Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the Institut D’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne / Rhone-Alpes. 16 October — 28 November 2010.
by Ian MacFadyen
“Everybody here comes from somewhere.” — Michael Stipe
“Everything was alive like me on this earth, everything was breathing.” — Brion Gysin
Gysin Homage One: Terminal Tourist, Manifestions, Show, Recuperation, Strange Powers, Reading Script, Euphonics, The Raising Of Abramelin In Marrakesh, The Magical Squares of Abramelin The Mage, I Am Ion That Ian Am I, O Canada / IO Pan!, ME Not Julian, Polysemic Polytheism, The Great Dance Of The Magic Mushrooms, Psychotropic Vision / A Smoker’s Art, Sweet Sister Seconal / No Good Baby, Artist Sells Himself / Whore Magic, A Thousand and One Performances, Performance, Three Hours Underground In New York, Marabouts / Wu Tao-Tzu / The Modern Delphic Oracle, The Razor’s Edge of Time, Madame Guillotine / What’s In A Femtosecond, What’s In A Name, The Torso Of 1960 And The Torso Of 1939.
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 of apprehension 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.
Laura Hoptman has created an excellent retrospective and homage to Brion Gysin, and she seems the perfect curator and critic to have put this show together. In 2006 she co-curated with Peter Eleey the show “Strange Powers” which dealt with the esoteric, supernatural potential of art, and the connections between the practices of art and the occult — something that is absolutely central to Gysin’s entire oeuvre. That show took place on the second floor of an East Village tenement in New York, reputedly haunted, and 23 artists and collaborators attempted to channel psychic energies and contact spirits from the Other Side. Artworks treated as power objects, the artist as medium, art practice as psychic divination and magical projection — Gysin and Burroughs both believed that this was the true purpose of art, the manifestation of Will, the conjuring of healing and diabolic forces, the exploration of other states of consciousness and being. Art should address the mysteries of life and death — or be worthless. If some critics found the “Strange Powers” show unconvincing, an “acting out” of the shamanic rather than the “real thing,” they forgot that art and shamanism both operate through artifice and the “acting out” of desire — the impersonation of other states of being in order to procure them, enter, and become immersed. Gysin and Burroughs and their collaborators explored these dark places and these mystical realms in the Beat Hotel, and while it was not all kept secret, behind closed doors, as the tape-projection-painting performances of 1960 and the promotion and polemicization of the cut-ups and the Dreamachine show, other things would certainly remain unspoken, unwritten… incommunicado. Still, they would have recognised the necessity and value of these contemporary artists risking the kind of public invocations and summonings which they had performed themselves at the ICA and the Domaine Poétique. They would also have recognized in the “Strange Powers” show some of the tools and techniques they’d employed themselves in the Beat Hotel — not only the crystal balls, the ouija board and automatic drawings, but the tapes of the Swedish artist Friedrich Jurgensen who operated in the area of Electric Voice Phenomena (EVP). Those voices of the dead, manifesting on factory fresh tape, described and analysed by Konstantin Raudive, fascinated both Burroughs and Gysin, exemplary as EVP was of the conjunction of the machine and the occult. They’d picked up weird voice effects on tape themselves, unaccountable sudden electronic signals, transmission glitches that sounded like fetches coming through the white noise, and then discovered Raudive’s book Breakthrough in 1971 — though they had known in the 1960s about Jurgenson’s book, Voices From Space, 1964, which had inspired Raudive. Gysin and Burroughs equated the rotations of the tape machine with the cycles of reincarnation and, by extension, they sought to transcend the desire and suffering inherent in the technological continuum — even if it was possible to make contact with a spirit otherworld, it was then necessary to walk away from the turning reels of endless machine rebirth… “Nothing here now but the recordings.” Gysin’s work featured in the “Strange Powers” show, including a drawing he made in 1965 on LSD, which combines word permutation and the calligraphic transposition and reversal of alphabetic letters — “I GIVE YOU / YOU GIVE ME / ME GIVE YOU I . . .” — it is a paean to hallucinogens, and to the inspired beneficence of being psychically open.
Laura Hoptman writes that “Magic, and its ability to conjure other worlds beyond conventional perception, was an abiding interest of Gysin, and also of Burroughs… Rather than creating a reflection of an already visible object, the artist wills into materiality something that has never existed before. Equally, the casting of spells is meant to conjure, but it is also meant to cause things to disappear.” Hoptman also emphasizes that Gysin’s “art” processes were “less beholden to the manipulation of formal conventions than to the occult.” In fact, his art is occultist but he used modern stylistic devices for his own ends, in ways prophetic of the post-modern and the new psychic artists. Hoptman understands that Gysin’s calligraphic script was not designed to be interpretable or transposable, but, as she says, “notwithstanding, many of Gysin’s paintings can in fact be read.” At the same time she disputes Burroughs’ reading of a painting in which he could make out the phrases “yes, crying” and “not crying” — because Gysin had “playfully” asked Burroughs to read the picture, and because the script was not ostensibly, alphabetically interpretable, Hoptman concludes that Burroughs’ interpretation can be credited to “fanciful enthusiasm.” Actually, if Burroughs said that he could see those phrases, then he did indeed see them — his experience cannot be mitigated or nullified in this way, especially as Gysin himself, on the same tape, proceeds to verify the readability of the text himself. Likewise, it’s true that Gysin’s “personal script,” developed 1958-9, is “based not on Arabic letters or Japanese kanji, but on two letters from the English alphabet, BG — the monogram of the artist repeated with some variation of letter shape and orientation.” However, this stops well short of tracking the complexity and potential generated by this script — the “BG” letters are stretched, broken, meshed, funnelled in scale, and reconfigured in ways that suggest bodies in motion, figures in combat, falling, bending, bowed. The script transcends those intitial ciphers of self and produces a permutated vocabulary of hybridized forms, fluidly moving from the alphabetic to the biomorphic and figuratve. The letters were generative as if the “me” of “BG” was the beginning of the “meme” of exponential creation — an infinity of variable signs of self. It is both a literal and coded version of the Renaissance maxim Ogni dipintore dipinge se (“Every painter paints himself”) but with this difference — the artist here felt he did not, could not know “himself.” His cipher “BG” is a multiplicity, a scattering, a running-through of proliferating, mutating referents, self-portraits of the “Man from Nowhere.” Gysin would see in his drawings and paintings scenes he had not deliberately put there but which were subsequently disclosed to him — which actually did not mean that “he” hadn’t put them there. Who else had done so? Gysin knew his script but he did not know what the script would create, and certain suggestive, evocative figurative scenes emerge from the supposedly abstract script in the eyes of the beholder — shapeshifting phenomena in mutational guise. In 1961 Gysin wrote to Burroughs of his work — “it looks like an immense revolutionary demonstration in a backward country with my stuff up as street barriers.” And he may have had in mind the important gouache and ink drawing “A Trip from Here to There” of 1958. This work, prophetic of his final painting “Calligraffiti of Fire,” also connects with George Mathieu’s calligraphic re-enactments of historical battle scenes — the gestural forces describing the topographics of warfare. It’s a reminder that Gysin’s iconoclasm and revolutionary zeal are not restricted to the Third Mind collages, but are discernible in his pictures — those riot conditions can be seen, incendiary letter figures trailing calligraphities of flame.
“BG” is Gysin’s monogram, but as a sound poet and as an artist who used letter and calligraphic forms, he was aware of the symbolism of these two letters and their combinatory resonance, their euphonic expressive meaning. Gysin had read Plato’s Cratylus, a Socratic dialogue on the creation of words through appropriately sounded letters, and he would have paid close attention to the work’s subtitle, “On the Correctness of Names,” because he felt that his own name was not correct, and he would struggle for years to write it right. For example, he would sign his work “Brion” followed by a monogram or motif or ideograph for “von Listel,” signifying “from Listel,” in Switzerland, after his grandfather. Then he ditched the symbol, before signing himself “Brion Gysin,” only later, in many cases, to write simply “Brion” over the top of the previous signature. In 1958 he might sign a work “Brion Gysin,” but in 1959 this would be reduced to “Brion” with the von Listel motif returning, while in 1960 he signed a number of works with the minimal “BG.” Terry Wilson remembers seeing a 1940s copy of Harpers or Vogue in which, in the society pages, there was a picture of Gysin and Felicity Mason attending a party or reception for Beni Montessore, and Gysin was identified in the text as “Brion Gysin von Listel,” using what Burroughs would later mock as his “phoney ‘von’.” But Gysin’s confusion with his name went far beyond the imposture of the aristocratic. If his evident dissatisfaction and awkwardness with his own name seems surprising in an artist now known for placing his own name, as it were, center stage in his own creations, it testifies to a profound discomfiture that was at the heart of the process of questioning his “mistaken identity,” without which the script of his “true name” would never have been developed. His problem signature, with its continual variations, influenced the creation/discovery of his “signature script” of proliferating, calligraphic “BG”s — as if the sign for “self” that was self-consciously blocked on the quotidian level, could be unleashed and run rampant on another plane of signification. Gysin would sign works “BG” too, but this does not mean that his feelings for his own initials were unambiguous, or simply an expression of ego — on the contrary, it was precisely the undoing of these representations of identity, their physical mutability over their semiotic fixity, that he pursued. Even when his “signature script” was in place, it functioned both as a confirmation and a dispersal of the integrity of the name. Gysin explored the idea that a word resembles, indeed embodies, in its shape and sound, through alliteration and visual associations, what it describes — that meaning is influenced by the shape and sound of individual letters, and by their combinatory effects. Language was magical because, although a word is not the thing it names, it may have a visual and sound resemblance to it, and it is this euphony that is vital in poetry. Gysin deconstructed syntax through cut-up and permutation, he coined portmanteau words and he painted texts and wrote on paintings and he created his own personal script — in all these ways he attacked and played with language, both spoken and written, revealing meanings hiding in language and at the same time revelling in his mockery of the fixity of linguistic referents. In the case of his use of his own initial letters, this reaches a terminal paradox — he undoes his own name in the work, deconstructs and permutates and explodes it, and then signs it with those very same letters, in his own name. The one who signs himself with the singular “BG,” who authenticates an image of multiple “BG”s, is both related to and yet quite separate from the one who strews his emblematic initials through calligraphic script — that confirmatory signature is of a different written order to the swarming plethora of signs in the image, and not only because of the distinction between art and its validation, or between writing as image and writing as sign/ature. The “BG” of the picture is “open,” to use Gysin’s terms, open, that is, to interpretation and multiple readings, whereas the signatory “BG” is “closed” and functions as a legal and professional verification of authorship. The two exist and operate in different dimensions — though they seem to occupy the same plane, they function on quite different planes of reference. They testify to the gulf between an art of signing and the signature as artistic guarantee — in fact, it is the calligraphic script of the image which is the absolute artistic guarantee, not the appended lower right corner appellation. The calligraphic “BG” is the mark of the self-created, the notarised “BG” is the problematic identity of the woman-born. There is another fracture in Gysin’s sign: “B” and “G” rhyme, they are sound-related, but otherwise, the two letters are at permanent war, and Gysin, for whom these initials were of vital significance, surely knew this. To homage John Michell and his charming book Euphonics — “B” is the letter of the physical Body, the Blooming and Bucolic, it knows no Bounds, while the “G” is disGusted by this BiG Buffoon, it wants to cloG it, Grease it up, Gum it, and then Gash its Binary Bubbles with the savaGe horizontal pointed stroke of its Graver, its Greve, the Balloon of the “B” punctured by the Gravity of “G.” Further, even as Gysin brought the two letters together in a supposed singularity of identification, he knew that “B” opens and “G” closes “the B-eginnin-G” of his own existence, and his own signifying script as it repeatedly inscribes the brief trip from “B-irth” to the “G-rave”.
The Raising of Abramelin in Marrakesh
It was at the Hotel Toulousain in Marrakesh in the 1960s that William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Mikey Portman attempted to raise the spirit of Abramelin the Mage. No record was left, and there are only a very few references to this episode — Christopher Gibbs, for example, mentions the invoking of “the Abramelan demon” by the three men, some time during the hippie “Marrakesh Express” years. Terry Wilson, a close friend of Brion Gysin, also knew Portman, and there is no doubt that the Magical Working took place. Was the operation successful? Well, they apparently raised something… The ritual was a continuation by other means of the Third Mind project and the “psychedelic summer” of 1961, reviving the “fighting spirits” and dangerous psychic currents which the three had experienced in the course of taking psilocybin in Morocco. The ceremonial invocation for the Raising of Abramelin requires an oil made from aromatic plants, adapted from the Jewish anointing oil of the Tanakh, and it was almost certainly an Aleister Crowley recipe which they used — Portman would become an absolute Crowley fanatic and it’s possible that the seeds of this fascination had been sown in his teens. Crowley’s recipe is in fact a corruption based upon MacGregor Mathers’ mistranslation of the medieval grimoire — in the mixture of Cinnamon, Myrrh, Galangal, and Olive Oil, the Galangal should actually have been Calamus. But no matter, other ingredients were certainly used — majoun, kif, hallucinogens, and alcohol — in an invocation designed to procure love and treasure, and to acquire extraordinary powers including the gifts of shapeshifting and invisibility, and the ability to raise an army of followers and to generate storms… Crowley wrote that if the oil is placed on the forehead “it should burn and thrill through the body with an intensity as of fire,” and Gysin may have had good reason to remember this when, desperately ill, he wrote his terrifying text “Fire” in 1977, and when he painted his great final work Calligraffiti of Fire in 1985, the year before his death. The rite requires a lengthy preparation and lasts for 18 months, but it may indeed have been understood by the three men as a continuation and attempted fulfilment of magical practices carried out in the Beat Hotel in the preceeding years. If Ian Sommerville was the “technical sergeant” of the Third Mind, Portman was almost certainly the medium for the Abremalin rite, and is referred to as such on a number of cut-up tapes. In 1961 Paul Bowles had expressed his disapproval of the supernatural obsessions of the “Tribe,” and the quest for magical, out-of-the body experiences, telling Burroughs “I am perfectly content to stay here with shit inside me” — words that would have resonance for Gysin 13 years later when he underwent a colostomy. Bowles insisted that he had “never had a psychic experience,” and Burroughs’ response is revealing of his own “supernatural superserious” attitude, his pragmatic view of the paranormal: “Nonsense, Paul, everyone has psychic experiences, it’s part of life.” A number of years after the “Marrakesh Working,” Terry Wilson visited Mikey Portman in Montague Square in London. Portman was whipping himself with a leather belt, shouting,”Victory to Aleister Crowley!” while decorators painted the walls and sashes, wearing ties beneath their overalls — they were, after all, decorators to the gentry… They regarded Portman’s antics with complete indifference. It’s the lesson eventually learned by all occult practitioners and takers of certain drugs — the results are one thing, the consequences quite another. . . What happened in the Beat Hotel? What was the Third Mind all about? Promulgation of the cut-up technique? Scissors? It was an occult operation — the conjuring of apparitions, the making and breaking of hermetic codes, the search for transcendence, alternate states of consciousness procured and explored through magical processes and hallucinogenic drugs, and through the systematic détournement of tape and film and stroboscope technology — treating the machine as a magical apparatus for the creation of new life out of chaos. It was a Dark Art Manifestation of psychic and psychotic manifestations — a throw of the bone dice, the weighing of words and the soul, negotiations in advance of the Great Devourer.
The Magical Squares of Abramelin the Mage
The Abramelin ritual was based on Aleister Crowley’s interpretation of S.L. MacGregor Mathers’ translation of the 15th century grimoire The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage by Abraham of Wurzburg, a work including talismanic Magical Squares which Gysin must have perused with some interest. Unlike traditional magical squares which employ numbers, these contain letters which may be read acrostically and acronymically. In “MAIAM,” for example, from the Hebrew and Arabic for “water,” used in the Abramelin ritual for acquiring the power to breathe and walk underwater, Gysin would have seen a perfect symmetrical echo of his own permutation of the Divine Tautology, “I AM THAT I AM.” The word “MAIAM” may be read forwards or backwards, and from the central I to the left or to the right. Gysin’s letter and word permutations operate magically in this way — he would take the last three letters of his first name, “ION,” and link these with the first three letters of Ian Sommerville’s name, “IAN,” and permutate these through letter combinations at the heart of which lies “I/AM” — merging Gysin and Sommerville’s identities in a “joint singularity.” Gysin used “the ION” in his name to signify an atom or molecule with a negative or positive electrical charge, and its letter-by-letter permutation into “I/AM” signifies the contact and conduction, the manifestation and recognition, created by sign and referent in the act of writing, while his positive/negative sense of his own identity is equally “charged.” Crucially, variant spellings of “IAN” are “EION’, “EON” and, yes, “ION” — magical connections for Gysin, the letters dancing and flipping from word to word like a Saul Bass film title sequence, or the opening graphics of an episode of Sergeant Bilko in which an out-of-line sloppy soldier suddenly wakes up and jumps into his allotted place… It’s a shifting alphabetic flow of emerging meanings and reflections, and it has its fun side too. Ian Sommerville was the “Technical Sergeant” of the Third Mind, and much more besides — a key collaborator and inventor, and he was affectionately referred to by Burroughs and Gysin as “Electrical Ian,” “Electric Ian,” and “Electronic Ian,” while in his writing Gysin called him “ION MILLION WATTS,” which actually plays upon “IAN WILLIAM WATSON,” hermetically referencing Sommerville, Burroughs, and Alan Watson. One Million Watts is the Megawatt, or MW, used in generators, aircraft carriers, locomotives, and submarines, and the term “megawatt electrical” is employed in the electricity industry where it is written as “Mwe,” a neat condensation of “Me” and “We” in the Gysin/Sommerville symbiosis. In The Last Museum, 1986, Sommerville disappears from the “Watt/What?” image, gone into the white electric light of the Dreamachine and the white light death tunnel — a million becomes a billion, a “light like a billion-watt bulb floated up through the bars on my window. The Great White Light! The Ineffable Light the Tibetans were always talking about.” “ION” also connects both Gysin and Sommerville with the Ionosphere — Udo Breger gave Gysin an article on the Ionosphere in the early 1980s which Gysin fixed in one of his notebooks, acknowledging Udo’s gift. Gysin was interested in those electrically-charged atoms and molecules surrounding the earth. Sommerville, through his training, knew about the significance of radio propagation in the Ionosphere, and how it was affected by free electrons, and so “ION” homages “IAN,” but the ionosphere also seems to have suggested a model for Gysin’s approach in his art — the play of positive/negative in the electrically charged particles of his script, the dynamics of his art moving through propulsion / attraction / splitting / recombination. The 1960s term,”going stratospheric” is rewritten by Gysin — he was going into his own sphere, the IONosphere. He treated the letters of his own name as positive ions and negative electrons — as in the “Unitled (Roller Poem)” of 1977 in which the “I” is not a stencilled letter at all but indicated, inferred by a short vertical grid line. We read this as a repeated “I,” but it is not a letter like the other letter forms in the piece, it is rudimentary, a vestigial stand-in, a cut — the presence of the “I” is read into this mark of absence, and the negative becomes charged with meaning, through a writing which Gysin equated with both electromagnetism and magical “energy signs.” Gysin’s magical grids, crucial for the workings of the Third Mind scrapbooks, transcend their apparent modernist format — they are magical squares, mystical nets for occult conjuration and projection, like the Taoist Talismans and diagrams which Gysin had studied and understood as forms of practical magic. Laszlo Legeza wrote that these talismans reveal “not a succession of separate moments, or an infinite number of separate ‘things’, but a seamless web of eternal change,” and Gysin’s own talismanic squares are sectional cuts through the continuum.
I Am Ion That Ian Am I
Gysin told Terry Wilson that in The Ticket That Exploded, 1968, Burroughs misread or mistakenly transcribed “Iam” for “Ian,” but the repetition of the phrase shows that Burroughs decided to preserve and use the error — “in the beginning there was no Iam,” “stale smoke of dreams it was Iam” — because it so effectively merges and yet undermines the naming of existence. Gysin had already seen in 1961 that “IAN” was implicit in “I/AM,” and he used the insight in the slide projections he made with Ian Sommerville — “I/AM/IAN” accorded absolutely with the merging of the Third Mind collaborators’ identities. “I AM THAT I AM” becomes “IAN THAT ION” — a refutation of both the fixity of the singular Name and the identity it supposedly incarnates. Rather, “IAN/ION” and “BRION/ION” are linguistically shapeshifting in ways which are true to the beneficial friendship and creative linking of the two men, working through an “EON” — a time that cannot be measured, a process without limit. More than mere word games, these transformations of meaning lie at the heart of Gysin’s written art, and are embedded in the paradox of his personality dissociation — a paradox because he seemed so entirely, definitively realized as “himself” to those who knew him. Eliot’s question was omnipresent for Gysin — “But who is that on the other side of you?” His shapeshifting powers and invisibility tricks were also revealing of his sense of disconnection and separation — a body-mind dichotomy which promulgated a lifetime of out-of-the-body experiments and experiences. His birth certificate reads “Brian,” and though he would talk vaguely about some accidental mix-up with the spelling of his name on official documents, as if it had nothing to do with him, it just happened, he almost certainly changed it himself in 1944 when he was 29 years old and in the Canadian military. Biographer John Geiger calls this letter change an “affectation,” but it went far beyond any desire to impress others. Rather than being feigned or trivial, it had great personal significance for Gysin and would have a profound effect on his art — his letter acronyms and combinations clearly reveal this. In the mutation of Gysin’s own “ION” into Sommerville’s “IAN,” we can see that hidden in plain sight is the transformation of his chosen “BR/ION” from, and back into, the original “BR/IAN” of his birth certificate. The scratching of these names on images of Sommerville and himself are accompanied by permutations from the Divine Tautology — “AM I THAT I AM?” and “AM I THAT?” In this way both the original birth name and the self-chosen name of the self-elected and self-created are thrown into question, as is the relation between name and body image. Gysin would have appreciated the French hip hop group known as IAM, whose name stands, among other things, for “Invasion Arrivée de Mars,” Mars being a shorthand punning on the group’s city of origin, Marseilles — the “IAM” of an alien, immigrant other. He would have approved, too, of the title that the artist Irene Andessner gave to her 2003 retrospective of shapeshifting, multiple, fictional photographic identities — I AM… And he would have been delighted by the formulation of the name of the Black Eyed Peas singer — Will.I.am… For Gysin, “I AM” would always imply “I AM NOT,” except, significantly, when he wrote of himself as an artist and of his aims as an artist, for in that context he was most definitely and assuredly and revealingly “I AM” — the vocation of artist was the ultimate vouchsafing of his existence, the valedictory purpose of being here. At the same time, Gysin’s dissociation of self becomes not only the subject or apparent content of his visual “Machine Poetry,” but is submitted to the machinic process — he clearly enjoyed subjecting his image and name to electronic distress, splitting, splicing, superimposing his problematic image and the name of the impossible “self.” The letter and name scratchings are handmade, but are projected, and become white light — dematerialized signifiers, divine and discorporate. At another level, the inner dialogue, the gibbering “Voice Inside” of self-referential consciousness, profoundly bound up with projected notions of “self,” is détourned in these works, letting the machine do all the permutated talking — the dialogic voice inside becomes a projected written interrogation “out there,” or a tape recording in which the speaking subject recites computer permutations autonomously. Gysin spoke of the slide works as expelled breath, not dependent on the “in-breath” of human inspiration, and they are attempts to breathe out the problematic self and make it electronically operational, outside the body, outside the psyche, the artist watching illusory versions of “BRION GYSIN” come and go — his bodies, his names, but free of “self,” given up to an instrumental agency. At the same time, it’s usually ignored that in all the machine processes used by Gysin, Burroughs, Balch and Sommerville, apart perhaps from the computerised permutations, the intervention and redirection of the systems and their orderly functions was physiological — they treated the machine as both a cybernetic extension of man and as an autonomic apparatus, now one, now the other. The machine was a rotating respirator, transmuting the breath of inspiration, and a piece of total junk, both magical and degradable — a technological idiot savant to be systematically and perversely deranged and screwed up by hand. For Burroughs and Gysin, the machine was to be made to function as a means and a source of magical invocation. Professor of physics Richard Jones wrote earlier this year: “Sober scientists working in nanotechnology would argue that their work is as far away from magical thinking as one can get. But amongst those groups on the fringes of the science that cheer nanotechnology on — the singulatarians and transhumanists — I’m not sure that magic is so distant. Universal abundance through nanotechnology, universal wisdom through artificial intelligence, and immortal life through the defeat of aging — these sound very much like the traditional aims of magic… And in place of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (and no doubt without some of the OTO’s more colorful practices), transhumanists have their very own Order of Cosmic Engineers, to ‘engineer ‘magic’ into a universe presently devoid of God(s).’”
O Canada / Io Pan!
What does it mean to change your name, even by a single letter, having read and written that name for 29 years? Well, it certainly indicates dissatisfaction, a gap, a problematic, and the desire for a new beginning, as well as necessitating a certain period of practice in the writing of the new name — writing it over and over again, until the flow is seamless, and the name becomes second nature, a highly suggestive scenario for Gysin’s later scriptural art. Gysin changed the spelling of his name from “Brian” to “Brion” two years before he received American citizenship in December 1946, at which time the new spelling was officially recognized. But the change coincided with Gysin’s unhappiness at not having received American citizenship in 1944, and his subsequent requested honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in order to transfer to the Canadian Army. His father had fought with the 8th Canadians, the “little Black Devils,” and died at Thiepval Ridge at the Somme in 1916, eight months after his son’s birth. Gysin fabricated his father’s Swiss nationality (he was British, as Gysin later well knew) and was haunted by this absence which he expressed in visual terms — “He saw me once before I had my eyes open. I never saw him.” As Gysin made the letter change when he was in the Canadian military, like his father, and it was wartime, there is a possibility, however sentimental, that the national song of Canada (which would become the national anthem) may have played a part — “O Canada,” with “O” as a plea, a wish, an expression of wonderment and awe, and an invocation which he took within himself, as a sign of identity. “O Canada… True patriot love in all thy sons command.” The “O” would in this way show the transference of his allegiance from Britain and America to Canada, bound up with thoughts of his father and his father’s death. That “O” may be read as a circumscribed absence, it’s something Gysin felt he needed in his name, to be registered and recognized by himself and others as true to his name. It suggests his unknown, always missing father implanted in his Own spOken and written name as a signal character — the missing in actiOn resurrected in the fOrm of a vOid letter, remembrance instituted as a signifier of permanent lOss. This was not the first time he’d put his father into his own name, his own life. In 1942 when he worked as a welder at the East Coast Shipyard in New Jersey, his name appears on his ID and his bus pass as “John C.B.L. Gysin.” “Brian” was actually his third registered Christian name while that initial “L,” which Brion Gysin inserted into his own name, and is not on his birth certificate, stood for “Leonard,” his father’s name — the father whose body was never found. Leonard Gysin was awarded three medals posthumously, and Brion Gysin commented that “it would have been much better if his body had been found.” As a child, Gysin would pray for his father’s miraculous return, adding “whoever he may be,” and this sense of both loss and bewilderment was compounded by a comment which Leonard Gysin had written beneath a photograph of himself in a family album — “the one I knew least of all.” Clearly, the unknown father had felt that he did not, could not know himself — and this created a double unknowability for the young Brion Gysin. Gysin could not forget that photographic portrait, its essential identity undermined by the subject’s accompanying handwritten text, and it was the progenitor of Gysin’s 35 mm slide self-portrait projections with their scratched question marks and undoing of body-image and belief in a knowable self through palimpsest and palindrome — “AM I THAT I AM?” In The Process Gysin would write — “I considered enclosing a street photographer’s shot of me taken in the Socco Chico crush and scrawling across it, perhaps: ‘Which one is me?’” His own personality disassociation surely had its origins in the compensatory projections created in childhood around his father’s living absence — the person never seen who nevertheless disappeared, the body never found which prayer might resurrect, the life and the personhood reassembled through fragmented, embellished stories and through snapshot images in photograph albums, the invocation for the return of the unknown person thrown into question by that “posthumous” declaration of definitive inscrutability. The loss of the never-known, the permanent absence of the inscrutable other — Brion Gysin was fated to be born to mourn a phantom father, and his continually changing, fabulated, embellished stories and dissimulations about this ghostly figure were attempts to recreate his dead father for himself, to make him live, to bring him back from the abyss. These “fabrications” cannot be separated from Gysin’s story-telling prowess, nor from his meta-fictional writing which both helplessly and strategically mythologizes a life already experienced and lived and spoken of as “a tale I am telling myself.” “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” — Gysin knew Sabbah’s razor long before he discovered it. Later, Gysin would wryly quote sports commentator Jimmy Cannon’s philosophic and not entirely ironic invocation of the Father — “In nominee pater, kid, as Jimmy Cannon used to say.” Burroughs liked and used this too, but in Gysin’s case the word “kid” is especially telling, hidden in a casual, amusing aside — because that “kid” would always remain, in the name of the father. . . So, what’s in a letter? A vestigial presence as a reminder of intolerable, perpetual absence. There are wounds — there are words — which never heal. And there are names which must be summoned and recited as in a lullaby, a litany of the lost, to be restored through whispers and song. Henri Michaux — “It was enough for an Indian to pronounce the name of the god he worshipped, for the god, by order of the word, to appear. What we learn from demonology seems now quite clear: that the name is everything.” Michaux adds, significantly, that the god will appear, summoned and created by the name, “even if he does not exist” — the summoning process itself makes the “god” manifest. Relations between Gysin and Donald Cammell, director of Performance, were frosty, but they shared the pain of dissociation. Gysin spoke of the “Open” Brion Gysin, and the “Closed” Brion Gysin, while Cammell spoke of the “Uncensored Don” and the “Censored Don” — both felt that the liberated, free, open and uncensored personality was realized through creativity, through art, though Cammell’s condition would nevertheless become intolerable to him, and suicide would be the only possible release. It’s worth noting that both had been sexually abused when young. Brion Gysin may indeed have had complex reasons and feelings about the change of “Brian” to “Brion” which he did not try to unravel or analyse at the time, but that single letter switch made possible sequences of word permutations in his name which would become symbolically talismanic for his art — the “O,” not the original “A,” would become vital, generative in his developing sense of himself as an artist, making possible semantically what could be developed in his personality and through his personal mythology. The letter of loss would become the letter of difference and plenitude, for the Orphan and the hOmOsexual. There is one other connection which may have been both influential and prophetic. The “IO” is important in Gysin’s acronymic anagrams — the inserted “O” in conjunction with the “I” creates “IO,” one of the moons of Jupiter, and the mythological priestess of Hera, but it is a quite different “IO” which Gysin surely recognized in his new name — the invocation used by Aleister Crowley in his greatest, and once famous and much admired poem, “Hymn To Pan,” first published in 1913 — “O Pan! Io Pan! / Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Pan / I am a man: / Do as thou wilt as a great god can… ” This invocative “IO,” raising the spirit of the great goat god Pan, is prophetically, divinely appropriate for Gysin who would become fascinated by the rites of Bou Jeloud in Jajouka, and who would identify the spirit of Pan as psychically at the center of his own art and being, as the essence of visionary fertility. The placement of that “O” put Pan in Gysin’s name, and in his life. It’s also worth noting that Crowley, a real word spinner, also plays upon the possibilities of alliterative permutation, not only in the manner of Tennyson or Swinburne, but deriving from his own use of Magical Squares and the conjuration of the word hidden within the word – his “Hymn to Pan” includes “Mannikin, Maiden, Maenad, Man,” a series in which the lifeless model becomes a living virgin and then a wild, orgiastic Dionysian acolyte — the final term is the “Man of Pan” who is semantically and sexually active in the series, both the fertilizing principle and the “Man” who is sexually fulfilled through the spirit of Pan, validated by his possessed virility. It should be noted, however, that Gysin, in his later years, was certainly no fan of Crowley — he regarded him as an Old Queen Bee, and his devotees as drones. Portman he didn’t like particularly, either — but then Gysin was a very orderly person who performed even the most trivial act with care and precision, whilst Portman was a lover of chaos and always left an unholy mess in his wake. Kenneth Anger once opened up his briefcase of magic tricks for Gysin, and that’s exactly how Gysin saw it — a stage magician’s amusing music hall act. It was magic, of a kind, yes, but it wasn’t on the “Gysin Level.” Gysin said that magic was “one of the fruits of life,” it was part of the sensual relish of being alive and key to a continuing awareness of the mystery of existence. It was also a performance, as he himself often demonstrated, a form of mystical teaching which included his own humorous takes on freakish occurrences. But it was decidedly not an entertainment.
Me Not Julian
Gysin’s tape-text “Dilaloo” was begun in the late ’60s as an attempt to convey the initiation process which he had undergone in Jajouka, circa 1955 — it’s a recapitulation of human existence from the primordial soup to his own tormented mortal span. It includes extracts from Burroughs’ writing which passed unnoticed and uncredited in the transcript made after his death, but this is actually a good thing — after all, “Who owns words?” Gysin asked, and he loved Burroughs’ cloacal writing so much he felt it in his own blood and guts. The Third Mind did not differentiate authorship and ownership of creativity and insight, it was symbiotic, and only later was it obliged to submit to the legal requirements of publishing copyright. “Dilaloo” ends — “Me I’m here / ME / Not Julian… ” “Julian” was Gysin’s other, his fictionalised, heterosexual stand-in, the name he gave himself in his 1946 story, “The Foundering Ship,” which gained him entry to the “spooky offices” of The New Yorker — what a different life and career he might have had if he’d accepted the magazine’s offer of a job as an editor, but that was one detour he just could not take. In the story, the character Tilda smooths a bed cover “with automatic hand,” itself a smooth reference to the “Fire Sermon” section of Eliot’s The Waste Land of 24 years earlier, and there are other knowing allusions and paraphrases, to Shakespeare’s Richard III and to Thomas Nashe, though the story is really a Fitzgerald homage, a brittle marriage breakup for New Yorker sophisticates. When Julian thinks of the “new, boundless freedom” of his life without Tilda, it seems a “useless freedom, a bare waste of time ahead; a desert as big as a house. His spirit sagged at the view of this Sahara.” New Yorker editor Howard Moss wrote to Gysin’s literary agent that Gysin did not explain the reason for the marriage crack-up — “its full implications he fails to justify.” That was because Gysin simply could not do so — the text is a set-piece, with no history and no future, the heterosexual marriage as a tragedy of manners, a psychological “screen story” for Gysin in every sense. One thing to note, however, is the “wildly dancing orange light” of the fire at the end of the story, with its tongues of flame and burning coals, the fire that ran through Gysin’s life and work, and which here culminates in the prophetic line — “The constant flicker began to hypnotize him,” suggesting the origin of the Dreamachine not in sunlight flickering through leaves, but in the ancient manifestation of alpha waves discovered through dancing flames. “Julian,” of course, is also a premonition — it is “JUL/IAN,” an encoding of “BR/IAN.” The name which an author gives himself as a character in his own fiction is certainly worth scrutinising and this “Julian” is as carefully and knowingly designed as the rest of the text — it refers to the Emperor Julian, Constantine’s nephew, who tried to bring back paganism as the official religion of the Roman Empire. It signifies that the Julian of the story is an apostate — in this case, someone who has renounced the true faith by sublimating his homosexuality. Likewise, in The Process, Gysin’s protagonist, who is both “Gysin” and his “other half,” is called “Ulysses O. Hanson.” That “O,” we are told, stands for “Othello” — but it also combines the reappearance of the letter “O” in a version of Gysin’s name, and the insertion, once again, of a significant initial, into the “unreal” name. The “O,” to quote John Michell, is, tautologically, “the shape of the mouth producing the round O sound,” and this is the key letter of the book since the different characters speak and tape record their stories, stories which are themselves eminently circular — it is the very image of an open mouth and a tape reel and an ouroboros tale which swallows its own tail. Michell –“O is old, a proto-sound, symbol of the original womb or of the oval world-egg (ovum, oeuf).” In this sense, the “O” is inter-uterine and its adoption in a name symbolically signifies birth, or re-birth — the desire to return to the mother. At the same time, Michell catches the polarization incarnated in the letter — “It dominates words meaning either the whole or the hole, totality or void.” The “O” of Ulysses O. Hanson and the “O” of “BRION” represent both the self-enclosed, autonomous world of the self, the ego cosmos, and the “O” through which the sand of time pours out, the Great Desert which, as Gysin/Hanson says, “gets us all in the end.” But meantime, “Let’s face the music and dance… ” Gysin was a profoundly serious man, but he also possessed the great gift of light-heartedness, and his name-change linked him, as he liked to point out, proudly and ironically, with Haut-Brion, the Premier Cru Classé from the Gironde — and that fine wine really cost. Gysin knew that to drink Haut-Brion is to toast the wine itself, and the earth and the sun, raising a glass to the pleasures of life. “I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop / But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!”
Gysin’s calligraphy was written to be read from right to left, and then he turned the picture in four 90 degree stages creating a multi-directional lattice, and so his script runs and reads across, up and down, and diagonally. Originally discovered by Gysin when he combined left-to-right Arabic calligraphy with vertical Japanese script, he would later associate it with the rotated, written curses of Moroccan magic, and it’s certain that this aspect fuelled his calligraphic grids and word permutation grids — they are spells because what is written is latticed, superimposed, and the message is hermetically hidden in rotated layers but cannot be entirely deciphered, decoded. It is a writing which symmetrically composes an essential unreadability — the graphic threat of the unknowable. Related to this are his rollered or stencilled letter forms which become anagrammatizing, acrostic, acronymic. In an untitled drawing from 1970, an ink on silver paper, Gysin’s name is stencilled in black but half the letters, whilst delineated, are not inked-in — they signify whilst revealing their own incompleteness. The letters run in four strips vertically, and several letters are upside down — they play upon presence and absence of sign and referent, readability and reversibility of meaning. Reading multi-directionally, we can see the jumping “ORGY BOYS” emerge from the scrabble conjunction of letters — the title of one of Gysin’s tapes. And the “SIN” in “GYSIN” and the “BRIO” in “BRION,” and the “GRIO(T)”… the poet, praise singer and wandering musician, while “GYS” is an acronym for “Graveyard Shift.” Gysin linguistically extrapolates and playfully cross-references his allusions, but it’s important to understand that the letter works invite the viewer to play along, to use personal associations and to go semantically deeper — whilst in many cases the possible permuted readings are laid down in the works themselves, and we follow those paths set out for us, we are also free to engage with the process and to read and to see what we can find for ourselves in the spilling and breaking of his name, like Timothy Leary’s “Don Juan Lord Brion of Git-le-Coeur.” “BR” is an abbreviation of “Brother,” “GY” is an abbreviation of “Gray,” and Burroughs was Gysin’s “Gray Brother” — he appears, “retroactively prophetic,” in Gysin’s name. The rescrambled “RNB” of “BRION” is the “RiBoNuclease” of “Rhythm and Blues” that breaks down DNA, it’s the musical rhythm that shakes the genes, the “Jean Genie/Jean Genet” semantic and phonetic shift… Gysin would take the last four letters of his first name, “RION” and write this as “NOIR” — then reading from right to left we see the black “RION” / “RIEN’, the “Nothing That Is,” the negation that appears in the “B”-headed name. It’s clear that Gysin’s calligraphic grids were designed to be read in ways comparable to the mystical teaching squares of Abramelin — they are magically “crossed” word puzzles, philosophic permutations of letters in layers, hermetically coded boxes… What’s in a name, a three-letter word? For Gysin, it was the infinite roll and scroll of permutated meanings, a process which undermines the “LAW” of “GOD.” In the beginning was the Word, and it was “THE” Word, the definite / definitive article of universal recognition, and the “GOD” word of Monotheism, as in “THE ONE.” Gysin’s permutations are heretical — their very polysemy is implicitly polytheistic, they explore the simultaneous existence of several different meanings created by moving a single letter, and transposing the words in phrases, and this infinite mutability and polysyllabic playfulness is antithetical to the “ONE GOD”, the forever-fixed meaning of “THE” Word and “THE” paternalistic “LAW” of language, logic and “THE” Godhead. The cut-up technique, and Korzybski’s attack on the definite article, come together in Gysin’s multi-signification, in the continual displacement of one signifier by another, shifting referents refuting that the word is “THE” Word — meaning is made through radiating sequences of interpolation and interpretation, it is always unstable, shifting, multiple, continually undone and remade. The letters are read as both mechanical and made by hand — they exist at an interface between a systems permutation and a human intelligence which interferes and manipulates, and the art lies in that gap where it is impossible to differentiate between human intentionality and linguistic permutation, that space where the qualitative terms may be reversed. There were many influences behind Gysin taking this direction in his work. One was his friend John Latouche’s speed and dexterity and wit at punning, as when he wounded Gysin by commenting on his friend’s work in 1947, “The Impotence of Being Ernst.” — changing a few letters to perfectly devastating, mortifying effect. Another was the cover of Nicolas Calas’ Confound The Wise, 1942, for which Gysin designed the cover, using one of his decalcomania paintings. The image was reversed on the back cover of the book, and so too was the title and author lettering — this means that the first example of Gysin’s work produced, effectively, by a right-to-left, backwards, or reversed reading, was not a calligraphic work at all, but a printed alphabetical text. Further, it has been assumed that Gysin’s alphabetic letter art works came later than his calligraphies, and that the permutated letter blocks were derived from the process of reverse reading in the calligraphy, but this is not the case. The Calas cover predates Gysin’s study of Japanese by many months, and though he had seen Arabic calligraphy in Algiers in 1938, his own calligraphic art was years away. The name “NICOLAS CALAS” reads as “SALAC SALOCIN” on the back of Confound The Wise, and 35 years later, in Gysin’s text Alarme, the letters of “SALOCIN” may be glimpsed in his calligraphic permutations of “SECONAL” — the past leaking through drug disorientation and pain, the letters shimmering in delirium. Alarme merges the two written forms of Gysin’s art — and we read both the alphabetic letter permutations and the calligraphy simultaneously, both forwards and backwards, and up and down, just as in his personal calligraphic script in which the alphabetic initials of his name are encoded and dissimulated through the “automatic hand.” Flip through Alarme, and read the flicker of the pages, and look at the text reflected and reversed in a mirror. There are people who have a natural ability to write and read in reverse, and this is because they have language centers in both halves of the brain, though the condition is most often related to dyslexia. Rather than an inherited gift, Gysin taught himself to read and write backwards, and this was bound up not only with Arabic writing, but with his knowledge of esoteric transmission, such as the Bektashi order of calligraphy in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and other magical hermetic practices of passing on secret knowledge from “the other side” to the initiated. Gysin also pursued this other direction because it signified the reverse of the natural, of how he had been taught, and it shows his determination to create in reverse, to be as perverse as he believed himself to be, to make the image run backwards, inside out, back to front — never as told. He wanted to express states of consciousness which required the destruction and rerouting of predictable forms and conventions of visualization, and reversal and superimposition and cutting were vital to this, as his streams of splitting, shapeshifting signs challenge cognition and interpretation, embodying the rushes and intertwinings of hallucinogenic states, as with Michaux — “you find yourself in a situation that nothing less than fifty different, simultaneous, contradictory onomatopoeias, changing every half-second, could adequately convey.”
The Great Dance of the Magic Mushrooms
Gysin’s work is genetically mapped by his drug experiences — with altered states of consciousness, psychic phenomena, and optic, hallucinogenic effects. This is not something happily dealt with by an art criticism which is still bound to formalist aesthetics and issues of the picture plane, or with ideological and material practices, and it is also extremely difficult to write about. There is, too, the risk of consigning Gysin’s works to the abused generic of the “psychedelic.” However, Gysin’s art simply cannot be understood without grasping its profound debt to psychedelic experiences, illusive and tangled as that history has become. Gysin’s important text “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” became the title for the influential collection of cut-up and permutated texts edited by Jan Herman in 1973, Brion Gysin Let The Mice In, a vital “companion” to Burroughs and Gysin’s Exterminator. However, it was this text’s appearance in 1975 in Peter Haining’s anthology The Hashish Club: An Anthology of Drug Literature, Volume Two that contextualised and defined what was ostensibly a “cut-up” work and an explanation and philosophic extrapolation of the artist’s work, as crucially inspired by, and evocative of, drugs. Haining’s anthology was republished in 1998 as The Walls Of Illusion: A Psychedelic Retro, and that last term literally spells out the danger of situating Gysin’s painting in a largely 1960s retrospective, retroactive trip of “brilliant colors and swirls of psychedelic art,” as the publishers sell it — words from the “stoned age.” At the same time, “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” may well be linked to the creative inspiration which Gysin found in drugs — Haining writes that it “brilliantly evokes memories of [Gysin’s] kif-fuelled maze of adventures in North Africa,” and those “little blue hills” are certainly in the text. But then Haining inserts, as epigraph and introduction, before the text proper, a section from Gysin’s novel The Process (1969) in which the narrator, Ulysses O. Hanson, Gysin’s “other,” described by Haining as “a devotee of kif smoking” speaks not of kif but of psychotropics: “Of course there was mushroom-magic, I assured him… ,” and refers to LSD, DMT, STP, and “a flat packet of very tiny pink pills marked PSILOCYBIN. I picked up a paper on psilocybin in the lab… ‘extract of mushrooms’. It had been a long time. I could hardly wait to try them to see if theirs were as good as my old granny’s and mine.” This is a reminder that Gysin had taken magic mushrooms with Native Americans in Canada when he was young — and the phrase “I go back to childhood” and variants, are indeed repeated throughout “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In”, suggesting an evocation of those early mushroom experiences as well as the kif of the Moroccan Hills. This affixed “note” crucially determines the reading of the text that follows in ways that are historically wrong and contextually misleading, whilst by default opening up an area of importance for understanding Gysin’s art and its creative connection with drugs.
Psychotropic Vision / A Smoker’s Art
“Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” was recorded and played at the ICA in London in December 1960 (“I talk a new laugh — the 1960”), and Gysin did not receive and take the psilocybin pills, sent by Timothy Leary, until 1961 — Gysin would remember this as “the mad summer of 1961” but he had already been taking the pills, while Burroughs was away in Tangier, when Ginsberg arrived in Paris in the April of that year. So Haining effectively contextualises the text as psilocybin-related — though Gysin had taken mushrooms and mescaline in earlier decades, it is actually prophetic of what was to come only a few short months later. It is the quotation from The Process employed by Haining which draws upon Gysin’s 1961 psilocybin experiences, as Gysin himself confirmed in 1977. The 1961 psilocybin episodes reveal Gysin’s contradictory nature, the “veritable split” between his methodical, careful side and his desire to go further, and take risks — a conservative anarchism of personality which mirrored Burroughs’ own. The psilocybin tests were part of a Harvard University research project, formally sponsored, however unorthodox, and Gysin duly replied to Leary, documenting his experiences, which had been pleasant but not earth-shattering. — Gysin described his first experiences to Leary in a letter as “sneaky little out of the corner eye effects of covert awareness which went on for some hours.” But when a second package of pills arrived for Burroughs, who was away in Tangier, Gysin argued to himself that Burroughs was anti-mushrooms and unsure, even antipathetic about Leary and his intentions, and so he took the drugs himself — however, his professed and repeated justifications strongly suggest that he just couldn’t resist. Nothing quite reveals Gysin’s “Gemini Complex” so clearly as what he did next — he decided to arrange his room and order his paints and brushes and cards and materials so that he could record the experience and recline on his bed in security and relative comfort. He appears to have behaved, initially, according to the kind of advice he would give in his 1977 text “Psacré Psilocybin and Magic Mushrooms” in which he instructs prospective trippers to “arrange things so that you’ll be sheltered from any worry. Protect yourself against attack from outside. Avoid any untimely interference in your life that day.” But this sound advice is immediately compromised and undone by his admission that “the great journey in a bed never did much for me. In extreme conditions, I like to wander, seek out adventure and make it happen rather than endure it like a mollusk.” In fact, both attitudes were played off each other throughout Gysin’s life, as he demonstrated next when, having created the secure conditions and orderly ambience for the trip, he then proceeded to take 23 of the 24 pills — four times the maximum dose. Although this extreme act was accompanied by a note: “If anything happens to me cable [Harvard] for instructions,” it’s difficult to imagine what Leary might possibly have been able to do from back in Harvard… But if the note was a cavalier gesture, a pastiche of (ir)responsibility, and cocked a snook at fate, the experience was, we can say, decisive: “For more than three days and two nights, the psilocybin had complete hold over me and I did not sleep. I was out of commission except for three great flurries of artistic activity that shook me like hurricanes. Galaxies of mushrooms danced around my worktable leaving their traces upon my little cards. Spouts of mushrooms flowed from my fingers sketching mycologic forms over my Bristol boards in three orgasmic ejaculations.” These “mycologic forms” would carry and mutate Gysin’s signature initials and his “bean sprout” ideograph from that point onwards — his own signatory mark, the “BG” of “me,” would sprout from and turn into a plenitude of mushroom forms — the permutated signs of the self contained within, and emerging and shooting forth from the mycologic pods or embryonic vessels. The tiny pink pills from Sandoz Laboratories were genetically, psychically transformed into ideographic “B” caps and “G” stalks, mycological mutations of Gysin’s own calligraphic signature. The two signs, infinitely variable, of mushroom and “Brion Gysin,” become interlinked and intertwined, continually merging and then breaking and dispersing — manifestations of the immersion and dispersal of self, the discovery and loss of the “I” in the psilocybin experience. These can be seen in many works from 1961-63, and their origins glimpsed in works from 1959-60. One drawing, “Untitled (Psilocybine) 1961,” shows a different take — ideographs as jumping, spinning sprites in a cartoonish animation. . . These double markers, twinned sigils of psychotropic dissolution and the remaking of the psyche, lie at the heart of Gysin’s subsequent work and reveal its visionary sources and continuing impetus — the inspired rush of creation which Gysin experienced, the transformation of psychic upheaval into the extension of “tactile vision” with the artist as both creator and witness to the act of creation, suggest that the creative experience would become for Gysin an analogical extension and process of psilocybin’s transports . . Gysin wrote that although he was the artist who was sketching, what it was he was putting down in ink and watercolors — what, or who, was the subject, and likewise, the agency — was beyond him… He was witnessing, he later wrote, the mushrooms “leaving their traces” — through him, through his art. This is not to suggest that this was a eureka moment, but to recognize that it had brilliant consequences. Neither is it to say that Gysin hadn’t already developed the essential means and vocabulary of his art… No, it’s that the experience confirmed what he had already written in “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” — recognition of the artist possessed, and the artist’s desire to possess the eyes of the audience. His would be a shamanic art, with the artist as trickster, healer and prophet — this is not a hagiographic interpretation, but an accurate, literal and analytic reading of Gysin’s actual works and words. His mission statement was validated by that trip he took a few weeks later, and his art would be at the service of those “spaces” opened up by hallucinogenic drugs. What is seen doesn’t just enter the eye, it’s projected and returned in an endless loop of seeing in which the psyche and the nervous system are producing the visual in symbiosis with the light. The act of looking becomes awareness of one’s own creation of what is being seen, stimulating and triggering responses which in turn change, even transform the image and the perceptual field… “When you learn to look, you see that everything is alive,” in Burroughs’ words — and beyond that awareness of seeing, of receptivity and activation, there is losing oneself in the gaze, caught up and forgetful of self, immersed in the creation and receptivity of the seen. It’s mirror projection — we invest ourselves in the images Gysin incarnated, which we activate — we see his vision, and our own, merge and pull apart and recombine. Those dancing sigils of light lie always in wait, ready to be called forth — “spirits of the magic mushroom” as Gysin called them, recognized through psilocybin but also through kif and other drugs. Even though he would look back and see “all those drugs” as a fateful, disastrous thing, those trips elsewhere helped Gysin immeasurably to bring forth the living, hidden mind, what he had actually seen and experienced. His pictures are psychotropic — something other than the recycling of mycologic ciphers as connotative signifiers or stand-ins for the experience or some kind of shorthand flashback. Gysin’s text “Cut Me Up * Brion Gysin,” published in 1960, into the title of which he again strategically inserts the author’s name, begins with an explicit drug disclaimer: “Nothing here was written ‘under marijuana’ or ‘under’ anything else. Billie Holiday and Baudelaire have borne witness that nothing was ever written or sung better under any drug.” And Burroughs said “I have made cut-up highs without chemical assistants. [sic]” But the disappearing act of the cut-up self is bound up with the cutting of kif and its smoke rings, the losing of the boundaries and certainties of self… Just as Burroughs would croon an ayahuasca chant while cutting up, both he and Gysin understood very well the process and effects intertwining cut-up and drugs — a reminder that this most material of procedures was from the start a smoker’s art.
Sweet Sister Seconal / No Good Baby
Terry Wilson recalls Gysin, towards the end of his life, saying to Burroughs in the apartment in rue Martin, “Maybe to’ve opened ourselves up to all those dreadful spaces with all those drugs wasn’t such a good idea… ” Burroughs’ reply was unflinchingly pragmatic: “When it finally happens I expect to kick my habit in one concerted moment of excruciating withdrawal… ” If, for Burroughs, death was the terminal kicking of the life habit, Gysin wondered if taking drugs so as to explore out-of-body states and the spaces of alternate consciousness as a preparation for death, wasn’t misguided but just plain wrong. Maybe “it was a bad move to give ourselves the idea that such spaces actually existed.” This volte-face on Gysin’s part is explained by Wilson: “Fear of ultimately radical reality, fear of non-existence, trying to hold on and let go at the same time… ” It may be that Gysin was in fact warning Wilson not to follow where he was going, into the Duat, or into Oblivion, and that his disavowal that drugs provided access to the magical spaces was a dissimulation, testament to his distress that these anterior states were fascinating lures and enticing traps, the vortex of illusion funnelling into the absolute void. He wanted total non-being as a terminal release — and at the same time, he dreaded it, as only a very few do not. Burroughs may have found hallucinogens “instructive,” but he did not enjoy them, while Gysin had been favourably disposed, but certainly in his last years he felt obliged to make a pause and to consider the delusion and damage of these drugs. Gysin’s 1977 calligraphic text Alarme — Udo Breger published an extract in his journal Soft Need in 1977 — is a viscerally drawn poem of “agony, shame and despair.” And it’s a “flicker book” — rifling its pages produces calligraphic letter and word streams. It’s also a delirious version of the lexical games of word tennis and letter ping pong, in which French and English words permute in an ineluctable Dance of Death — noir / espoir / dortoir, adieu / tender / pendre, eine / seine / pleine, rats / rants / traps, bed / red / dead, heat / breath / death, hand / sand / end / send / rend / tender. The implications are complex — “NOIR” is “BRION” read backwards with the “B” chopped off — his beginning is both there and not there in his ending. As he looks back on his past, that blackness, black as his ink, is immediately, consonantly linked to a contradictory “ESPOIR” / “DESPAIR” in the monastic cell of the hospital — “DORTOIR.” The calligraphy and letter / word permutations are accompanied by a singularly appropriate musical homage — during Gysin’s mortal meditation, a song by Mick Jjagger, Keith Richards and Marianne Faithful runs through his head and Alarme plays upon “Sweet Sister Morphine” and its lyrics: “Here I lie in my hospital bed… turn my nightmare into dreams… I’m fading fast… clean white sheets stained red… ” In Gysin’s text the word “BED” becomes “RED,” “NEMBUTAL” becomes “NUMBUTAL,” and the “SECONS” tick by in “SECONAL,” culminating in a page which reads: “SWEET SISTER BREAT(H)/SWEAT SECONAL,” as if the song itself is fading in and out of Gysin’s numbed consciousness, the psychedelics and kif of careless psychic exploration now replaced by barbiturates depressing his nervous system, and by sedative hypnotics unable to calm the surgically cut-up patient. Welcome to drugs as pain control, and the cocooning of alarme — while that rock blues echoes down the years, a 1969 prophecy of his distress, his fear of his own consciousness of death. Gysin’s usual playfulness and delight in the use of synonyms, transpositions and permutations, his exploitation of the resources and richness of language, turns deathly here, and expresses his anguished helplessness — black ink runs down the page like rain, and pulsates across the page like a time sequence on an electrocardiogram as he tries to convey an anguish beyond all word play, beyond calligraphic art. “BRUTAL NEMBUTAL” can be read, but only through the merging and reading across of calligraphic strokes and letter forms — line becomes letter and letter passes into line without referent, a graphic morphing and pulling-apart of sign and gesture. The puns of Alarme are painful, in every sense, and Gysin’s recourse to the resource of words testifies to a terminal linguistic dispersal. “LIFE IN THE DEATH” reads one page, and one can make out the letter forms of “LIFE” strategically hidden in the word “DEATH” — but this is a written word-illusion and surely signifies quite otherwise, because the Death that once lay hidden in Life is now omnipresent. Likewise, none of the synonyms of “Alarme” — frayer, inquiétude, angoisse, panique, anxieté, tocsin, effroi, appel — can help the one in danger, as death approaches. Terry Wilson once quoted part of a key line from one of Gysin’s own permutated poems back to Gysin. “Junk is no good,” said Wilson. Gysin instantly snapped back, “Drugs are no good, baby” — significantly changing one word, and supplying another that was missing. One permutation would read, “NO DRUGS ARE GOOD BABY.” Before the life runs out, the words run out. And then, at last, the morphine drip is disconnected.
Artist Sells Himself / Whore Magic
“Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” is crucial in Gysin’s career — a paradoxical manifesto of the disembodied self, it was psychologically acute in ways not understood at the time. It insistently declares that Gysin’s art and his words operate on the one who looks and reads his works in ways akin to the effects of drugs — “Your own interior spaced out,” “You-time I rub out,” “My own Interior Space music own your head,” “Your own Interior Spaced the Word in you.” To inhabit, to transform — this is art manifesto as magical enlightenment, turning the possessor of the pupil, the center of the iris, into a pupil of psychic possession. It is also a knowing, parodic routine, and Gysin’s promotion of his own artistic wares and abilities in his own version of Burroughs’ “How To” style in the prefatory “Deposition” and the concluding “Atrophied Preface” of Naked Lunch — an instructive ironic enticing carnee sales pitch, step right up, now listen to me sell you this once-in-a-lifetime guaranteed good thing — promising, seducing, (“Come out: you can.”), whilst at the same time warning of the dangers — “There will be harrowing in my magic picture.” Like Burroughs, Gysin casts himself as salesman, but what he is selling, like Burroughs, is enlightenment itself — this is hucksterism of the real thing, self-declared chicanery in earnest. Gysin reiterates his own name — “Gysin is not dead,” just as Burroughs had done — their names are on the products, the books, the manifestos, the pictures, theirs, branded. It’s called selling yourself, by any other name. This text, allied to Gysin’s cut-up explanations and promos, is the art polemic as personal manifesto, and it was risky back then in the art world to write your own blurb, however protectively ironic. This is the man who would write in 1977 of how during an experience of datura, “The force of my gaze as an illuminated man had struck him down.” This sense of the artist who knows his own visionary power — that’s all very well, my dear, but did you really have to say so? Gysin did say so, though this was at odds with the man who so worried and suffered for the fate and value of his art — it’s the shaman who declares his powers, and then wonders if he’ll be remembered at all. Gysin’s entire oeuvre and its processes are evoked and prophesied in this cut-up — mirror-gazing, painting, projecting images, spoken word, permutation… “Mirror magic and the writing that is you,” “Projected demon-wreck pictures” and “Projected demons,” words as “locks” and “spells” and invocations, words rubbed out, the “I” rubbed out, images disappearing, the artist himself disappearing, words as pictures, pictures in words… The cut-up process of the text reveals that Gysin’s art is “visual magic” but it is also “whore magic” because it gets around, makes no distinction about who gets inside it. The text invokes the “Interior Space” and the “Transducer” and the breathing of Inspiration, that breath which would become the “BREATH/DEATH” of his emphysema agony. “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” may seem addressed by Gysin to the reader and viewer of his work, but it is also Gysin addressing himself, cutting himself up, cutting up his declaration of inspiration to see what it really might mean, and telling himself that this is who the artist “Brion Gysin” is, or must be, the artist’s role revealed through the process of declamation. The text actually predates by several years “CUT-UPS: A Project For Disastrous Success” and yet is a much more significant document of his total vision and artistic purpose.
A Thousand and One Performances
The calligraphic art is a special form of that ritualized performance which was clearly essential in Gysin’s art and life — creation was a physical act, both knowing and casual, requiring grace of movement, a learned and practiced skill rising to a level where it became effortlessly stylish, and then quite miraculous. The cut-up technique was described in detail by its creator as a form of performance, insisting upon the physical act and its ritual stages, and though no audience was required in this case, in other areas it was precisely an audience which Gysin desired in order to demonstrate the process of creation, the manifesting performance of art, rather than the objects created — art as literally a way of being in the world, in which Gysin’s body and mind, image and spirit, could be harmoniously resolved. A Dreamachine may be used by several people simultaneously, and Gysin enjoined others to make their own and see the whirl, just as he encouraged them to practice cut-ups, while akin to this were his collaborations with Burroughs and Ian Sommerville and Ramuntcho Matta, among others — participatory and collaborative projects were embraced by Gysin, they were extensions of his philosophy of creativity, in which the mystique and power of the individual artist were not compromised but enhanced through processes of the Third Mind. The spectacle combining music and dance and light which Gysin produced in his restaurant in Tangier, the Thousand and One Nights, is especially revealing of his view of art as the sensual, aesthetic exercise of skill, the creative act as a bravura demonstration of prowess, and a contribution to a group enterprise. For Gysin, the restaurant was a theater, with a specially created and decorated environment and ambience — a dream palace for the pleasure of the senses. But he also found himself in an ambiguous, sometimes uncomfortable role — as the proprietor he was at a social disadvantage with the wealthy, aristocratic elements of the clientele. Extremely sensitive to the nuances of class and social standing, his own aspirations to be in society, including his phoney “von Listel” imposture, were compromised by his commercial, functionary status and the stigma of “trade.” The Tangerine social scene was Proustian in the extreme, and Gysin was respected and admired and yet dismissed as declassé by those who patronized his restaurant, while for the diehard bluebloods Burroughs would be absolutely persona non grata. Even Yvonne and Isabelle Gérofi of the Librairie des Colonnes, 54 Boulevard Pasteur, saw Burroughs as an invisible man defined by a ratty old raincoat rigid with filth — “Burroughs était sale à un point inoui . . . Son imper se serait debout de crasse . . .” This is an exemplary case of the social elite literally looking down their noses — and they didn’t like Genet’s leather jacket much either . . . By comparison, Gysin’s was a suitably class act in Tangier, in every sense, but nevertheless he was a businessman, a manager and a majordomo, and despite his erudition and perfect manners, and his talent for intrigue, he would never be entirely “socially acceptable.” He was mentioned in the Tangier Gazette, for example, but as a restaurateur supplying pastries to a cocktail party. He hobnobbed with the great and the good, he was known in high society and to the nouveau riche Hollywood types, but his market value was in fluctuation, his style impeccable but his background and credentials somewhat murky or a little too fantastic . . . In fact, he found himself caught between a class and a culture, to neither of which he belonged by birthright, although he aspired to be accepted by both — he really was the Man From Nowhere, the one who put on a show for the aristo expats and wealthy travellers, the paid facilitator holding aside the velvet curtain, providing entry to the magical world of another culture and time, whilst feeling a biological trick had been perpetrated on him, a screw-up in the birth lottery. The dancing boys and musicians performed in true Moroccan style, but this was a theater of illusion and deception in every sense, and could be seen as merely a costume cabaret of cultural otherness put on for the wealthy white social set — the procured spectacle could not be separated from its colonialist and economic context, while Gysin would be characterized as a “purveyor of Moroccan exotica.” Although Gysin was the impresario, he was also inamorata about the nightly performances, and for him the Thousand and One Nights was always more than a commercial venture, it was artistic, inspired, transporting — which may explain how he came to lose the business. For Gysin, this was a lesson to learn for his future art career — the artist discovers the magic, presents the most captivating show, welcomes his wealthy patrons . . . and gets out with the shirt on his back. Nevertheless, the musicians and dancers created a brilliant experience which reinforced his appreciation of art as physicality, sensuality, dexterity, illusionism, excitement, pleasure and laughter. In November 1955 Christopher Isherwood visited the restaurant and wrote in his diary:
The boys were very interesting to watch — their negligent grace, their vague yet exact gestures, their delicately mocking salutes, when you gave them money, which they tucked in their turbans. Their hip movements and flirtatious play with their scarves is exquisitely campy and yet essentially masculine: this is in no sense a drag show. In the most beautiful of the dances, the boy carries a whole tray of glasses and lights on his head. Later the boys sang with one of the musicians, and I felt they were really enjoying themselves.
(Burroughs’ negative description of the dancing boys refers to a later incarnation of the place, when Hamri and the original musicians and dancers had quit.) The impresario enjoyed himself, too, though his creative investment was doomed. It may be that Gysin’s performances with Sommerville at the Domaine Poétique and the ICA and elsewhere were sublimated homages to the Thousand and One Nights — movement, art, music, color and light combined in the creation of a magical environment, where one could forget oneself and be lifted up, moved and fired through all the senses. The restaurant had been a disaster, financially and emotionally, it was a place where “some unforeseen, complex, cataclysmic catastrophe” occurred practically every night, Gysin said — well, of course it did, and he loved it, the chaos and the intrigue, the rising and falling waves of the Pipes of Pan, the pirouettes and floor-rolls of the dancers, the cloakroom full of mink coats, the thin beams of light streaming from the perforations of Moroccan brass lanterns retroactively prophetic of the Dreamachine, the fated beauty of it all . . . When he was expelled from his Eden, the true magic of the Thousand and One Nights disappeared before the “Under New Management” sign went up. But here’s the trick: he took it with him, he never lost that feeling, and the rapture stayed with him, long after the lights went out. .
When the tape of “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” was played at the ICA in December, 1960, Gysin “painted a picture 6 X 6 feet,” he later noted, in front of the audience, and then, paying homage to “the ancient Chinese precedent” that recurs in his text, he “quietly disappeared,” leaving his picture behind. Did he “bow an aural bow?” Well, he did so in a contemporary performance at the Domaine Poétique in Paris — Lawrence Lacina wrote that “Brion finished his painting/performance, took a bow… ” Certainly, the execution of the picture was in accord with the text’s specifications — “Painting a picture re time and 6 X 6 during the act of an invocation.” In fact, the text and the act of painting were part of a performance which is revealing of Gysin and Burroughs’ desire at this time to extend the Third Mind into the public domain — to put at least some of their techniques and theories into operation. Gysin would later simply note that the text “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” was “Recorded & played” at the event, but Barry Miles would recall in his book London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945, “a cut-up tape by Burroughs called ‘Brion Gysin Let The Mice In,’ featuring, in addition to Burroughs’s flat Midwestern voice, radio static and distorted Arab drumming.” This poses a significant question: is “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” a text by Gysin, or “a cut-up tape by Burroughs?” The answer is — both. The tape was a cut-up by Burroughs of the words that had been written / hand cut-up and arranged by Gysin, and it was treated, like the performance itself, as a manifestation of the Third Mind. The text as it appears in Haining’s anthology is titled “Let The Mice In,” without the preceding “Brion Gysin,” and Haining also writes that the text was “written for Evergreen Review in 1969,” which is also incorrect. It is possible that Gysin edited and rewrote parts of the text between its aural performance and its later publication, but it is essentially a work from 1960. Its equivocal status as a text — written / cut-up / recorded / cut-up / performed / published, and including treatments and words by Burroughs — is also testament to its singular importance as a key example of the Third Mind combinatory process, personal and technological. The alternation of first and third person viewpoints in the text perfectly embodies the symbiotic fluidity of mediated authorship — “Gysin paint Me, too,” “edited voice of Wm. Burro him,” “Gysin in forever audible home-sprint” — with Gysin writing of himself as another through the spoken voice of Burroughs. The text was created specifically for public performance and for edited tape playback, and is a statement of artistic inspiration and intent, a performance piece, produced in order to be spoken and heard in public. It includes a description — again, recorded in advance of the event in which it would feature — “There will be projections in all dimensions while the recorded voice of Wm. Burroughs reads an incantation spelled out by him.” That is, this “manifesto” is a “program” in both senses. Careful study of the published text shows that although it is attributed to Gysin, whose “voice” and style are evident throughout, it includes elements by Burroughs in the final two pages. Miles appears somewhat dismissive of the actual performance, writing that Gysin “pranced about the stage, painting a vigorous sloppy abstract on a huge sheet of paper,” but he has explained to me that what he intended to convey was the splashing of the paint medium through the air, while Gysin’s physical actions were shamanically pantomimic. Certainly, the photograph of Gysin in action at the Domaine Poétique at the Paris Biennale, taken only a few months later, reveals a brilliant calligraphic painting in process. Miles writes of a performance at the Heretics Club at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, before the ICA show: “This was an attempt by Gysin — the principal organizer — to produce the ‘derangement of the senses’ that he and Burroughs had spent long hours discussing, by combining painting with sound poetry and light projections in a theatrical performance.” This was one of a series of collective manifestations of the Third Mind and Ian Sommerville’s contribution was significant — his light projections involved slide projectors and an epidiascope he’d made to project 35-mm double exposure slides. As with the performances at the Domaine Poétique in Paris that year, the Heretics event was an attempt at sensory overload which would culminate five years later at a second ICA show with Ian Sommerville ecstatic that a Burroughs tape of “pneumatic drills, radio static and wailing Moroccan flutes” drove half the audience out of the building, in the venerable tradition of the succès de scandale. But the performance was also a method of creating Rimbaudian correspondences, the synesthetic merging of word, image, action, recording, light and sound, as well as dissociative states and alienation effects. These performances demonstrated the processes of created illusion — the written word was spoken and cut-up on tape and played back, the solitary act of creating a painting became a public demonstration, while the slide images blurred the distinction between the living and the projected — a homage to Man Ray and Lee Miller’s projection of a hand-tinted Méliès film onto guests at the 1930 White Ball of Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt, an event Gysin would have known about and which he may even have talked about with Man Ray himself. These performances made the invisible, static art of painting dramatic, and turned recitation, the publicly spoken word, into a spliced multi-layered recording, while the face and body of Gysin, the performer, became a screen for the projection of images of himself — “I played into my own image, and out of it.” In these ways, Gysin pushed the contradictory nature of live and recorded, spontaneous and manipulated art processes and experiences, so that the audience “could no longer be sure what was real and what was not.” Not only does the text promote Gysin the painter, it links his visual art with the spoken word, with the light and image projections, and with the machine processes of the actual performance — and this is why the text features phrases such as “I will make an audience” and “The audience, too, appear into the picture.” Both at the ICA in 1965 and at earlier shows in Paris, under the rubric of the Domaine Poétique at the Galerie de Fleuve and at the American Center on Boulevard Raspail, Gysin dedicated his invocations to the Goddess Kali, and ended performances by slashing and tearing his paintings into pieces — acts which never failed to upset and appal the audiences. “There’s no creation without destruction,” said Gysin, “there’s no destruction without creation.” This destruction was certainly in keeping with the Third Mind’s concern with processes and states of being, rather than with finished “artworks” — the painting, however beautiful, was absolutely not the object of the exercise, though the torn fragments of one such work from 1961 would be reconstituted in 1968. It would not be the only example of “auto-destructive” art to be recuperated and framed and hung on a wall — the distressed, dark age ex voto of the Kali Yuga.
Marabouts / Wu Tao-Tzu / The Modern Delphic Oracle
Those magical powers promised by the rites of Abramelin were recognized by Gysin as quite attainable — he’d witnessed and studied comparable powers in the 1950s, extraordinary feats demonstrated with great élan by those marabouts venerated by the Berbers. These inspired performances included fire walking, levitation, healing through trance, as well as the swallowing of a real Naked Lunch of living, wriggling snakes, scorpions and lizards. What was the Crowley invocation but another method for acquiring baraka, the mystical power of those dervishes, those holy marabouts whose self-mutilations and disappearing acts, whose scorning of the physical body and dissolution of the human image would be invoked in Gysin’s lacerated slides, the disfiguring and cutting up of his own human image . . . Gysin and Burroughs and Portman would have seen, in the Djeemaa el Fna in Marrakesh, the professional penmen with their calligraphic samples along with the herbalists chanting their mantras and spells, summoning the Word and imbuing their papers and powders and potions with healing powers, as they performed their ordinary miracles side by side with magicians eating fire and floating through the air and becoming invisible . . . In Gysin’s philosophy, magic is a material practice which really works, the staged illusion which is actually a cover for the true exercise of mind over matter, of divine will over cause and effect. For Gysin the artist was a magician and this was more than a role to be acted out — the artist’s powers were supernatural because the created work could not be explained by skill, talent, or aesthetic value . . . Something other, inexplicable and marvellous, emerged from the creative process, manifesting the psyche in material form. When, in “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In,” Gysin invokes those Chinese artist-sages disappearing into their paintings, he is specifically referring to Wu Tao-tzu, a painter of the Tang dynasty, who, according to legend, looked at a mural he had just finished painting, clapped his hands, and then entered through the temple gates which he himself had conjured — the gates then closed behind him and he was never seen again. This famous story encapsulates the idea of art as an entrance to another world — through his work the artist creates an illusion into which he willingly enters, so that his own divine creation engulfs him, eclipses his earthly being. This myth, beloved of Borges, is not merely paid lip service by Gysin — it epitomizes his magical philosophy of art, in which the creative act is absolutely concomitant upon the willed giving up and erasure of self. Burroughs originally intended Cities of the Red Night to actually end with Gysin vanishing in just this way, disappearing — “disprairie”, to use Gysin’s cut-up term — into his own painting, and, in effect, into the book which his pictures had inspired. Different versions and interpretations of the Wu Tao-tzu story exist — painting a door on a mountain, or painting the mouth of a cave, and “sadly the door shut and he was lost forever,” or “the cave entrance closed and the whole mural faded away and only the wall remained.” It is not Renaissance perspective or trompe l’oeil optical illusionism which leads the artist into the picture — it is the creative act itself which makes transcendence possible. The meaning of the tale is that the artist is consumed by the process of creation, and becomes so entranced by his own powers of evocation that he cannot return to the quotidian realm of existence. Wu Tao-tzu’s life seems archetypal, an Eastern progenitor of the romantic, bohemian artist of the West — he used alcohol as a stimulus, painted his exquisite calligraphy “with the force of a whirlwind,” broke all the social and artistic rules, was inspired, possessed, and doomed — there was no magical disappearance to end his life, rather he died penniless and delirious, of cirrhosis of the liver . . . This is the painter Gysin paid homage to in his Third Mind performances, and he would have appreciated one story about Wu Tao-tzu which links the skill of painting with the art of swordsmanship. When Wu Tao-tzu portrayed General P’ei Min, he did so not by arranging his “sitter” in a pose, but by painting the General as he danced his famous sword dance, capturing at speed the flashing movements of the sword, equating the brushstroke with the potentially lethal cut of the blade . . . Not all of Gysin’s magical invocations are so rarefied, in fact in life and in his art he sometimes played upon the more lowly idea of “the Magician’s role” which he’d recognized as his destiny in the 1930s — he’d come on like a stage illusionist or mere theatrical entertainer, a knowing dissimulation of his profound belief in magic, employing, in effect, the professional conjurer’s “distraction technique” to deflect from his true purpose. Gysin was knowledgeable about the history of stage magic and the floating head seen in his slide works and in the torso photograph he had taken in Greece, were versions and variations on the theme of the mirror trick created by Thomas William Tobin in 1865 — advertised as “The Modern Delphic Oracle,” this illusion derived in turn from “The Sphinx” illusion, and it appeared to produce a bloody, decapitated head, rolling its eyes and whispering its last words to the horrified, paying audience. It was a macabre play on the fascination and fear induced by the guillotine, and significantly, this memorable production was performed not in a theater but in a Parisian wax museum — it was theater as side show, a dungeon entertainment for sensation seekers, part of a tradition that the surrealists would draw upon in the 1920s and ’30s (and witnessed by Gysin), turning the modern art show into a tunnel of horrors, a carny cabaret, a gothic grotto, a hellfire cavern. Likewise, the Domaine Poétique and Gysin and Burroughs and Sommerville’s multimedia shows a hundred years after “The Modern Delphic Oracle,” were strategically sensational events, invoking and summoning spirits, projecting apparitional bodies, scrambling voices from the ether, while the slide shows, like the Dreamachine, drew upon the prehistory of the cinema, its origins in magic lantern shows and séances . . . Gysin’s recorded text, “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In,” was itself a modern version of the Delphic Oracle, a series of rhythmic chants and pronouncements of possession and secret knowledge, as disembodied cut-up riddles issued not from a fissure in the earth but from a tape recorder — the voice as the ghost in the machine, prophecy on rewind and playback, technology as a spirit trap. The spoken text was insistent, declamatory in its delivery, the voice of an adept addressing initiates and neophytes, assuring them that he would penetrate and transform their spiritual, psychic, “Interior Space,” continually repeating the phrases, “I demonstrate,” “I talk new,” “I summon,” “I bow,” a liturgical litany as in a religious rite, assuring those addressed that “You will understand,” that the spark of divine creation would be transmitted through the power of the Word, through white light, sound overload, sensory disorientation. In fact, it isn’t Apollo at his shrine at Delphi on Mount Parnassus that Gysin invokes in this text, it’s Pan running free on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, while winter (Pan’s time in the Greek legend of the Oracle, when Apollo was in Delos) becomes spring and Parnassus becomes the Little Green Hills of Morocco . . The Third Mind performances were attempts to create psychic communion through a pandemonium shadow show, prophesying a coming age of expanded consciousness, subjecting the nervous system to sensory overload, a multimedia onslaught drowning out and cutting up habitual patterns of perception. As with Klein and Mathieu, the dramatic entertainment, however blatant or kitsch or ad hoc, was a good cover act — the shaman, as ever, is a showman, while the mystery is strategically disguised, the ritual invocation hidden beneath all the hoopla. The essential truth of magic resides in secrecy, and the magician, as Gysin knew so well, is an actor who must go masked — Larvatus prodeo . . .
Three Hours Underground in New York
The Third Mind performance at the Heretics Club was titled Action Painting and Poetry Projection. The appellation “Action” seems both convenient and strategic, referencing and playing upon Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 term for the New York School’s gestural style and the performative, public nature of the event — it was “Action Painting” painted “in action.” Gysin was in part paying homage to Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry” performances in Paris, February-March 1960, but he was also clearly indebted to Georges Mathieu, who was already renowned and castigated for his public displays of Tachisme in action during the late 1950s. Mathieu would actually paint one of his greatest works, “The Victory of Denain,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, on the eve of the opening of his 1963 retrospective — a demonstration of his skill, speed and prowess. But by then he had painted in public on many occasions, and this performativity became synonymous with his name and integral to his artistic practice. He would dress up for the public painting of a picture — in Tokyo in 1957 he wore traditional Japanese Samurai costume for the painting of his picture “The Battle of Hakata.” Dominique Quignon-Fleuret wrote of Mathieu’s gesture that it was “like the flash of the razor in the opening of the cut,” and in the Third Mind performances the calligraphic gesture and the cut-up technique were equated as magical invocations, and as methods of making, as Miles puts it, “a giant tear in conventional reality.” Gysin’s destruction of the pictures which he created during his performances, may have been inspired in part by descriptions of Mathieu “executing his work in public.” Mathieu studied the history and topographics of the battles he painted, and the seemingly spontaneous creation of these paintings was actually based on a reconstruction of military strategy, battle formations and troop movements. Likewise, Gysin knew the format and process and structure of the painting he would perform — one photograph shows an underlying grid over which his calligraphic signature script is fluently unfolding. Further, “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” actually describes the process of painting within a multimedia performance, indicating the crucial sources, themes, imagery and aims of the work — the painting, however inspired the process and the resulting image, followed a structured and iconographic programme. Gysin liked Mathieu and his work, and Gysin’s calligraphic paintings may seem superficially allied to Mathieu’s in their energy and élan, and in their distribution and layering of gestural strokes on a colored ground, but the two artists are quite distinct. Despite his successful performances in Japan, Mathieu was not interested in Japanese calligraphy and always claimed that it had no influence on his art — Oriental calligraphy was symbolic and meaningful, and imbued with the mystical, whereas his own gestural art, which he termed “Lyrical Abstraction,” was based entirely upon speed of execution, and on his abstracted renderings and evocations of historic battles and the lives of military and aristocratic personages. Gysin’s art, on the contrary, was personally iconographic, issued from the study of Japanese and Arabic calligraphy, and, above all, did not record or transmute events of the past, but sought to fix the fluidity of transient moments of consciousness. Gysin learned something about Mathieu in the late 1950s which may have had a bearing on his reluctance ever to relocate to New York from Paris in order to push his career as an artist. It’s a story which would sum up the art world “in action” for Gysin, and it was both an amusing and a cautionary tale. On the 27th of August, 1957, Mathieu flew to Japan where he painted, in public, 27 canvasses, and a screen, as well as making a number of drawings and gouaches. He was in New York in October, ready for action, but his dealer, Samuel M. Kootz, knew that a public demonstration of Mathieu’s virtuosity, and the resulting stacks of wet canvases, would not go down well with either critics or with prospective purchasers in the United States, despite the American admiration for speed and efficiency. How could the high prices of Mathieu’s pictures be justified, given the very few minutes required for their execution? It would look like printing money. The image of “Action Painting” in America was that of the tortured soul labouring and agonizing for months and years over a single encrusted canvas — seeing Georges in impeccable Nineteenth Century dandy dress exponentially knocking his stuff out with barely a pause would have sunk his market value for sure. So… on October 9th, a Wednesday, the artist was taken to the fourth basement level below the former Ritz-Carlton Hotel at 400 Madison Avenue, where Kootz had rented a space so that Mathieu could paint the pictures for his imminent New York show in the utmost privacy. Surely, there must have been studios available in New York, with windows and light? Apparently not. Mathieu would have to work underground, literally — 45 feet underground, absolutely alone, in a room reached, remembered Mathieu, “at the end of long prison corridors… the most Kafkaesque experience of my life.” This was about as far from the public performance of painting as one could get, and absolutely no one would be able to say — “But it only took him five minutes to paint that!” Except later, when Mathieu, typically, couldn’t help confessing proudly — “I painted 14 canvasses in three hours.” Clearly, he’d wanted to get out of that place at speed. Gysin would stay in Paris, where the pace was slower and the art could be as fast as it liked.
The Razor’s Edge of Time
On June 17th 1939 Brion Gysin witnessed the public execution of the multiple murderer Eugene Weidmann in the Paris suburb of Versailles, 10 miles from the center of the capital. Shortly after 4 a.m. Weidmann was guillotined in front of a crowd of one thousand people outside the prison Saint Pierre, rue Georges Clémenceau 5. Reports that the guillotine had not been correctly adjusted — the bascule on which the condemned man was strapped was set at the wrong height and so his neck did not lie correctly in the lunette — and descriptions of drunken, joking spectators jostling for a good view lead to public outrage. But what really brought an end to the spectacle of the public execution were the photographs taken clandestinely of the decapitation — the widespread publication of these images in newspapers outraged the authorities, as if it was the image, and its reproduction, rather than the act itself that was obscene, a public incitement. These furtively taken photographs appeared in newspapers alongside descriptions of the crowd’s scandalous behaviour, which included eyewitness accounts of women breaking through the police cordons and rushing forward to soak their handkerchiefs in Weidmann’s arterial blood, mixing modern fandom and ancient fertility rite, before officials hosed the bloody cobbles and threw down sand — Gysin would dryly cite the women’s behaviour as a perfect example of hysterical aberration. A fellow member of that crowd was the 17-year-old Christopher Lee, the now celebrated actor, who found himself accidentally but literally on the set of a real horror film — because, in addition to the photographs taken by onlookers, cameramen filmed the execution from apartments overlooking the scene. We have become progressively immune to the mediated spectacle of killing, but the very idea of filming an execution was viewed at the time as utterly repugnant. Gysin would never forget this event, nor the irony that the executioner’s assistant, who was obliged to try and pull Weidmann’s head into the correct position for decapitation, was popularly known by the nom-de-plume le photographe — that is, the one who shadows and witnesses the executioner. Gysin was aware of the power of photography through media, and its historical importance, but his own work with photographic images over 40 years shows above all his awareness of the ways in which death is inscribed in the image — the photo as memento mori, as relic, testament to the world’s vanishing act. It’s the great truth of photography, that the image is always necessarily the record of something which once happened, of someone who once existed, now gone forever — caught and lost as time slid definitively over the razor’s edge, and lopped off another precious living moment. Gysin also recognized that pictures of Weidmann could be imbued with a profound, fetishistic significance, as was the case with Jean Genet. Gysin and Genet met in 1968 in Tangier — Genet had been given a letter of introduction from Burroughs in Chicago. Actually, Gysin remembered having met Genet before, in the 1930s and again in 1949, but Genet professed no memory of these meetings. However, together they recalled a number of mutual friends, and enemies, from those dim doomed decades, including a boy they had both known who went by the name of Fatalitas — so-called because he’d had that word tattooed around his neck. According to Gysin, the tattooed word indicated “where the chopper was gonna fall when his head was put under the guillotine.” There was a limited but understandable fashion for this kind of nihilistic decoration among sailors and convicts — both Gysin and Genet had also known the sinister Marcel, a protégé of Jean Cocteau, and later a manservant to Christian Bérard and Boris Kochno, a young man who’d had “Pas de chance” (“no luck”) tattooed around his neck at a naval prison in Corsica, and lived his life accordingly, in a condition of perpetual expectancy of imminent catastrophe, with little breaks of spite and vengefulness. When, in 1969, Genet took to visiting Gysin’s apartment at 59 bis Musa ben Nusair in Tangier, the two men were already linked by the stories of these “unfortunate ones” who were marked by “the necklace of doom,” but Gysin and Genet were also connected by their appreciation of the photograph as a mystical talisman, its power as an erotic icon, and as a source of magical and aesthetic self-projection — and by the fact that the man who Gysin had seen beheaded thirty years before, had become, through photography, Genet’s revered muse. On the 16th June 1939, the day before Weidmann’s execution, Genet had been apprehended for vagrancy and locked up, but he followed Weidmann’s case in the papers and the executed man would haunt his novel Our Lady of the Flowers, written in jail in 1941-2, a book which would become seminal for the Beats — in fact, the very first word of the book names the victim, and the opening passage crucially invokes his photographic image and the power of its reproduction and dissemination: “Weidmann appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded aviator… His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon all of France… Beneath his picture broke the dawn of his crimes… ” Genet is referring to a photograph of Weidmann, head swathed in bloodied bandages — he’d been subdued by a seventeen stone policeman who gave him three head blows with a carpet-laying hammer as he resisted arrest. The photograph had first appeared on the cover of Détective magazine on 16 December 1937. This photograph became the definitive icon of Genet’s spiritual pantheon, an image of enchantment and adoration which he carried with him for the rest of his life. Whatever fleabag hotel room he fetched up in, the photo of “a bloodied archangel,” as he described Weidmann, was ceremoniously fixed to the wall — the criminal spirit incarnated as household god. Genet gave copies of the photo to Cocteau and to Olga Kechelievitch — the image had become his most precious possession, and he’d so invested it with a sense of outlaw fraternity and shared martyrdom, that to give a copy to a friend was to give profoundly of himself, his mystic core. That Gysin had actually seen Weidmann decapitated constituted an intense, personal and historical bond between Genet and Gysin. Gysin himself was in no doubt about Genet’s genius and the sublime beauty of Our Lady Of The Flowers — and he had seen with his own eyes the terrible, bloody termination of its incandescent source. Genet would rescue the corpse from those “earthly policemen,” as he called them, and make Weidmann immortal through the greatest art, deifying the excoriated one, turning the foreign “liar, pervert and monster” described by the prosecution into a criminal saint… Writing this, I think of my friend, the late Donald Harris, who worked at the Royal Court in London in the 1960s and was involved in the production of Genet’s play The Blacks. He danced with Genet in a club in Earl’s Court and told me that Genet smelled “very clean,” but he couldn’t remember the record that was playing, the song they’d moved around to on that tiny, basement dance floor. The scene is distressed footage, hand held in black and white, images from someone else’s memory, the soundtrack missing.
Madame Guillotine / What’s in a Femtosecond
Gysin was fated to be haunted by “Madame Guillotine,” also known as “The National Razor,” and acts of decapitation and cutting would become central to his oeuvre. An ill-advised remark by Dr Guillotine — “With my machine, I’ll cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you won’t feel it!” inspired a popular song of the 1790s, the joking morbidity of which greatly appealed to Gysin whose own songs are similarly savage, comic elegies, paradoxical celebrations of loss and death. Images of the guillotine, the razor, the scimitar, the blade that definitely severs, run throughout Gysin’s writing. In The Last Museum — “Look, there is the guillotine and some young lady is having her head cut off by the executioner. Do you all see what I see? He is holding her head up for everyone to see.” One femme “whips out an old-fashioned straight razor… a cut-throat,” while another is skinned “with a double-edged Blue Gillette razor blade held between thumb and middle finger.” A bull has a “razor-sharp horn,” but the bullfighter thrusts his own blade into the animal “up to the hilt.” The blade is an instrument of threatened castration in these scenarios, but Gysin’s writing also invokes the guillotine blade as the mechanical tool of the spectacle of death, and he cuts seamlessly from an old Arab in a hamam smoking three sebsis of kif and shaving his genitals with “an open razor” to Dr. Guillotine “testing his device” on bleating sheep in a courtyard of Le Quartier Latin. What appalled and fascinated Gysin was the idea that the brain lived on after decapitation, the victim conscious for eternal seconds, aware of being a bodiless, severed head, mute testament to a condition of being which definitively mocks Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” The report of Doctor Beaurieux, examining the corpse of the executed Henri Languille in 1905, had suggested that the victim might remain sentient for an unspecified period of time after the blade cut him in two, and it is this horrific idea of the living, severed head that lies beneath Gysin’s choice of a passage from Othello for the epigraph to his novel The Process, lines which refer to the Anthropophagi, the headless cannibals “whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” A few years before the execution, when he was in Greece, Gysin had himself photographed with a skull positioned on his right shoulder and with his left hand resting on a second skull. His torso is naked, and there are discs drawn on his closed eyelids – the image homages Jean Cocteau, in particular photographs taken of Cocteau in 1927 by Berenice Abbott. But there is something else in this image — the deep, extensive shadow cast by the head entirely separates the head from body, obliterates the neck, so that Gysin’s “living” head floats free of his body, and takes on the severed status of the skulls attached to the abandoned torso. It is indisputably an image of headlessness — decapitation designed and posed for the camera. Gysin’s decalcomania paintings were made in 1941, two years after Weidmann’s execution, and one example, in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, an ink on paper, shows, at the top of the picture, the chapiteau, or top crossbar of the guillotine, and the mouton, or weight, with the diagonal blade, while below these, at the bottom of the picture, there is a bleeding, skull-socketed, grimacing, severed Janus head — a mockery of Janus, since both knowledge of the past and the future are definitively separated by the fraction of a second required by the blade. The decalcomania technique involves the impressing of paint or ink from one surface onto another, and Oscar Dominguez proselytized the process as “having no preconceived object,” but both he and Gysin worked on the results of their compresses, delineating and highlighting the manifesting, suggestive images, and so the guillotine’s appearance in Gysin’s painting at this time seems both spontaneous and apparitional, and yet recognized and drawn out. It is hard not to see this work as a reverberation of Weidmann’s death, shudders and smears and blotches of ink revealing a double death’s head, a ghastly memorial to that festive early morning when, as onlooker Tennyson Jesse recalled, “the great blade crashed down and rebounded from its own force and weight.” The crescent of the lunette and the shape of the crossbar or chapiteau of the guillotine apparatus appear repeatedly throughout Gysin’s roller grids, made by the lifting of the roller from the paper. Again, this might be seen as accidental, a mere resemblance, but its sheer recurrence and Gysin’s study of the latent meanings in his own mark-making, suggest quite otherwise, as does an examination of the context and operations of the grid works themselves — the effect may have been fortuitous, but its meaning cannot have escaped Gysin who employed it repeatedly by design. In the mid-thirties Gysin had lived close to rue Git-le-Coeur, just round the corner from the future Beat Hotel where he would live in the ’50s and ’60s, and from his window he’d had a “perfect view” of the place where, he believed, between 1789 and 1792, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotine’s proposed “beheading machine” was tested on live sheep and on human corpses procured from L’Ecole de Médicine — so for Gysin that area of the quartier was itself bound up with the history of the death machine. In the grids we see images of rooms in the Beat Hotel, severed with scissors or cut out on an artist’s guillotine, so that the Beat Hotel itself, the very place of cutting, is represented through the process of cutting — the images so produced take up their occupancy in a grid structure that suggests the floors and rooms of the hotel, a structure that may also be read as a series of guillotines with the vertical squares as stages in the descent of both the decapitator and the cut-up blade. This is clearly seen in Third Mind collage prints of 1965 — in “23 Die In Saigon,” for example, the lunette appears with a photograph of corpses placed directly above it, a cut-up homage to the guillotine. In Gysin’s “Self Portrait Jumping” of 1974, the severed image of Gysin is frozen in mid-air, and contained within a vertical armature, the image bright against a dark ground with runs and drips of blood-like ink — the descent of the silvery cut-out image mimics the blade about to fall. The hotel plan and the diagrammatic guillotine structure merge and move back and forth in the grids — they are parts of the scaffolding of the Paris set, on which the collagist hangs his paper, those textual and visual distressed materials removed from their original published contexts, but they also signify the material operations and the actual sites of chopping up and cutting through the human body-image, the Beat Hotel and the good doctor’s death machine both hiding in plain sight in Gysin’s “bright scaffolding.” He slices through texts, severing the referent “head” from the “body” of the sign, he cuts up tape and contact sheets and removes the fragments from chronological time and linear coherence, he turns his permutations of “I AM THAT AM I” into bodiless oracular recordings, and projects images onto his torso, from which his own head emerges in a “veritable split” — these are guillotine procedures, severing language and logic, body and mind, and demarcating the organic and the technological. Gerard Reve wrote in his inimitable style, “you can never decapitate him another time again,” but in his work Gysin did just that, in words and images, in coded and dissimulated and inchoate forms, he re-staged that decapitation. In The Last Museum, the guillotining turns out to be a “Deceptual Art Show,” like the staged hangings on a film loop in Naked Lunch, while photography was seen by Gysin as just such a serial reenactment, providing millions and millions of chopped-out death images — nothing less than decapitated life, courtesy of the camera shutter as guillotine blade, each image a little death, an orgasm for Thanatos, as another fraction of a second slides over the razor’s edge of time. Gysin projects the “time out” of an orgasm as a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second, or one millionth of one billionth of a second, a femtosecond being to a second what a second is to around 31.7 billion years… The notion is frightening, ludicrous, unimaginable, and a good way to turn your brain inside out… This “little death,” described by Burroughs as the “flash bulb of orgasm,” is an escape from time, a fractional “out of Time” of non-being, but you return only having “lost the time you were ‘out'” — that moment out of time is the godhead for Gysin, is immortality itself, and in his metaphysics the trick is to enter that moment and stay there… “not to be born back into the same Time, not to be born back at all,” avoiding the rebirth “out of Time and back into Time again.” In this metaphysical scenario, photography is Black Ops, a deadly Black Art — it removes a fraction of a second from time, but that immortal moment, taken out of time and “frozen,” is the negative, in both senses, of immortality because it puts back into time a preserved, fixed ghost image which stands in relation to immortality as 1 : 1,000,000,000,000,000. In the photo grid works of the 1970s, Gysin arranges the cut-out contact images in vertical shafts, the figures descending in successive stages to the chopping-off point — each image has been cut “out of Time,” but has been rearranged and reinserted “back into Time again,” so that these people who once existed are reborn, but as the living dead, as ghosts of the terminal image apparatus. Incidentally, operated by an expert, someone who really knows what he’s doing, the guillotine blade will slice through a human neck in 0.005 of a second. The executioner and his assistant, le photographe, got just one shot at Weidmann, but film of the decapitation, taken from a seat in the balcony, may now be viewed on YouTube.
What’s in a Name
Gysin had certainly read the coverage of Weidmann’s trial before the execution, and knew that the extremely good-looking, masculine Weidmann was homosexual, or “versatile in his choice of sexual partners.” The press coverage was unprecedented, not only because Weidmann had strangled a young dancer and shot five people in the nape of the neck, (there were almost certainly other victims), but because Weidmann’s evident confusion, solitariness, charm and beauty were appealing, and suggested a martyred alien, “a fallen creature of another race,” one who had “committed the crime of being born.” Colette covered the trial for Paris-Soir and Maurice Chevalier, never slow on the uptake, managed to get himself photographed in court with a woman barrister — there were celebrities in court every day, and Weidmann himself was now a celebrity, a progenitor of our own times, a poète maudit by default, a surrealist manqué, an existential icon before the fact. Intellectuals and Roman Catholic novelists wrote letters and signed petitions for clemency, while Colette commented, with the sympathetic unflinchingness of the truly adopted Parisian, “Pity he’s got to be guillotined. He’s a good-looking kid.” This was France, and the French language played a crucial part, though no one picked up on it at the time, despite Weidmann’s own inchoate testimony that his name was mutable, and that he could assume the identity of a young woman by learning to sign her name. The French press gallicised Weidmann’s Christian name, replacing “Eugene” with “Eugène,” changing the pronunciation. In fact, Weidmann’s name “Eugene” was pronounced to rhyme with “Gene,” and so was homophonous with “Jean,” the name of his first victim, Jean de Koven. Weidmann claimed that he killed Jean for her passport so that he could cash travellers’ cheques, because “Jean” was also a man’s name in France, and he was called “(Eu)Gene,” so no one would question him, especially as he had applied himself to imitating her signature . . . But this, and other stories he told, simply did not stand up to scrutiny (he did not cash those checks, by the way). It’s possible, as Rayner Happenstall believed, that the homophony of names was enough to unleash Weidmann’s psychosis. He was self-destructive, he was suicidal, so he killed “Jean” — but it was the wrong “Gene.” Gysin may have recognized in the personality enigma of Weidmann, in both the murderer’s explanations of his crimes and in psychological profiles of the time, an extreme version of the kind of disassociation of identity, bound up with linguistic ambiguity, that he felt within himself. The writer Georges Bernanos described Weidmann as “the very image of supernatural abandonment,” and it became apparent that Weidmann’s father had been “permanently missing” from his life, something which Gysin would surely have noted. Throughout the trial Weidmann was described as a mythomaniac, for whom every truth was a fiction, and every fiction true, and perhaps the title of Gysin’s lost manuscript of the early 1940s unconsciously echoed that repeated phrase, the diagnosis of a terminal storyteller — Memoirs of a Mythomaniac. No matter, what Gysin did know was that immediately after the blade fell, “a geyser of blood” shot out of the neck, as Marcel Montarron reported, and Weidmann made his last sound on earth. Tennyson Jesse — “The voice that had been so beautiful, so soft, so gentle in the courtroom, was stilled for ever. There only came a last exclamation from Weidmann — and that was involuntary — the whistling that always sounds when a head is cut off. For the neck gives a snap as the last breath of air leaves the lungs, though the head be already in the basket.” For Gysin, breathing would become the very art of living, not just the automatic process of staying alive, although hooked up to oxygen cylinders he would get to know all about that — it would become the In-breath of Inspiration and the Out-breath of Creation in his philosophy, the very breath of awareness of existence pulsating through the mortal body. This mindfulness could only make the memory of Weidmann’s expiry, his final expiratory gasp, the physiological whistle of extinction, truly abominable, atrocious, a crime against the human spirit. But then, as now, outrage is useless, fury futile. As Tennyson Jesse wrote at the time, “It is the man’s windpipe and not his tongue that protests.”
The Torso Of 1960 and the Torso of 1939
Gysin’s first one-man show had opened in Paris at the Aux Quatre Chemins gallery on May 19, 1939. Weidmann, a German national, was executed on June 17, 1939. Ten weeks later, on September 1, Germany invaded Poland and two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Gysin had already left Paris and at the time of the declaration of war he was living off his wits, style, and flair with a group of aristocrats in exile, in a luxury hotel on the lakefront at Laussane. His Paris career seemed over, and in June the following year he would arrive in New York with $22 to his name. In one of his 1939 sketchbooks he had drawn a nude male torso, and this headless body was prophetic — his own torso would be the site and screen for the projections at the Domaine Poétique and the ICA in the early ’60s, photographs of which call attention to the clear demarcation of head and body. In one image, taken by Nikolas Tikhomiroff, Gysin holds a sheet from his neck, while the projected image on the sheet shows his arms hanging at his sides — it creates the illusion that someone is standing behind him, holding a shroud around his neck, pulling it back from the neck, or a shadowy magician is holding the sheet from which a disembodied head is about to float up into the air… The section of Gysin and Wilson’s Here To Go dealing with these projections is titled, “The Torso of 1960,” but through the projected images and through all the years we may glimpse the torso of 1939 — Weidmann’s headless corpse, his white shirt pulled down over his back and shoulders, released from the bascule and rolled off the death machine with superb timing into the waiting coffin.
Continue on to Burroughs-Gysin Excursus