Sonnet 27

Sonnet 27

Jawshing Arthur Liou

April 19 – May 24, 2014

Exhibition View


Sonnet 27 is inspired by the scientific research regarding the brain’s ability to produce the chemicals that bind to the same receptors as does marijuana. These receptors are involved in certain crucial cognitive functions, including our ability to learn, control emotions, and mitigate traumatic memories. The video installation alludes to the pre-historical contact between human and marijuana. Aside from the simulated cave painting and a Neolithic child, the shifting scenery between brain cells and dramatic landscape creates impressions of distant memories and altered streams of consciousness. In addition, Sonnet 27 is a result of a cross-sectoral collaboration. The stereo sound effect is composed by the musician Melody Eötvös, and the microscopic neuron images are captured by scientists Dr. Alex Straiker and Jim Powers. The four-channel video is produced and presented in 5120 x 800 resolution.

Artist statement

Our individual presence seems trivial in the scope of the landscape’s grandeur. And yet, our mind (or brain) never ceases to amaze us with its infinite complexity, expansiveness, and mystery. Through imagination, memory, and dreams, we are capable of conjuring up images of past and future, and of views tens of thousands of miles away. Perhaps because of such potential and the desire to utilize it, ancient humans subjected themselves to various rituals, from meditation, fasting, and ascetic practice to the use of alcohol and drugs. Cannabis (marijuana), the plant full of modern controversy, actually has a long history in our culture. The oldest Chinese medical book, Shennong Bencao Jing, indicates that, “to take much makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs… But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one’s body becomes light.” Cannabis was also used extensively in ancient India for religious purposes. The 3000-year-old Hindu text calls it one of the five sacred plants, helping humans attain delight and lose fear. It is recorded in the Old Testament book of Exodus (30:22-23) that flowering cannabis tops were used in Hebrew holy anointing oil. Scholarly speculation also points to the use of it by early Christians and Sufi Muslims. 

While I was ignorant about the contemporary debate surrounding marijuana, it was the conversation with a scientist that brought me to this topic. I met Alex Straiker, a research scientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, through an inter-disciplinary creative project. According to Dr. Straiker, our brains begin making chemicals similar to THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) when we are born. Officially named “Endocannabinoids,” they bind to the same receptors as does marijuana. These receptors are involved in crucial cognitive functions, including our ability to learn, control emotions, and mitigate traumatic memories. One of the most powerful stories Alex told me involves mice that lack these receptors, grown in the lab by scientists to be immune to the effects of THC or Endocannabinoids. While normal mice gradually lose memories of which locations produce a shock, these mice always remember. One might interpret this as an indication that the mice without receptors are smarter, but clinically speaking the experience is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in human. 

I felt like a person in a cave spotting the daylight. After all, “forgetting” may be a cognitive ability and protective mechanism. Perhaps our clarity of mind is maintained by blurring part of our memories. Maybe the earliest use of marijuana was based on survival instinct rather than pleasure. Maybe, in addition to the commonly known medical use as a painkiller, marijuana has therapeutic potential for alleviating mental issues. Considering the complicated background of substance abuse, as well as the medical and agricultural politics of our time, it is difficult for me to come up with conclusive thoughts as to my own speculation. But I cannot help wondering, before the regulation of law, morality, or region, what was the first contact between human and marijuana like? Did they think its effect was magic or communication with gods? Did they feel frightened or empowered? Did they use it for healing or indulgence? Having no way of knowing, I can only imagine…and long for a bond to the distant memories of eons past.