subject quite literally “gets high like he used to”—in this case like when he was 15.
DMT’s subjects attempt to describe what “getting high like we used to” is like, and fail. Frequently asking “do you know what I mean?” after an incoherent description (“everywhere that I looked it was like uh, just stuff happening around me”), the volunteers unintentionally suggest that others cannot ultimately know what they mean. This might lead some to be nostalgic for a golden age when language was or will be perfect (the pre-Babel language of Adam, where words would correspond to their referents). However, this time will never, or ever, exist. Language is predicated on its own ultimate failure, for, if we could simply communicate what we mean, we wouldn’t need words at all—which is why they’re so valuable in the first place.
There is sadness, then, to the inability of Shaw’s subjects to articulate their experience. The destruction of the individual that results from drug use, as Burnham terms it, results in a human for whom language simply disappears. The portraits of these people are, therefore, haunting.
DMT by Jermemy Shaw was published by Presentation House Gallery & Projectile Publishing in 2004. It is available in our bookstore.
By Sean Nelson