A Trip from Here to There

Brion Gysin: Dream Machine, edited by Laura Hoptman
(192pp, 24.95, Merrell)


 

It's worth taking the time to get to grips with Brion Gysin. If you're into William Burroughs, you're certain to know of Gysin's invention of the cut-up technique, and will have, at the very least, seen some of his art on the dust jackets of Burroughs collectibles - magical calligraphic squares inspired by Japanese calligraphy, Arabic writing, Moroccan magic and the sigils, perhaps, of the visionary British artist and onetime society portraitist, Austin Osman
Spare. Spare is an equally fascinating artist who does not appear in the index of this book. His influence on Gysin and Burroughs is rarely, if ever, mentioned - nor is the lineage of Crowley in both men's work - but I'm convinced that it's there.

The Cut Up wasn't the only scrap yard of future technology that Gysin brought to Burroughs' table. They got experimenting with tape and sound, and teamed up with film producer Anthony Balch in the 1960s to make a series of stunning short films - Towers Open Fire, The Cut Ups, Bill and Tony, William Buys a Parrot. The Cut Ups remains profoundly disquieting and challenging. In 1966 you could see the film at a cinema on Oxford Street, where it played for a week. The manager reported a record number of bags, coats and other pieces of clothing left behind by the disorientated audience. Almost two decades later, the only surviving reels were rescued from a builder's skip in Soho by Genesis P Orridge, and have subsequently appeared on video and DVD.

With Burroughs' lover Ian Summerville, pictured on the rear of this book's dust  jacket, Gysin conceived the Dream Machine, a flicker device you viewed with eyes closed, and again with Burroughs he wrote
The Third Mind, a series of essays on the Cut Up extrapolated into real life, creative action and dream. Originally planned to include pages of colour artwork assembled by Burroughs and Gysin for the Grove Press, it eventually appeared in France, then England, over a decade later, and with only a handful of black and white illustrations.

And there are the paintings, photomontages, the multimedia performances
involving projections, flicker, tape cut-ups and concrete poetry. I remember few years ago, talking to Matt Collishaw, a British artist who uses forbidden
imagery, multimedia and projections in his own work. I was telling him about
Gysin's Dream Machine and the Moroccan paintings, the ones that flicker between vivid crowd scenes and gestural, magical abstractions. I was really surprised to find Collishaw had never heard of him. If there's anytone who presages his generation of artists, it's Gysin.
 
Since then there's been something of a reappraisal of Gysin's life and work,
with the superb monograph in 2003,
Tuning Into the Mulimedia Age a feature film documentary, FLicKeR, made in 2009 and featuring the likes of Marianne
Faithfull, James Grauerholz and Genesis P Orridge discussing Gysin's life and
times. Last year the October Gallery mounted a major exhibition of his paintings - the Naked Lunch series, Moroccan landscapes, Beat Hotel magical squares and the final, epic Calligraffiti of Fire, ten great panels of gestural sigils completed shortly before his death in 1986.

In one corner of the gallery stood a Dream Machine. If you asked the attendant they dimmed the gallery lights and turned on the machine and left you to it. I asked, and spent half an hour or so bent towards the flickering light, eyes closed, getting colours from the blue end of the spectrum, and great geometric wheels. It's powerful stuff. It's light.
 
There's a template for a dream machine in the back pages of Dream Machine, this hardback monograph assembled by curator Laura Hoptman for the New Musuem in the Bowery of New York, and published by Merrell (the same exhibition comes to Paris next year). A cult book from the mid nineties,
Flicker of the Dream Machine, also provided a cut-out-and-keep template. I don't know anyone who made one, but all you needed was great skill with a cutting knife, a 78 turntable, a naked lightbulb and some sticky back plastic. Never saw it being done on Blue Peter but for the idle among us, you can get 'em already cut up online at http://www.dreamstateuk.com/.
 
The book contains essays by John Geiger (author of the excellent
Chapel of
Extreme Experience
); James Grauerholz, the executor of Burroughs and Gysin's literary estates; Gerard Audinet from the Musee d'ArteModerne de la Ville de Paris, to whom Gysin bequeathed his artistc estate; plus a survey of contemporary artists influenced and inspired by Gysin - John Giorno, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and George Condo among them.
 
Hopton's main essay, and Geiger's opening account, provide an excellent, and art jargon-free account of Gysin's multifaceted and subtly influential activities, taking it all in - including his songwriting, pistol poems, live projection performances, occult preoccupations, and of course the art. Audinet concentrates on Gysin's expulsion from the Surrealists in his first years in Paris, a biting wound that never healed; his sense of having been passed by and given the black spot by the custodians of art history would become a lifelong preoccupation. Grauerholz's 'Mr Burroughs Mr Gysin' gives more of an eyewitness account of the two men's work and lifelong friendship, and excerpts an updated essay onBurroughs' art, deeply influenced by Gysin's methods, which was first published by the October Gallery in 1978.

It's the artwork that really makes the book, and as well as the many sketchbooks from Morocco and The Beat Hotel, there are early manipulation of slides and photographic collage - prescient of Hockney's much more well-known images. Gysin's have more intent, and less sense of decoration. There are superb, colour-rich oil on canvas works alongside crazy assemblages from the original, unpublished edition of
The Third Mind. The calligraphies and magic squares from the Beat Hotel in the late 50s and early 60s are breathtaking, constantly shapeshifting, and endlessly fascinating. The delicacies of A Trip From Here To There, a gouache and ink procession of calligraphic markings marching across 48 sheets of mulberry paper, are some of  the most beautiful images here.

It's good to spend some time with this book. It's a visual and conceptual feast. Drift off on it. Gysin made some of the most beautiful and challenging and mind-altering art of the post war era, and was a profound agent provocateur who wasn't just ahead of his time, but ahead of time, full stop. There are images here that come to life with infusion. Step into the magic square.

As part of an esential Gysin collection, I'd certainly recommend The Dream
Machine
alongside Tuning Into the Multimedia Age - though that is perhaps a more thorough account. And look out for he old Re/Search books featuring Gysin, Burroughs and P Orridge, or Here to Go with Terry Wilson. Then there's that template of the Dream Machine to play with. Happy cutting, readers.


     Tim Cumming 2010