The world has never known quite what to make of Brion Gysin, the British poet, painter and visionary magpie. A close associate of writer William S. Burroughs, Gysin pioneered the “Cut-Up Method” of textual collage that led to Burroughs’ and the Beats’ most radical successes. But Gysin’s presence extends much further. He had roots in French Surrealism, contributed a hashish fudge recipe to the cookbook of Alice B. Toklas, dabbled in early electronic music and computerized poetry, and toured North Africa with Paul Bowles. It was during one of these treks, in the 1950s, that he encountered the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the Sufi trance collective whose music he eventually introduced to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, thereby ushering it onto the Western stage.
Major shows of Gysin’s work have been sparse, perhaps due to the lack of a narrative arc; while Gysin had his hooks in several major movements of the 20th century avant-garde, he never settled down into a recognizable groove.
New York City’s New Museum’s recent retrospective, the first in America, (it arrived at the Institut d’art Contemporain Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes on 16 October,) did an admirable job of showcasing the wide reach of Gysin’s concerns, with short films, musical pieces and diary entries supplementing an impressive array of sketches, paintings and collages that span the entirety of his restless career.
However, the coverage of so much ground necessitates a certain lack of focus, and Gysin, already an ill-defined figure in the art and literary worlds, emerged from the walls and exhibition cabinets only partially, the significant influence of Northern African culture on his work only minimally explored.
The “Dream Machine,” an installation piece, from which the show took its name, is a good example. It consists of simple components: a light bulb, a turntable and a large pressed-tin cylinder with designs cut into its surface. The cylinder, placed on the turntable, is spun around the bulb, and creates a shifting pattern of light and shadow, somewhat like a ramshackle and less aggressive strobe light. It’s reminiscent of the sound installations of the minimalist composer La Monte Young, who similarly used simple patterns and excessive repetition to facilitate altered mental states. And indeed, the museum’s notes do say that Gysin suggested audio accompaniment for his machine: the pipes of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. So why didn’t we have it?
Other notes scattered throughout the exhibit attested to the influence that the culture, environment and language of North Africa continually had throughout Gysin’s career. He lived in Tangier for most of the 1950s, and unlike most of his fellow expatriates, made serious efforts to engage with his foreign surroundings. Whereas his American peers viewed Morocco as a place of inscrutable codes, hierarchies and taboos in which their own deviance would go largely unnoticed, Gysin saw a platform for inspiration. He learned to read and write in Arabic, and a 1957 photo by the Harlem Renaissance artist Carl Van Vechten shows him wearing a djellaba, and looking quite comfortable in the native gear.
But viewers looking for a coherent account of the lifelong role that North Africa played in Gysin’s mind will depart unenlightened. Early, post-Surrealist paintings of desert landscapes are dismissed as “rather conventional,” but we only see one: a small piece from the 50s entitled “Dig and Wait for Water,” which depicts, with a flatness and detachment reminiscent of early Japanese art, two minuscule figures planted in the midst of a wash of brown and blond. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but possesses an idiosyncratic sense of place that’s seen again only in vibrant sketches of Bou Jeloud, a dancer who figures largely in Jajouka ceremonies.
More attention is given to Gysin’s calligraphic paintings and sketches, in which, as Gysin put it, “Word symbols turn back into visual symbols.” These works, ranging from ink jottings in notebooks to vividly colored oils, overlay a cryptic scrawl, often mixing the spacious curves and graceful dots of Arabic script with the crowded slashes of kanji, over curious grid patterns, sometimes painstakingly drawn, other times applied via a paint-roller with Gysin-inscribed patterns etched into its surface.
While it would be tempting to see the rigid right angles of the grid as Western rationality in conflict with the transcendental mystery of the East, Gysin’s obsession with patterns and the repetitive possibilities of technology would seem to suggest that the boxes represent more of a rune than a cage. The notes for one such piece record that it was inspired by a “Kabbalistic spell” that Gysin had seen written in Tangier. But to what degree do such “spells” incorporate actual Arabic writing? Burroughs claimed to be able to “read” some of these works, but it’s unclear to what degree they are actually legible.
We were also not told the significance of the hieroglyphics that sporadically pop up in “The Third Mind,” Gysin and Burroughs’ daunting collage novel. It’s unnerving to see these austere symbols crowded amongst the American babble of newspaper headlines, comic strips and magazine photos. Are they random noise, arcane messages or everyday code?
This article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm's "World Culture" series, which highlights artists and writers around the globe whose work has been influenced by North African and Middle Eastern art and culture.