rev. 3, August 4, 2010
Only two things are really of interest in the Brion Gysin show at the New Museum, both of them in fact taking Gysin and art out of himself and itself in way completely misread by Ben Davis in his Artnet review. Actually, the Times got it closer by linking Gysin to growing contemporary interest in magic. And to comment on the return of magical thinking: All of this is not new age escapism, but a cultural effect of a changeover from the Age of Reason to the Age of the Brain in which cognitive science has rediscovered the embodied nature of the mind in the body and a new relation between art, culture and reason in way more typical of magic thought systems than the rational-categorical thought systems developed in the West over the last two hundred years. Firstly, then, Gysin’s Dream Machine, while he made have read it in modernist subjective terms, is an instrument with a function and purpose beyond the usual boundaries of purist definitions of art.
Its closest cultural relatives are the multicolored spinning hypnotic machines one sees in horror movies like Corman’s The Terror and in the third episode of Twice Told Tales, when Basil Rathbone tries to suspend Vincent Prices soul in his body after his death (the spinning wheel hypnotic device, and even the watery basin of swirling water in Sherlock Holmes and the Woman in Green, 1945, would be other cousins).
The same sort of lamp shows up in possession of Christopher Lee in The Crimson Cult, a more interesting example because hidden within an everyday lamp. The degree to which these devices were in fact used by Mesmerists to induce hypnosis gives them a magical agency with a curative purpose (see other entry on these). I also relate these devices to various simple tests often administered by psychologists or opthamologists, including the Ishihara or the Rorshack test. Gysin might have psychologized these lamps for modern surreal taste, but they have a hypnogogic agency one simply does not see in art that often. Second, it is said that Gysin’s grid aesthetic came from his experience of losing a restaurant in Morocco and finding a piece of paper with a grid on it secreted in the back wall of the restaurant, which he later found out was a curse. A curse, of course, is yet another magic form of art, and is meant to “do the evil” on others. Gysin apparently believed in its power. Certainly, the grid pattern that he copied from it, most likely in an attempt to either pass along or the repel the curse through his art, was most likely an intensifying effect believed by the author of the curse to add to its power, folding it up, again, would add to its power still further, as would hiding it, and inside a wall (so there are four layers of intensification).
And so thereafter Gysin in fact practiced a form of apotropaic magic in the guise of art. Because the Third Mind is endowed with a grid one has to see it as a work of paper magic (a subcategory of magic that is a special interest of mine), its pattern intending to either curse or protect the artist or those who view it. You just don’t see art like this too often, but maybe we might be seeing more of it in the age of magic on the rise.