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William S. Burroughs’ artistic output on view in Germany

Posted March 24th, 2012

Multimedia, Shows


Such works as “Naked Lunch” or “The Soft Machine” are what made William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) world famous as an author. Far less known, by contrast, is that Burroughs, as a cross-media artist, also produced a comprehensive, varied body of work that no less experiments with audio tape, film and photography as it does with painting and collages. The comprehensive exhibition “the name is BURROUGHS – expanded media” presents the author’s artistic output in Germany for the first time; it examines the multiple affiliations between literary and experimental image production, further augmenting the image by way of the representation of “collaborations” Burroughs produced in association with other artists. The exhibition gains additional appeal thanks to a series of works by contemporary international artists who each make unambiguous reference to Burrough’s writings and his method of “expanded media”, and thus, from a present-day perspective, sound out the individual pictorial potential. The exhibition’s goal is to make tangible, in review and for the first time within Europe on such a scale, the visionary volatility of William S. Burroughs’ literary output while at the same time showing the impact of his ideas and philosophy on a wider network of authors, musicians, composers, painters, photographers, video artists and filmmakers. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Burroughs is more than ever considered – especially owing to the experiments he carried out in the 1960s together with painter, author, inventor Brion Gysin, with mathematician Ian Sommerville and filmmaker Antony Balch – as a pioneer of media art. In this respect, with the exhibition “the name is BURROUGHS – expanded media”, the ZKM also reflects the institution’s unique mandate and its own history – that it was, indeed, Burroughs, who was awarded the first Siemens Media Prize in Karlsruhe, in 1993. “the name is Burroughs” is the title of an essay from the anthology The Adding Machine (1985), which traces Burroughs’ path to becoming a writer: “As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.” Though not necessarily in chronological order, the exhibition takes up young Burroughs’ dreamy idea and accompanies the protagonist from his childhood and youth in St. Louis and Los Alamos; via Harvard, trips to Europe and 1940s New York, even as far as Mexico, where he wrote his first novel Junky. Lengthy stays in Tangier, Paris, and London were interspersed with periods back in New York again; locations, in which Burroughs photographed, produced collages, made extensive photographic, audiotape and film experiments, and, with his most important collaborator Brion Gysin, actively pressed ahead with linguistic and visual developments. Burroughs systematically extended medial possibilities already by the close of the 1950s. In hindsight, his work introduced the term “expanded media” almost lexically. In the mid-forties Burroughs came into contact with highly addictive narcotics – morphine, heroin and other opiates. On September 6, 1951, in a state of complete intoxication, Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer in Mexico City. In the estimation of the authorities, the deadly shot was an accident. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out,” wrote Burroughs in 1985, in the preface to his novel Queer (published 1951-53), in which he transgresses social taboos and declares this as his method. The demon of terror became entangled in the stylization of an uncompromising language. Even Burroughs’ first works had success among both American and European youth as well as with the literary “underground”, indebted as it was to the counterculture. Throughout the sixties he was the icon of the “Beat Generation”, and in the seventies the “godfather” of punk. With his epic poem HOWL (1956), Allen Ginsberg created a monument to his generation. The first line runs: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” It was with Jack Kerouac’s breathless prose in On the Road that the trio Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs (as Old Bull Lee) were to enter the stage of world literature. With Naked Lunch, Burroughs composed the third of those canonical works of Beat literature. The novel, in which he identifies language as a virus, rose to the status of a “cult book” during the second half of the twentieth century. Censorship of the publication Naked Lunch in America in 1962 – the book was published in Paris as early as 1959 – ensured Burroughs headlines in the world press. Over the course of the ensuing lawsuit Norman Mailer did not only attest “a certain genius” to him, but the suit also culminated in the abolition of literary censorship in the USA. After a quarter of a century of self-imposed exile, Burroughs returned to the United States permanently in spring 1974; he lived in New York for several years before spending his final years in the small university city of Lawrence, Kansas, where he, from the mid-1980s as “fine artist of the visual”, increasingly began to critically examine, transgress and consequently extend the limits of the possible – also in the traditional media of panel painting and works on paper. The exhibition “the name is Burroughs – expanded media” tracks the most influential stages and encounters in the life of William S. Burroughs, and includes some rarely accessible written, lyric, photographic, audio and film documents. Among these belong approximately 600 various editions of his books, published worldwide, which were loaned by one of the largest private collections on this theme. The paintings and drawings, documented with more than 150 original exhibits the majority of which stem from the Estate of William S. Burroughs (Lawrence, Kansas) as managed by James Grauerholz, are supplemented by additional loans from public and private collections. The exhibition impressively shows to the public that Burrough’s work on “paintings and drawings” represents an original contribution to North American contemporary art. The exhibition also displays those works – in the spirit of Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin collaborative project The Third Mind – that were created in cooperation with other outstanding artists: with Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, George Condo, Robert Wilson, Francesco Clemente, Philip Taaffe, John Giorno, Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain, Patti Smith and others. The significance of the works, as well as William S. Burroughs’ personality as countercultural icon for artists’ production across a number of generations is covered by way of prominent works. The spectrum covers the work of Walter Stöhrer and Rolf-Gunter Dienst or David Wojnarowicz through to Larry Clark and Christoph Lissy. Furthermore, numerous photographic portraits of Burroughs by Gerard Malanga, Charles Gatewood, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon and others are also on show. Among the highlights there are approximately 80 photographic prints of original negatives by Burroughs and Gysin loaned by the Barry Miles Collection, London, as well as a typewriter used by Burroughs in Paris, and the blade with which Brion Gysin discovered the literary method of CUT-UP. Exhibition curators: Udo Breger, Axel Heil and Peter Weibel with valuable support by James Grauerholz and his staff. In conjunction with the exhibition, a richly illustrated publication on William S. Burroughs as representative figure of the counterculture is available; the work includes a written contribution by Ian MacFadyen, and is edited by Axel Heil as part of his series Future of the Past (Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne). During the exhibition, the ZKM, in cooperation with the Estate of William S. Burroughs, plans a comprehensive publication including numerous essays and over 300 illustrations mostly hitherto unpublished works from the artist’s varied oeuvre.

- Watch: William S. Burroughs – The Movie (1985) – It has Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Francis Bacon, Jackie Curtis, John Giorno, Lauren Hutton, Patti Smith, Terry Southern and lots of William S. Burroughs of course.

William S. Burroughs: Reading of “Junky” (Abridged Version)