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brion gysin

︎Artist, Painting, Typography, Collage, Literature, Spirituality, Article  
︎ Ventral Is Golden

The renowned Beat Generation writer William Burroughs once said that Brion Gysin was the only man he ever respected.

After the two met in Tangier, Morocco, their artistic relationship burgeoned as their two practices of the visual arts and literature merged, creating the cut-up technique that popularised much of Burroughs’ writings. They would later publish a collaborative novel, The Third Mind (1977), that acted as a manifesto of the possibilities of cutting up ‘junk’, printed ephemera and newspaper articles, in order to disassociate the words from their original or ‘perceived’ meanings.

Gysin’s artistic output was vast and peripatetic, ranging from calligraphy, large scale floor paintings, sound poetry, video manipulation, creative writing to performance art and theatre.
“From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Gysin’s style manifested itself in a series of calligraphic paintings and drawings that he produced in Morocco. Being fluent in written Japanese and Arabic, Gysin’s script-like canvases represented an attempt to fuse writing and painting into a single complex system of mark-making. He used a grid formation, making marks from top to bottom as well as right to left, to create a dense pattern of abstract language” as a method of reassembling the surplus visual produce of large urban environments.

He would also take this method into his sound poems, or permutation poems, such as ‘Junk is No Good Baby’. Much in the style of Gertrude Stein and Bob Dylan, he would stretch the limitations of word combinations, “embracing magnetic tape and computer technology, at a time when such practice was the preserve of scientists, Gysin equated his Permutations with those of a machine. He went on to perform these works around Europe, accompanied by music and handmade slide projections.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Gysin’s oeuvre is firstly his association with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician who worked with The Beatles, on the fabrication of the Dream Machine.
The Dream Machine was a pioneering piece of hallucinatory kinetic art, constructed out of nothing more than a turntable that rotated at 78rpm, a cantilevered light and a cylinder with rounded parallelograms cut from its surface.
The idea for the machine came to Gysin as he was falling asleep on a bus in Marseille. As the sun set amongst the trees, it created a flicker effect that induced a lucid dream. Later, with Sommerville, they would learn that the revolutions of the turntable could recreate this effect and correspond to the frequency of alpha waves emitted by the brain during deep sleep. This was the first piece of art meant to be viewed with closed eyes, and it was Gysin’s (unsuccessful) intention to sell the machine to Panasonic in order to eventually replace the television.

“This was the first piece of art meant to be viewed with closed eyes, and it was Gysin’s (unsuccessful) intention to sell the machine to Panasonic in order to eventually replace the television.”

Secondly, Gysin believed in part that he was the reincarnation of the 11th century businessman, scholar, mystic, ascetic and political revolutionary of Iran. A man named Hassan-I-Sabbah.

Sabbah lived until the age of 90 and was also known as the old man in the mountain. He would carefully construct his army by recruiting wonderers and gypsies into the fortress, Alamut, subduing them with vast amounts of hashish. Within the walls of Alamut, he had fabricated his Garden of Earthly Delights.
After the travellers had awoken from under the weight of their intoxication, Sabbah would be able to recount their dreams of the garden, giving the wonderers the impression he was omnipotent, thus making it somewhat easier to coerce them into becoming members of the Hashashin Order. (The etymology of Hashish and Assassin are very closely related because of this story).

Hassan-I-Sabbah was thus of particular interest to both Gysin and William Burroughs, as a kind of archetype of intellectual propaganda, relatable to the kinds of secret agencies and modern organisations, such as the CIA and FBI, that Burroughs wrote so furiously about. “Burroughs went on to write a brilliant poem called “The Last Words of Hassan-I-Sabbah”, which condemns modern covert terrorist organisations (intelligence agencies and big businesses) for being dishonourable.”

The famous last words of Hasan-I-Sabbah, “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”, were used as the title for the book on the life of Brion Gysin.

Further Reading ︎
The Secret Order of the Hashashins
The Idea Machine
Flicker, Full Documentary on the Dream Machine and the art of Brion Gysin
Junk and Baboon from Gysin's album, ‘Self Portrait Jumping’.


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