“I am that I am,” declares Brion Gysin in a video projection, his deep voice resonating throughout the second floor of the New Museum. The statement promises to reveal something about this lesser-known artist of the Beat generation, even if that something is unclear. As Gysin anxiously repeats permutations of the statement—“Am I that I am,” “I that I am am”—until his voice is an auto tuned squeak, it's apparent that the answer to who is Brion Gysin may not be easy.
Gysin has long been overshadowed by the people he influenced and collaborated with — William S. Burroughs, Keith Haring, and David Bowie amongst them — a history “Dream Machine,” seeks to recast, though curator Laura Hoptman does so with only limited success. While his involvement in nearly all genres of art from painting to poetry to performance is impressive, this diversity of form is trumped by the stale reworking of the same theme in each piece.
The exhibition space is divided chronologically into four parts: calligraphic paintings and drawings, the “Cut-Up Method,” Gysin's collage book with Burroughs titled The Third Mind, and his pinnacle project, the Dreamachine. This breakdown promises a multicolored portrait of Gysin, but his cut-ups, which are basically just the rearranging of words and phrases, dominate every chapter so that each room becomes a repeat of the last. The method itself proposes more than it can offer. Through randomly rearranging words, Gysin disassociates language from meaning in order to establish new ones. Yet these meanings remain lost in phrases that at best play with our perception, but rarely amount to more than butchered language.
In the first two galleries Gysin explores the “Cut-Up Method” through painting, literature, and sound. His painting proves to be the least successful of the three approaches, as these works have little impact on the viewer. In “Eight Units of a Permutated Picture” eight distinct canvases, each in a different color scheme, are rearranged every morning before the museum opens (sorry art handlers). While this attempts to transfer cut-ups to painting, visitors miss out on the process of permutation, unless they return to the show to witness the piece in a new order. Without any immediate visual clue to the revolving nature of this work, the Cut-Up Method is lost.
Gysin's sound cut-ups are more convincing, especially because the artist's enigmatic voice imbues emotion and urgency into otherwise nonsensical babble. The “I am that I am” piece includes Gysin reciting permutations of several poems while his calligraphic paintings and dramatic images of the artist's face fade in and out of the background. In this work we get a sense of Gysin's obsession with magic, sparked by the years he spent in Morocco listening to the hypnotic music of the Joujouka brotherhood. His chanting arrangements reverberate throughout the gallery, as though he were placing a spell over the viewer.
The magic dies out though as Gysin repeatedly reworks his Cut-Up theory like a table set he compulsively rearranges. In a third room, several pages from The Third Mind, are displayed, each a collage of disparate newspaper images and texts. Some jumbled passages clearly written by Gysin and Burroughs are printed on newspaper-looking sheets to trick the viewer and once again disassociate language from meaning. With clippings drawn from war catastrophes and other tragedies, this mixing of nonsense and news reads like a cold detachment from current events.
The Dreamachine placed in the middle of the gallery, is the real highlight of the show.Viewers sit in a dark alcove with closed eyes around a rotating cylinder with cutout shapes and a light bulb suspended in the center. The New Museum's audio tour (on an ipod mini no less) provides an accompanying soundtrack by the English music and art group, Throbbing Gristle, whose member, Genesis P-Orridge, was heavily influenced by Gysin and even took magic lessons from him. Filled with trippy noises and Jazz-like rhythms, the track feels like a gimmick to heighten the disorienting experience of the machine. More poignant, is watching how viewers react to the piece. Some seem meditative, others confused—one man stood in the corner as if afraid to even get near.
A poorly lit hallway holds some of Gysin's final works in which he returned to the Cut-Up Method, though anyone who walked through the exhibit would likely ask when he'd ever left it. In a 1982 video of Gysin repeating variations of “Kick That Habit Man” against Steve Lacey's Jazz music, the artist sounds tired, uninterested, and almost like a broken record. His old age may be the reason for this, but it seemed to reveal other truths as well. Gysin constantly searches for an alternative world, but that land is never fully discovered. Almost like a habit, The Cut-Up Method becomes limiting in the end.