“Everything was alive like me on this earth, everything was breathing.” — Brion Gysin
The Hotel La Residence in Lyon was the place where we gathered for the retrospective of Brion Gysin’s art works at the Institut d’Art Contemporain in Villeurbanne. The show had transferred from the New Museum in New York and yet this was much more than a second run — it was absolutely appropriate that this important exhibition should take place in France, where Gysin had lived for so many years, and where he produced some of his greatest work. He had moved through the street life and high society of Paris, and had seen the city through all its changes, from his arrival in 1934, aged eighteen, with 15 dollars a month to live on, to his death in his apartment opposite the Beaubourg in 1986, at the age of seventy. There had been some wonderful, and also pretty terrible, times spent in Tangier and London, and many a “trip from here to there,” but there would always be Paris. For many years he felt ignored and dismissed by the art world, and this wasn’t so much because Paris was no longer the center of the art world, but because he was a progenitor post-modernist of the trans avant-garde, a traveller and internationalist, and an esotericist. He would always regard Tangier as his spiritual home, but he was, he said, a “terminal tourist.” The markets and institutions of the art world had shifted definitively to New York and London after the Second World War, but Gysin was always just passing through those cities where a profitable art career could have been developed. Instead, he was “unlocatable,” often when it most mattered, not leading “a painter’s life” at all, but pursuing other, magical interests. Because of the Beat Hotel years and his Paris exhibitions and his final years resident there after a definitive return in the mid 1970s, his life and work are inextricably tied to that city, that country. This show testified to both Gysin’s Francophile sympathies and to his love of North Africa, but it also validated his cultural and geographic marginality — a marginality now seen to be inextricably tied to his originality. The fated denizen of the Boho Zone had the vantage point of the visionary outsider.
Our group included friends of Brion Gysin — Terry Wilson, Udo Breger, Philippe Baumont — and fellow admirers of his art, including Axel Heil, Stephen Vassilakos, Jacki Ledevehat and myself. The manifestations were starting — the young people, enraged and engaged, walked down rue Victor Hugo past our hotel to the Place, followed by cops in their body armour, with their visored helmets and shields and batons — the confrontations were inevitable, Minutes To Go indeed. . . Within days an image of the riot-torn, tear-gassed streets of Lyon would appear on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, that essential touchstone of American ex-pats the world over — and source of key material for the cut-ups of Minutes To Go. On French TV we would see the same clips endlessly recycled to hammer home the idea not of nationwide protests and injustice but of “troublemakers” and “mindless thugs” — well, I’ve come across a few thugs in my time, but I never saw one with “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” painted on her face. Petrol stations were out of fuel or would very soon run out — “Workers cannot be deprived of gasoline,” said Sarkozy, as protesters brought traffic to a halt at energy “chokepoints,” truck drivers staged “escargot” protests on the motorways, railways were disrupted and the garbage piled up… 1,423 protesters, mostly young, would be arrested by the 21st… Could this be May in October? Clearly, Gysin’s retrospective was opening under “Riot Conditions”… At the vernissage, Gysin’s friend Catherine Thieck, who curated the 1987 Galerie de France show “Brion Gysin: Calligraphies, Permutations, Cut Ups,” said to Terry Wilson, “Isn’t it just like Brion to bring us all together in the suburbs of Lyon?” In fact, there was a direct correlation between those young people protesting against state legislation and the crowd of young people who appeared at the Gysin opening. Ramuntcho Matta, Francois Lagarde, Francois de Palaminy, Rosine Buhler, Terry and Udo and Philippe and many more were at the vernissage, and Gysin would have loved it that his old friends and admirers were joined by those young people, eager to see his work. Louise Landes Levi wrote to me, “Lyon scene sounds incredible, almost as if Brion made it happen, as a similar riot, the young & strong, broke out the last time I saw him read, at Beaubourg, he was attached to all kinds of tubes under his white robe, I panicked, feared for his life but I think he enjoyed himself, I am sure he was there for the riots.” We were just passing through, the riots and jams hardly touched us, but the media message was inescapable, and that ambience of things going askew, pressure building, we could feel it, and there was, too, a Gysin current coming through… We were talking about Gysin’s lack of recognition, how he was always himself passing through different cities and time zones, and a Bowie track suddenly blasted out from a boutique, an echo of the ambience of Brion Gysin’s later Paris nights, when he was hanging out at The Palace with Keith Richards and Iggy Pop and other rock-star art cognoscenti — it was the perfectly ironically titled, “A New Career In A New Town…” Already we were picking up on the “Gysin Level” as Burroughs dubbed it, and as Terry always refers to it, and it really felt like dub music, the reshaping and remixing of the existing recordings with echo, reverb, and delay, the rhythm and alliteration of Gysin’s work coming through from other sources, an audio and visual remix following us around Lyon and up to Paris and through the city streets, manifestations of a different order, jumping out of speakers and sprayed on city walls, breaking through TV monitors and leaking through newspaper formats and old photographs, and mirror apparitions and psychic photography — associations, connections, tracks we were helpless but to follow, it would have been foolish to do otherwise, a whole series of currents of meanings, political, personal, aesthetic, which we would track in the days following the show. We’d come to see the show, to look at the Gysins — and our trajectories did more than intersect, they radiated outwards and connected in ways which seemed premonitory and fateful, literally manifesting as the manifestations built in the streets and those riot clips were incessantly, ideologically recycled and reiterated. We would cut that media material up, intervening and disrupting the image flow, rewriting the script. In derives around Paris in the days and nights following the show’s opening we passed significant Gysin locations, and caught visual echoes of his calligraffiti on the walls, the past suddenly glimpsed, appearing in a new guise. Gysin’s work permeated the experience — but it was something more than art. I realized I was reviewing an exhibition, but also tracking the effects of an exhibition — something hardly ever acknowledged by art critics or reviewers. We were picking up on the show’s afterglow, tracing the psychic connections which Gysin’s work is all about… After all, that “immense revolutionary demonstration” which Gysin saw in his own painting, and those “street barriers” he discovered in his calligraphy, we’d seen them, too, in the retrospective at Villeurbanne, and now here they were “for real” on the streets of French cities and as a running script on continual replay through the 24 hour media (we switched the sound off, we knew what those commentators and politicians were saying). A couple of days after the Gysin show, strolling down the Rue du Bac in Paris, Terry said, “Well, the manifestations haven’t ruffled any feathers around here.” The next second a very small man walked past us in boots and knee socks and a Tyrolean hat with two one-foot high feathers sticking up in the air from his hat band. He patted Bouddha on the head and disappeared. Such Gysinian manifestations had occurred in New York, too, with the sudden miraculous appearance, shortly before the show, of the missing eighth painting in Gysin’s beautiful 1961 series of calligraphic acrylics, whereabouts previously unknown. And Laura Hoptman, curator of the retrospective, told Terry that a very impressive, regal figure, dressed entirely in white, walked back and forth in front of the New Museum in the days before the show, as if safeguarding proceedings, his very presence casting a mysterious protective radiance. He did not speak to anyone and he didn’t enter the museum. “Brion’s representative, clearly,” Terry said.
In the last twenty years there have been fine shows of Gysin’s work, in particular at the October Gallery in London, which supported his work while he was alive and has continued to do so, but this retrospective provided an unparalleled overview, despite certain curious omissions such as the renowned multiple-image Marrakesh paintings of the late 1950s, and his big late picture Calligraffiti of Fire. The absence of the Marrakesh pictures was particularly baffling and unfortunate since these have always exerted a powerful fascination on viewers and their conjuration of shifting, elusive images is one of Gysin’s most original achievements. For those who had never seen the originals, it was a real loss. Still, the exhibition was an opportunity to get a sense of the work over forty-five years, from the 1940s decalcomanias to the final photo-grids of the 1970s. Several Third Mind scrapbooks, made with Burroughs, were exhibited, along with notebooks and related written and published material, in cabinets — the scrapbook collage pages were reminders that Gysin was not principally a collage artist at all, and that in fact he had great reservations about making pictures with that technique. Collage was a tool for Burroughs and Gysin in their systems collaborations, but it wasn’t until the Beaubourg and photo-grid series of the 1970s that Gysin employed it whole-heartedly in his art. Rather, the show revealed Gysin as a draughtsman and painter whose work conjures evanescent, transient optical and psychic experiences, a vision which ranges from transcendent detachment to possessed, splenetic attack. His art uses his calligraphic touch and layered processes to communicate the scattering, shattering, and dematerialization of perceptual phenomena and the flux of states of consciousness — seeking the creation of exemplary embodiments of transcendent moments and their dispersal, an art ofapprehension in every sense. They are not “illustrations” of drug experiences, surreal depictions or visually contrived approximations of the hallucinatory. The pictures create continually shifting, flickering apparitional fields, both suggesting and stimulating changing states of consciousness — optical phenomena inseperable from psychic conjuration. Those tiny dancing figures of light, the “little people” of psilocybin and kif can be seen in gestural flashes and twists, implosions and radiations of color. The skyscraper becomes a grid, the stroke of paint a flower pistil, and back again, the painted image emerging and disappearing through a ghosting figuration which pulsates through rhythmic brush strokes, while the speed, time intervals, internal rhythms and velocity peaks of Gysin’s calligraphy are breathtaking. It’s the work of a “psychic assassin,” for sure, pushing extreme states including the alienation effect of the disembodied and mechanistic, but beneficent, too — seductive, poignant and tender. The show included a room where Gysin’s “Expanded Cinema” of scratched color slides was projected, another with several spinning Dreamachines, and Balch’s film Towers Open Fire was also shown, so that Gysin’s paintings were placed, as they should be, in relation to his multimedia work. People rushed in to sit around the Dreamachines, and they knew exactly what to do. It was entrancing.
The exhibition “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine” was curated by Laura Hoptman who has also written an essay, “Disappearing Act: The Art of Brion Gysin,” for the accompanying book, which she has edited, Brion Gysin: Dream Machine. The book, like the show in its New York incarnation, attempts to situate Gysin’s work in contemporary art practice as well as in 20th century art history — though Hoptman is aware that Gysin’s art was a psychic, magical exploration that does not fit convenient formal and stylistic categories. The title of the retrospective and the book separates “Dreamachine” back into its two component parts, though that conjoining was more than a marketing ploy, a brand name for a device — it was itself part of Gysin’s hybridization technique. The beginning of one word is found in the end of another and in their seamless coming together a profound idea is given perfect verbal form — the merging of two apparently contradictory states of being which are linked by their bypassing of human control. The autonomous device operating outside the human body and beyond human control passes into the dream as psychic event which takes over the helpless sleeper. This is the meaning of the Dreamachine as Soft Machine — the giving up of control, becoming an agency for the transmission of images, the Dreamachine triggering the hidden genetic permutations of the psyche. Hoptman distinguishes Gysin’s work from the calligraphic and the grid artists of his time — he could not be categorized, he did not belong to those schools to which his own work bore only a surface resemblance. He was playing a game with certain stylistic and formal tendencies, including action painting and Tachisme and kinetic art — whilst subverting these, doing something quite different and working undercover. The book includes homages by today’s artists who have been directly influenced by aspects of Gysin’s diverse, complex oeuvre, and it is significant that Gysin’s subterranean, heretical influence now seems more vital than so many of his contemporaries. This retrospective and the accompanying book are admirable attempts to re-evaluate Gysin’s work, and to recontextualize it in regard to certain contemporary art practices, and this has been long overdue. Even so, there is the still misunderstood, largely uninvestigated work of Gysin and Burroughs’ Third Mind. A number of the scrapbooks were presented in display cases at the exhibition, and examples of the grid collages are reproduced in the book, but the Third Mind cannot be accessed or understood through this kind of presentation alone. Gysin and Burroughs’ project was determinedly ant-art, anti-literature, and also anti-collage-as-art, and those who seek out the political, technological, esoteric Third Mind techniques and strategies will do so in ways which bypass, necessarily, the obfuscation and misdirection of cultural analysis and specifically artistic readings. The Third Mind is absolutely not reducible to a collage text or artwork — it was very much more than that, and even at the textual level, the way the scrapbooks work goes beyond such reductive formalist description. Telepathy, scrying, machine production, drugs, magical invocation, cut-up and other techniques, along with strategies related to photographic illusion must be explored through experimental material practice — which has nothing to do with being shown in a gallery or recorded on film or selling a book, and not only because of the transitory, inchoate and risky nature of the phenomena and processes involved. The idea that Gysin’s artworks from the late 1950s onwards can be separated from his Beat Hotel experiments is unsustainable since their development was reciprocal, entirely enmeshed, and this symbiosis continued after Gysin and Burroughs left the Beat Hotel — the discoveries informed both men’s work for the rest of their lives. At the same time, the artefacts and working documents accrued in the process of Third Mind research may be exhibited, and studied as formats and procedures linked to Gysin’s artworks, and to the texts of both men, while Gysin’s beautiful paintings may themselves be recognized for their originality and their significance in art history, but this kind of critical activity will only take you so far because “theoretical understanding,” in the case of the Third Mind, is a complete contradiction in terms — the process is experiential, it is of the unknown. If this is a problem for criticism, it’s also an opportunity — to explore Gysin’s art by actually engaging with the processes and techniques of the Third Mind which made Gysin’s work possible. Terry Wilson has written about attempts “to neutralize and assimilate a lifetime of psychic power into three-dimensional financial manipulative areas… to neutralize, assimilate, destruct. . .,” and the “contextualization” of Third Mind artefacts as historical manuscripts or artworks by any other name risks losing the essential purpose of Gysin and Burroughs’ work. Their own book, The Third Mind, was not what they had hoped for, the outcome a perfect example of market forces at work, while the original blueprints and “field recordings,” and the teachings passed along to a few, call for further research and action rather than the promulgation of “ideas” or the validation of existing knowledge. Despite the fascination and beauty of certain Third Mind works, they are technical plans, resource materials, spin-offs of a way of thinking and being in the world which cannot be aesthetically or intellectually recuperated. Continue reading