Published in 1869 as an amalgam of several scientists’ career-defining research, the Periodic Table of Elements is today all but forgotten. Perhaps still utilized in middle school science class as an exercise in rote memorization, the table’s function as an integral tool in understanding the chemical elements that sustain life has become outdated. In his 2017 series, Periodic Table of Drugs, Cohen addresses this shift and reconstructs the paradigm of elements he sees as possessing value in today’s society: drugs. Using the same grid format of the original table, Cohen parodies the display of elements such as lithium, carbon and magnesium by replacing them with various recreational drugs like LSD, cocaine and marijuana. With each drug comes a description of corresponding “non-factual” facts—for instance, in cocaine, readers are told side effects include: inflated ego, expertise with razor blades, rockstar mentality and extreme paranoia. Also included in each drug’s display is a three dimensional, to-scale example of the corresponding substance, begging the question of whether the specimen is authentic or artificial. Compelling as individual displays of drugs in isolation but also as a complete series of twenty five altogether, Cohen’s project encourages viewers to question the (mis)allocation of value in contemporary culture; however, with irony and genuine curiosity rather than through a moralizing lens.
Written by Lizy Dastin