Brion Gysin

"I am the artist when I am open. When I am closed I am Brion Gysin."

Brion Gysin was born in Taplow House, Taplow, Bucks, UK. After losing his father at the age of nine months, his mother took him to New York to stay with one of her sisters and then to Kansas City, Mo., to stay with another. He finished high school at the age of fifteen in Edmonton, Alberta, and was sent for two years to the prestigious English public school, Downside. While there, Gysin began publishing his poetry before he went on to the Sorbonne. In Paris, he met everybody in the literary and artistic worlds. When he was nineteen, he exhibited his drawings with the Surrealist group, which included Picasso at the time.

Brion Gysin was a self-taught painter, picking up tips from friends and eventually learning "that the thing to do was to make the paint make the painting but for years my head got in the way of my hand." During those years, in his late teens, he was a member of the Surrealist group, which at that time included Picasso.

During the war he was in the U.S. Army, joined the paratroops and broke his wrist on his first training jump, and soon had himself transferred to a Scottish regiment of the Canadian Army, where he was taught Japanese calligraphy. In the army he met the great grandson of Josiah Henson, the escaped slave preacher whose story Harriet Beecher Stowe used for Uncle Tom's Cabin' Drawing from this meeting, Gysin wrote Josiah Henson's biography in 'To Master A Long Goodnight', while other material went into 'A History of Slavery in Canada' winning him one of the first Fullbright Fellowships.

In 1950 he went to the international city of Tangier with Paul Bowles . Before becoming a novelist, Bowles was a composer who Gysin says, 'taught me how to use my ears." They were both captivated by the music of Morocco, particularly the trance music. The music kept Gysin there for years and, later, Paul Bowles was to travel through the country visiting remote villages with early tape machines to make recordings for the Library of Congress.

Morocco was also to appear in Gysin's paintings which, at that time, were influenced by the scenes he saw when flying across the Florida keys from Cuba. He threw liquid colour across the surface and ran it into abstract landscapes. Later, travelling through Morocco south to the Sahara he found the landscapes of his paintings rising up around him in the desert. The desert was to fill his canvasses for years, as the music was to fill his life.

Gysin found his music in the little village of Jajouka in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. He set up the Thousand and One Nights restaurant in the wing of a palace in Tangier and brought musicians down into the city so he could hear their music every night. But soon Tangier's unique status as an international citydied out along with Moroccan independence and most of Gysin's clients disappeared. The restaurant closed and Gysin scrambled back to Paris . Gysin took an interest in Arabic calligraphy while in Morocco. He saw that the two calligraphy styles, the Japanese moving from top to bottom of the page and the Arabic from right to left, used the plane of the paper in different but complementary ways. They came together in his paintings as a result of experiences with Moroccan magic where, to form a cabalistic grid, "you write across this way and then you turn the paper and you write across the other way, and then you've got the thing locked in and it happens."

The idea for the Dreamachine was the effect of a bus ride into Marseilles through a long avenue of trees behind which the sun was setting. Closing his eyes against the sun "an overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space." He and Ian Sommerville later developed a series of Dream Machines which trigger these visions by whirling a slotted cylinder around a light bulb to produce flashes every eight to thirteen times a second, the rhythm of alpha waves in the brain. The flashes of light coming through the cylinder against closed eyelids become a sort of entertaining electroencephalagram, producing anything from swirling color flashes to all-out dreamlike hallucinations.

While cutting a matte for a drawing on day, Gysin cut through the newspapers underneath. He noticed that the texts of these papers feel together in interesting patterns, and told William Burroughs, expecting a laugh and nothing more. Burroughs, on the other hand, was deeply interested, saying Gysin had indeed "found something big." Gysin and Burroughs spend much time experimenting with cutups from then on.

Gysin also made "permutated poems." He took many of these to the BBC in 1960, and ran them through their experimental studio. Of one pice, "Pistol Poam," Gysin says, "I picked one of their pistols and I said, 'Record it for me at one metre away, at two metres away, three, four, five.' And then we just play them and permutate that. Then we take the whole thing and double it back on itself like that. And it was, 'Oh . . . wow . . . there . . . ah.' . . . and when the permutations were laid one over the other like that, it goes off into 3/4 time and becomes a crazy little waltz. By itself! And so the whole point of it, and anybody who listens to it sees that is the idea, is that you just put the material into a certain situation and give it a push, and then the things makes itself. And that's always been my principle." Hearing these poems on American radio influenced many now-influential minimal music composers. He became known as on of the fathers of sound poetry.

In 1960 he formed the Domaine Poétique group in 1960 which used light projections and painting. This was an anticipation of performance art with Gysin painting on stage as his permutated poems played, or playing into images of himself being projected from two light sources fading in and out.

Meanwhile at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs was taking his scissors to his whole trunkfull of manuscripts, to produce his cutup trilogy consisting of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.

Gysin's novel, 'The Process', was published in 1970. Though Gysin said it contained cutups, they were not obvious. The book tells the story of a black American professor with a tape recorder. The tale is told by voices spinning their yarns onto the tape recorder, and many interesting characters and visions rise up out of the reels.

His final book, 'The Last Museum,' has been published at last bey Faber and Faber. Many chunks of the manuscript had been appearing in obscure magazines for sevseral decades before the book was finished, under the title of "Beat Museum, Bardo Hotel." It tells the story of a character who progresses through hotel rooms after his death, but all the while the hotel is being dismantled room by room and sent to California.

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.

BRION GYSIN: Yes, people have objected [to the artwork].

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: I don't see why they should. It's a substance. Why that's like jumping up from your microscope and screaming: "I won't look at that anymore! They're squirming around down there just carrying on so nasty!" Now I regard you, Brion, as being in my own line of work. Being strictly an experimenter, I say: Science is pure science! All of us are pure scientists exploring different levels of fact and if we turn up something nasty we're not to blame. If someone finds a real nasty-looking microbe, is he going to stop because some idiot comes along and says: Pornographer! I must say that my whole family was nauseated by the sight of your slides! You and your filthy pictures!