Dialogue #2: Pharmacy Museum X Bárbara Bulhão
Is there any chemical substance that will allow me to stop being human?
I have everything. I am blessed as part of a petty-bourgeois middle class, I travel whenever I can, I buy when I consider appropriate. By default, I am unlimited. In the morning, a serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. If necessary, ethyl loflazepate. At night, before bedtime, a tiny benzodiazepine. I repeat the regimen the following day. Over and over again, for months, years, decades. They make me feel human, so they say, attentive, manageable; they rescue me from a certain indolence, from a state of indifference to everything: life, existence, the body itself – the unbearable body! They serve to be empathetic, so they say, to stimulate social contact –such a horror! – to curb anxiety down and, as a consequence, some shyness.
Before, I was nothing but a disintegrating molecule. Exposed to agents, reagents and solvents, from liquid to gaseous state. Vaporous gas at the mercy of fluctuations, floating through inadvertently generated airflows. Lighter than air itself, slightly heavier than helium.
Now I am fine. Stable. The moods have been balanced and I only cry sporadically. When the routine is properly oiled and automated, I will be able to stop the medication. Withdrawal. I will miss it and I do not know if I can exist without pills.
We use drugs to find a way out from the febrile and crippling apathy of disease. Meds for pain, for flatulence, for depression… Meds for erectile dysfunction, for pregnancy, for sleeping… It is all a major burden, an unbearable tiredness.
It is very human, the faith that we put into science and knowledge. One wants pills to fix everything. A pill for war and one for hope. Two for solitude and depression. Five pills for the IRS, the same amount for the VAT. A box for the refugees, all my love and generosity: States do not exist and Earth is only one – Gaia.
I do not want to die. I just want to get out of the human category, for good. I refuse the feasible community, the peaceful coexistence. I want to be some other, but certainly not human.
The collection at the Pharmacy Museum is the chronology of the struggle endured by scientific knowledge in face of obscurantism. Not a full-fledged science museum, but surely much more than a pharmacy museum, this institution gathers a reasonable number of artefacts that register science’s long and painful journey and the quest to achieve healing. In this context, the assets are much more than just achievements. What came before – sickness, suffering, pain – is also recorded and exhibited through the windows: bleeding instruments, tortuous chastity devices, poisons, sacrifice bowls, etc. For centuries and millennia, science travelled alongside mysticism and this is a space that ends up retelling the clashes between science (medicine) and mysticism (alchemy) and also between pharmacy and apothecary.
The journey through the museum’s galleries is a gradual enlightenment on knowledge: from the first great Egyptian civilization to the present day, refusing a Eurocentrism stance and embracing all the contributions and parallel perspectives from other continents, the Pharmacy Museum is nonetheless the product of Enlightenment – from its archival, documentary, pedagogical and also human traits. It comprises not only stories and reports on science, but also stories and reports related to the objects and their original owners. Regarding the museum’s assets, a substantial part comes from donations (later complemented with a strong purchasing policy) and from individuals who see their contributions as positive allies for this museum’s memories.
The extensive assets, whose scale goes beyond any national geography and chronology, is where Bárbara Bulhão worked and confronted her practice and perspective on the chemical substances she uses with the physical-chemical historical progress that brought them to her. The works Methylene Blue, Água Temperamental e Cura  made by her make use of drugs as if they were colourants. Finding the right colour implies time, persistence, discovery and a calibrated blend of solvents, agents and reagents, deeply associated with the physicochemical field; finding the right colour implies a certain ritual which, in art, can go from science to mysticism or vice-versa. The poetics of art have a particular technique, scientific if we want, but not necessarily reductionist. And this artist’s work reminds us of that.
The project she developed for Diálogo #2, Perpetva Vivas (Tenhas uma vida longa) [Perpetvas Vivas (Have a long life)] is an encounter with a colour quite present in her work, the blue, and a search for the roots of medicine and healing practices, the silver spoon. By choosing blue, she shifts the focus again to colour psychology and the relaxing effect that it has on the viewer; the silver spoon, in turn, rescues, from a vast succession of objects and artefacts, a tiny but useful spoon of the 4th century used by the Romans for healing purposes, with an inscription that the artist chose for the project’s title. In fact, it is curious to see the way an everyday object had such a regular presence in medicine and physical recovery: for ointment application, for syrup ingestion, for mixture preparation, for the most archaic surgeries, etc. And, by bending the spoon, Bárbara Bulhão gives it a movement, an action, a lively object that wants to give life. According to the artist, the second image of the bended (folded) spoon points to “the movement of breath”, of “resuscitation”, and this project is nothing more than an animism or the attribution of a spiritual, living trait to an everyday, humble, and utilitarian object.
However – and much more could be said – the project reveals a more obscure, if not anecdotal, historical and social side. In the 19th century, the high-end bourgeois society regularly used silver spoons for food, which ended up nurturing the frightening condition called argyria, derived from silver poisoning. Their skin lost its rosy, warm tones, turning into greyish blue. The term blue blood was not a just a social expression, it actually had a scientific justification.
I have lived a long life, too long actually, due to medicine. I am 120 years old and I have as many ahead. I am tired. The doctors call it middle-aged “blues”, a syrup spoon and everything goes away. New substances invade my body. I no longer have blood in my veins, I have chemical, saline solutions. I am 120 years old, but I want to stop being human.
(Umbigo thanks Bárbara Bulhão, João Neto, Paula Basso, Karine Ramos and Isabel Pires for the availability and dedication to the project.)
Errata: Umbigo is exceptionally publishing the digital version of the Dialogue #2 in order to minimize the error in the designation of the Pharmacy Museum. In the printed edition, already in kiosks, this institution is mistakenly written as Museum of Pharmacy and Health, an error brought by a confusion regarding the translation from the English. To be clear, without any margins to more doubts, the name of the museum is simply Pharmacy Museum.
Umbigo and the author José Pardal Pina apologise to the direction and administration of the museum, to the artist and to our readers for the mistake, hoping that they may read and appreciate the project and article beyond this fault.
Edited and reviewed text.