Brion Gysin's Calligraffiti Of Fire At London's October Gallery

By Ben Miller | 11 December 2008
A picture of Brion Gysin's Calligraffiti of Fire, a set of gold panels with red designs on

Brion Gysin, Calligraffiti of Fire, 1985, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of October Gallery, London

Exhibition preview - Brion Gysin: Calligraffiti of Fire, October Gallery, London, December 11, 2008 - February 14, 2009

Trying to pin down Brion Gysin is a confusing business. At various times during his career the cult figure wrote novels, short stories and poems, produced rare yet vastly contrasting forms of art and played confidant to disparate social circles across the world, yet it is ultimately his chameleonic social and creative abilities which define him most.

It was a question which hung over the opening of his Calligraffiti of Fire exhibition at the October Gallery, the Bloomsbury venue which became the first in the country to show Gysin’s work in a solo exhibition 27 years ago.

“What always impressed me about him was his wide ranging interests,” said Barry Miles, who first met Gysin in the 1960s. “He always tried to be whoever somebody wanted him to be, which unfortunately meant that his whole public persona divided up into many different areas.”

A picture of one of the panels in the exhibition, with yellow paint and orange calligraphy

Gysin's panels are inspired by Japanese and Arabic calligraphy

“I thought he was a legend,” admitted Kathelin Gray, who first encountered Gysin via William Burroughs in 1977 and has curated this first UK appearance of the painting. “I didn’t realise he was a real, live human being.”

Both agree that he was a charming raconteur. “Everything he said seemed to be like he was revealing something to you,” said Miles, adding to Gray’s description of his “charisma, keen intelligence and education.”

“To me, Brion was just a very good friend. He was a very grand person, a little pretentious but always in good humour.”

A picture of a Dream Machine, which looks like an orange glow lamp, revolving on a turntable

The Dream Machine aims to hypnotise viewers

At more than 16ft long, you might expect the Calligraffiti of Fire to provide a few clues. A bright, calligraphic signature over several panels which, as Gray exotically observes, “dances off the canvas into the ether,” it is partly informed by Gysin’s knowledge of calligraphy from Japanese (learnt while he was preparing to invade Japan with the US army in an operation he never took part in) and Arabic (from his time in Morocco).

“Brion stressed that he never learned calligraphy properly, either in Japanese or Arabic,” emphasised Guy Brett, an art critic and writer whose insights into Gysin’s technique provided a technical yin to Miles’s anecdotal yang. According to Brett, the major impact calligraphy had on Gysin was “the way of holding a brush and the language of a brush, and the whole business of running ink onto paper.”

Gray’s explanation of the work reveals that Gysin believed life had dealt him a final passage to concoct one last piece of art, a typically spiritual pronouncement from a man heavily influenced by the hedonistic tumult of Tangiers.

A picture of a Dream Machine, shining brightly

Francesco Rimondi's interpretation of The Dream Machine revolves on an old turntable

“You can’t really talk about Brion without talking about his interest in drugs,” conceded Miles, an author whose autobiographical subjects include Jack Kerouac, Paul McCartney – who he introduced to hash fudge – and Charles Bukowski. Gysin, apparently, was “always very interested in hash.”

“I remember when he was in the Royal Free Hospital when he had cancer. As we were talking a young man came in with long hair and a dirty denim jacket, sat at the end of Brion’s bed and rolled up an enormous joint.” He passed it to a grateful Gysin, much to Miles’s concern. “I asked him, ‘aren’t you worried about the doctors?’ And he said, ‘that is the doctor’.”

Gysin was, as Brett says, “an experimental man in life and art,” who “realised that by choice or circumstance he lacked some of the attributes of what would normally be considered a professional artist.”

A picture of Guy Brett on stage reading from a sheet of paper with a microphone in front of Gysin's work. Brett has grey hair and glasses and is thin

Art expert Guy Brett gives an eloquent appraisal of Gysin at the opening

He would usually produce one or two productions in intense spurts of work, encapsulated by the creation of Calligraffiti of Fire a year before his death in 1986, which was finished in a week. “They don’t look like the side projects of someone who was a writer, though,” points out Brett. “There is a method, an autonomy, a sustained period of powerful concentration.”

The piece itself also highlights the intrinsic contradictions of Guysin’s work. Calligraphy taught him the art of grid formation (through a combination of the vertical direction of Japanese styles and the horizontal tendencies of Arabic ones), and an outpouring of paintings between 1959 and 1961 were full of grids. For a man who had largely been concerned with “cosmic speculation and the interconnection between writing and painting,” such linear thinking seems almost schizophrenic.

Upstairs, in a small theatre, sculptor Francesco Rimondi chuckled at visitors mesmerised by his versions of Guysin’s Dream Machine. A perforated, spinning tube of paper with a lightbulb in the middle which oscillates at the same rate as the human brain, Guysin believed the installation could induce an “alpha state” of meditation and sleep-like semi-consciousness.

A picture of people sitting at chairs in a hall looking at the Dream Machines

Visitors sat around the pair of Dream Machines

Rimondi has used two old record players, spinning at 78 rpm, to revolve his masterful patterns, glued between two pieces of wood. “You have to stand in front of it and close your eyes,” he instructed.

The inconvenience of lugging the pieces over from his base in France must have been worth it to witness the reaction they received, hypnotising viewers with showers of light, flickering across the darkened room.

“It is hard to escape the ambivalence between the liberating aspects of trance in the Dream Machine – which is about letting go, absolving the self and surrendering to chance – with the controlling structure of the cellular grid, identified as a structure for urban environment,” argued Brett, concluding that Gysin’s discrepancy was fully intentional. “He played with these two polars in some sort of fluid inter-relationship, perhaps in order to escape from rigid, absolutist thinking.”

A picture of a man sitting mesmerised in front of a Dream Machine

The psychedelic qualities of The Dream Machine contrast with the linear patterns which shape the Calligraffiti of Fire

“He published many books but was not thought of in literary circles, created art but was perceived as a writer by artists,” suggested Miles, pointing to Gysin’s commercial downfall.

“He was an investigator, an explorer. In the end that’s what he’ll be known for, I think – the transmission of ideas, and all the different areas he influenced people in. I think he encouraged people to look into the unknown.”

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