Art in an age of egoists; Even drugged-out failures can get a retrospective
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 April 2008)

William Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch, was always glad to tell how his cut-up technique stimulated his thinking. He would slice through two unrelated books, down the middle of the page, then put the cut pages side by side and discover what wild ideas this random combination created. A fragment from, say, a 19th-century Italian novel would lead into a fragment from a guide to growing rhododendrons. No one, least of all Burroughs, knew what Burroughs would come up with next. Thus he produced novel-ish books that got him called, for some years, a genius.

Burroughs learned this system from an unknown Canadian artist and writer, Brion Gysin (1916-1986), who was born in England, brought up in Edmonton, and over five decades lived the drugged-out, hand-to-mouth, avant-garde life in Paris and North Africa. In recent years, Gysin and his work have been carefully analyzed in two books by John Geiger, a former National Post editor, now at the Globe and Mail -- Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine (2002) and Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin (2005).

Now Gysin is at the centre of a new documentary, FLicKeR, by Nik Sheehan, which plays at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto tomorrow and Saturday and will later show up on television, on Bravo! first.

Gysin taught Burroughs randomness, which was already a part of visual art and experimental music. This was 45 years ago. It was the age of random music, random painting, and Burroughs added random writing. The idea was to elude the mind's inner censor, cast off the shackles of the protective ego, soar through the empyrean of imagination, and produce-- art! It was fun, a treat for everybody except maybe the audience.

At the time, culture dealt in metaphor. Nobody had thought of selling an actual dead shark to a museum. Artists were still just depicting sharks. The idea was to represent and interpret reality rather than floating it, Damien Hirst-style, in a tank of formaldehyde. Literalness carried to the level of tomfoolery was only a distant dream. This week a German artist, Gregor Schneider, announced that he'll have someone arrange to die during his next installation; a clinic in Dusseldorf has promised to help him recruit a volunteer willing to expire in public, to show the beauty of death. Many will call Schneider an art-thought pioneer. His work will be shown at Dokumenta. Soon people will compete to die for art at the Venice Biennale.

A peak experience like that wasn't even a dream back in Gysin's day. His career strategies were, by comparison, humdrum. He wanted to become rich and famous by expanding imagination.

But unlike Damien Hirst, or even William Burroughs, he was no world beater. Burroughs and his pal Allen Gins-berg stumbled in a druggy daze from success to success. Even if money was short, people took them seriously.

Not Gysin. In his career, failure followed failure. This could have been the result of his personality (anger-management was not among his talents) or his self-intoxicated delusions. He believed himself the reincarnation of an evil wizard, the 10th-century King of the Assassins in Persia. Somehow this failed to make him popular.

In the 1930s, he became friends with the Surrealists in Paris and was chosen to show his paintings alongside those of Picasso, Magritte, etc. But on the day of the exhibition's opening, he was abruptly exiled by the king of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, who ordered young Gysin's paintings taken down. For years afterward, that rejection shadowed his life. Easily hurt and often discouraged, Gysin attributed later failures to Breton's arbitrary decision.

In Tangier, around 1950, Gysin helped found a restaurant, The 1001 Nights. It was a success (he got to know one customer, Burroughs, very well), but he lost his piece of the business. Something about not getting the right signatures on the contract. Later, as a friend of Burroughs, Gysin wrote a movie script for Naked Lunch. Alas, it was never produced. He collaborated with Burroughs on a large manuscript. Unfortunately, it was never published.

Gysin's most daring bid for success was a machine with a strobe-like light that would bend the imagination in creative directions if you sat for a while in front of it with your eyes closed. Ideally, it would have an effect something like LSD, but without chemistry. That's why Sheehan calls his 75-minute film about it FLicKer. (Possibly Sheehan borrowed his capitalization policy from Sarah Jessica Parker's character in L.A. Story; she's named Sandy but writes SanDeE* on her palm, informing Steve Mar-tin how to spell it.)

Before shooting the film, Sheehan commissioned his own dream machine, following designs developed by Gysin and his friend Ian Sommerville in 1961. It has a 100-watt light bulb, a motor and a cylinder with cut-out shapes that rotate, altering the random images the machine projects. Sheehan set it up for anyone he interviewed on film, so the documentary's viewers can see people with closed eyes experiencing various states of ecstasy as light flashes across their eyelids. At the end, no one seems altogether convinced that the thing works, except maybe Sheehan. He discovered that it made him see a flight of angels streaming toward him.

Soon we understand that the machine isn't the point of this enterprise. FLicKer plays as a lively, well-shaped and often engrossing parade of freaks who knew or were influenced by Gysin, such as Marianne Faithful, Kenneth Anger, Iggy Pop and someone named Genesis P-Orridge, a transsexual of strong opinions and wild eyes, heavily ringed with kohl.

Burroughs thought the machine could "storm the citadels of enlightenment," but it never got manufactured and in the end joined the list of Gysin's might-have-beens. He consoled himself by claiming, "I enjoy inventing things out of fun. After all, life is a game, not a career." But Geiger has made sure that Gysin's not forgotten in the libraries. There, along with Geiger's books, you can find Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, published in 2001 by the Wesleyan University Press. Now Gysin and his fantasies, including even the one about the King of the Assassins, have been given their place in the history of documentary film.

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