whitehot | January 2011, Brion Gysin @ New Museum
Brion Gysin: Dream Machine
Brion Gysin: Dream Machine in the New Museum’s second floor gallery was the first comprehensive retrospective presentation of Gysin’s work in an American museum and it was absolutely remarkable for finally exploring the work of an influential and legendary painter, performer, poet, sound poet, lyricist, performance artist and writer who is not someone that always comes to mind when one considers the giants of the 20th century avant garde.
There was a lot of terrific stuff to look at in many media in this overdue show but to me the most compelling was the book-length collaged manifesto masterpiece on “The Cut-Up Method” and its uses called The Third Mind. It knocked me out to finally see this “book” after hearing about it—and its marginalized author—my whole life. Two rooms full of shallow vitrines arranged like a labyrinth of ancient 3D hieroglyphs, themselves, showed the series of pasted-up pages of the manuscript as if they were collages but they were revealed to be the carefully constructed leafs of an illustrated “how to” mid-century hypertext seen only rarely until now—published or unpublished— even though it was a screed first conceived decades ago to document an advanced, postmodern and semiotic way of coping artistically whose time had come… if not by then, surely by now.
Dream Machine, installation view in showcase:
In an interview with its authors, Gysin and William S. Burroughs, that appears in the book, the title and concept are explained: “Gysin: It says that when you put two minds together… Burroughs: …there is always a third mind... Gysin : …a third and superior mind… Burroughs: ... as an unseen collaborator. Gysin: That is where we picked up the title.”
I had not known previously that their book unapologetically took that concept from an unlikely source: what I have always thought of as the world’s first self-help book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Their more-daring text is dedicated by the pair, “To and for all our collaborators at all times third minds everywhere.” Apparently as this mockup of their conceptual compendium took form, obstacles increased because the book defied many normal criteria of modern printing. Their first dummy was abandoned because it challenged Western conceptions of what a book should be. The French translation of The Third Mind was the occasion of its first publication - not the definitive version but just a moment in time in its ongoing, collaborative construction. Six months earlier or later it would have been very different. The Third Mind has been perpetually re-beginning ever since, never ending and therefore destined to be unfinished forever. A passage from a PDF now available online sums up both their manuscript and this show:
“Here is an experiment with the scrapbooks... Open to any page and read some of the text onto a tape recorder. Play back what you have just recorded while reading aloud, at the same time, another passage from the same page. Project some pictures on the page… Now look at the pictures alone. Now listen to the voice on the tape muttering along behind your voice. You will find that scrapbooks are such stuff as dreams are made on."
Many of the works in this show, including some grainy films that played on a loop in a tiny room adjoining the room with the maze of Third Mind paste-ups seem to be made just this way.
He was born in Taplow, west of London, in 1916, as John Clifford Brian Gysin but raised in Edmonton, Alberta where a retrospective of his work was held in 1998, the only one even close to this one in scope, which traveled next to France. Gysin spent most of his adult life moving between Tangier, London, New York, and Paris, where he died in 1986. He came to prominence when he lived and worked at the infamous “Beat Hotel” in Paris in the late 1950s. Gysin called the center of his universe “back in room #15 of the Beat Hotel during the cold Paris spring of 1958.”Throughout his life he collaborated with a number of well-known writers, poets, artists, and musicians, most notably the Beat writer Burroughs, a lifetime collaborator and the person most important in the development of his ideas.
Burroughs in turn cited Tristan Tzara’s Dada poems as fundamental to his own work and called T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land “the first great cut-up collage” and “The Camera Eye” sequences by John Dos Passos in his work USA equally groundbreaking. But Burroughs said of Gysin and his groundbreaking work with the Cut-Up method in The Paris Review in 1982, “His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself…it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.”
Gysin was also a mentor for myriad artists from poet John Giorno to Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, to rockers David Bowie and Patti Smith, to Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and grafitti artist Keith Haring, among many others over the years.
Working simultaneously in a variety of mediums, Gysin was a prolific inventor, serial collaborator, and subversive spirit who created the 300 plus drawings, books, paintings, photo-collages, films, slide projections, and sound works in this exhibition. But in addition to The Third Mind mockups, the centerpiece and namesake of the show which continues to influence musicians and writers, as well as visual and new media artists today is the Dream Machine—a kinetic light sculpture he created with the engineer Ian Sommerville that utilizes a flickering light effect to induce visions when experienced with closed eyes. Were it not for the seriousness of Gysin’s intentions, it would be a kind of amusing relic of the psychedelic era, reminiscent of a lavalamp, but in this context the invention conveys the earnestness of an experiment in perception and the workings of the human mind. The legend goes that once upon a time, “seeing” through closed eyes the sunlight flittering through the trees into the bus in which he was riding, gave Gysin the idea of a rotating field of color that one would could “look at” with closed eyes. To watch people gleefully doing this in a dedicated room in the New Museum was as sublime as doing it myself. Strangers would find open positions with a clear view of the 2 foot tall light cylinder and hunker down for the experience. Some sat there a minute, others would not budge after a quarter hour or longer. When I tried it, I saw undulating greens one time and oranges another. I relaxed into the swirling movement of sensation being “projected” on my eyelids and what lie underneath them. Nothing radical happened after a few minutes but it was pleasant and made me want to try it for longer but I was aware others needed to give it a try.
William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, 1965, Crayon, gelatin silver prints, letterpress, offset lithography, and typescript on graph paper, 12 3/8 x 9 5/8 in, 31.3 x 24.3 cm
A plastic template for making one’s own Dream Machine hung on the wall outside that room as did a video of Gysin being interviewed by a reporter while smoking a joint. Across the gallery were other videos, one of John Giorno performing Gysin poetry and another of Gysin doing so himself. A large vitrine nearby had homages to and from a Who’s Who of artists and poets of the time, from the Beats to the Fluxus artists to various contemporary painters and poets. Long painted scrolls by Gysin were unfurled on the adjoining walls, calligraphic works inspired by Japanese and Arabic scripts. Color field paintings also spread out across another wall that would be like Abstract Expressionist canvases if not for Gysin’s intention that their position be changed every day, which they were here, giving a kinetic time-based quality to the static work.
One item that must be mentioned is a rubber roller that Gysin adhered raised lines and textures to. The actual object itself was displayed in the show. For decades he inked the surface and rolled it out as the foundational structure for many of these collages and prints.
Using the Cut-Up Method, which Gysin created in 1959, words and phrases were literally cut up into pieces and then rearranged to unhinge them from their assigned meanings, revealing new ones. These experiments, transferred to everything from tape-recorded poems manipulated by a computer algorithm in one the earliest users of the computer in art, to simple visual art created with paint, ink, cut paper and glue, culminated in a much deserved and thought-provoking exhibition.
Another legend goes that when he was 19 years old, Gysin was welcomed into the Surrealist Group after he made contact with Max Ernst's second wife. On the day before his first big group show, young Gysin was expelled from the Surrealists by André Breton who ordered the poet Paul Éluard to take down his pictures for reasons of “insubordination” towards Breton. Gyson was crushed. Exactly 75 years later, and 24 years after his death from a heart attack, Brion Gysin’s work shone bright in a much-deserved place in the 20th Century spotlight.
Brion Gysin, Self-Portrait Jumping, 1974, Gouache and photo-collage on colored paper, 14 5/8 x 10 3/8 in, 37 x 26.5 cm, Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief