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Brion Gysin - Tied Together by Dreams

Words:

Edd Norval
February 5, 2020

William S. Burroughs described Brion Gysin as "the only man I ever respected." From one of the most influential writers of all time, that's quite the compliment. Gysin was, in many ways, a similar character to Burroughs. They were groundbreaking, experimental, even dangerous artistic minds whose opinion of the status quo was simply that it holds people back. That's why Gysin spent his entire life offering alternative solutions to creative questions.

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One definition of genius is someone who bears 'exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability'. Gysin, who married both the intellect with the creative, could be considered as such. An artistic polymath, someone willing to push beyond how we viewed the world with an unquenchable desire to redefine, the Buckinghamshire born painter and general creative mind has left one of the most important - yet unheralded - artistic legacies of any of his contemporaries behind.


Although best known as a painter, his most famous work came in the realm of an illusory visual device called the 'Dream Machine'. Created as a collaborative work with technician and programmer Ian Sommerville the machine is a cylindrical device to be put on to a record turntable which rotates, emanating light from cut-out holes aimed to be viewed with closed eyes. The effect is that it induces a relaxing 'dream' state.


Mandala-like patterns emerge bringing about an alpha wave mental state for the viewer. These patterns, as our brains adapt, become increasingly complex and therefore, immersive to those looking at the device. Although a visual creation, the holistic approach to art and possible physiological effects on its audience have been massively influential on musicians like David Bowie and Radiohead - both of whom also adopted the artist's other noteworthy innovation. The cut-up technique.

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Indebted to the Dada movement of the 20s, Gysin's cut-up technique - where texts are cut up and re-arranged to form another entirely different text - found popularity in the 50s and 60s. Proximiity to other members of the Beat Generation, particularly through their stay at the 'Beat Hotel' in Paris, a hotel where most of the movement's best known figures passed through the doors, allowed for ideas to coalesce and minds to become impregnated with new ones in a uniquely creative environment.


Upoen accidentally discovering the technique when cutting up art materials over newspapers lain down as a protective mat, he brought the idea to Burroughs in the hotel and the pair began to deeper explore the philosophical and artistic possbilities and ramifications of the subject, utilising the technique as a multidisciplinary process that worked with text initially, before images and then audio recordings.


Despite these contributions being the most lasting of Gysin's, neither were where his heart seemed to be. It was in calligraphy, particularly the Japanese 'grass' and Arabic scripts that he'd focus much of his time and energy and, as a result of this focus, an insight into how he thought about art, culture and his place in it all.

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With his unrelinquishing thirst for exploration, we got the Dreamachine and cut-up technique, yet first and foremost, Gysin was an artist in his own right. Through calligraphic expression, the painter found a corner of the art world that he could call home - able to work at his own pace and reflect on the art that most influenced him.


In what could be viewed as a counterbalance to his restless approach to creativity, Gysin's paintings were almost meditative, with the repetition (like his cut-ups) providing a mantra. The expressive characters shift subtly throughout his various works, giving a sense that the paintings are an infinite proposal, something that can endlessly transform, like the artist himself, throughout time and that the canvas has only captured a snapshot of the journey.


From changing the way wee see things by re-arranging our conscious ideas of what a text should be, to creating the 'only work of art meant to be viewed with closed eyes', Gysin has been a cultural and artistic innovator who combined his broad philosophical understanding of culture and art in his own paintings, his most personal output, yet oddly, least remembered. Still, it's in these paintings that we best see the man behind them, the mind that was never satiated, but longed to explore, learn and teach.

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