Brion Gysin (2010)

"Brion Gysin: Dream Machine"

New Museum July 7 - October 3 2010

In 1935, nineteen year-old Brion Gysin looked set to be recognized as a major artist. Invited to contribute to a group show of Surrealist drawings, his work was to be exhibited alongside that of Ernst, Dali, Magritte and Picasso. But on the afternoon of the opening he arrived at the Galerie Aux Quatres Chemins to find the poet Paul Eluard removing his pictures. Eluard was acting on the orders of André Breton, who objected to Gysin’s homosexuality, and had perceived a satirical resemblance to himself in an image of a calf’s head on a poster the young painter had pasted on a wall in the Rue Fontaine. Gysin’s chance was cruelly snatched away, and for the rest of his life, he harboured the lingering sense that he’d botched his career. On the strength of this retrospective, Gysin’s contribution to the twentieth-century avant-garde has indeed been undervalued. His output is wildly uneven and spread across painting, drawing, film, sound poetry, fiction and performance. Despite this, he emerges as a substantial figure, not merely a satellite of William Burroughs and the other denizens of the Beat Hotel.

Gysin’s early involvement with Surrealism is noted, then passed over to concentrate on his great creative period of the fifties and sixties, after he accepted his friend Paul Bowles’s invitation to stay in Tangier. In Morocco he encountered the rigorous, mathematical abstractions of Islamic art, developing a kind of proto-calligraphy, tessellating sheets of paper with marks that appear to exist somewhere just short of language. Often these drawings become palimpsests, running vertically as well as horizontally, in a manner suggestive of Japanese as well as Arabic writing. This work isn’t merely decorative or orientalist: Gysin connected the notion of a grid to Kabballistic magic, and other forms of the storage and representation of knowledge, notably the punchcard arrays of early computers. In the films Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups (both 1963), made in collaboration with Burroughs and Anthony Balch, the Modernist grids of shop shutters and International Style facades are montaged with the pixellated white noise of tv screens and the stroboscopic patterns of the definitive Gysinian artefact, the dreamachine, a trance-inducing device constructed from a light source housed in a perforated cylinder rotating on a turntable.

A dreamachine forms the literal and metaphorical centre-piece of the New Museum show, placed in a kind of black box shrine, strewn with cushions. As audio accompaniment, the visitor is offered ipods with a choice of Throbbing Gristle or the Master Musicians of Joujouka, whom Gysin ‘discovered’, taking Brian Jones to the Rif mountains for the famous 1968 field recordings. The dreamachine is experienced with closed eyes at a distance of a few inches. It produces intense flickering patterns, which have a grid-like or pixellated appearance, and are particularly vivid when under the influence of hallucinogens. Gysin’s interest in trance, and his concentration on the unmediated production of sensory effects almost guaranteed his marginalisation by a Western art-world that has historically promoted an abstracted, Apollonian visual culture over the Dionysiac derangement of the senses.

Gysin’s grids, eventually produced on a large sale using a modified housepainter’s roller, gave way to the famous cut-ups, which were essentially an extension of aleatory writing techniques of Dada and Surrealism. The Third Mind (1965), his major collaboration with Burroughs, was a long cut-up text, incorporating elements of collage. Burroughs believed that cut-up had subversive potential as a kind of psychic reprogramming, though Gysin appears to have been less certain, retreating in later life to his beloved hallucinatory symbolic arrays, now delivered in the form of collage and photo-montage.

This review appeared in Frieze 135.