Unusual exhibition highlight
Born to be wild
A successful writer, experimental film-maker, drug addict and world traveller, self-avowed homosexual and the one who killed his wife – there is hardly any role that William S. Burroughs did not embody, at least as long as one moves within the realms of subculture and the world of pop culture.
And this image is something that William Seward Burroughs, born 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri (his grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine) contributed significantly to shaping. One could even say that he had already ventured into these fields when they were still completely unknown. And this is also reflected in the fact that he was dubbed the father of the Beat Generation or the Godfather of Punk in his pop cultural incarnation.
As the author of Naked Lunch (published in 1959) or the trilogy Nova Express he created a plethora of characters and expressions which pop culture continues to draw on to this very day – just think of the title of the cult film Blade Runner, the term Heavy Metal or the names of bands such as Naked Lunch and Soft Machine. The latter was the name of a story in which he worked with the cut-up technique for the first time. It was a method with which he created a collage out of various types of text material, influencing not just his own literary production over a period of ten years.
The cut-up method sought to break open ingrained structures and to thus reveal the manipulative power of individual images and of language. Burroughs saw language as a virus that was spread through information society and was used to control humanity. Cut-up became a method for counteracting this control and for expanding the limits of language and thus also of perception. Cut-up as a means of revolution, a revolution that he practiced by rearranging text, sound and picture material in a new way. Traces of this technique can be found in his novels and short stories as well as in a number of films, many sound recordings and photographs, which he collected or produced himself and used to create different new images.
Following Burroughs’ traces in ViennaA number of these documents are on display up until the middle of October at the Kunsthalle Wien, which has now become a temporary pilgrimage site for Burroughs fans. Rightly so, since the exhibition with the title “Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs” is more than just a collection of photographs, images, films, sheets of notes and copies from his well-known Scratch-books. It is a show that has been put together with a lot of dedication and it is one that coherently presents many documents that have never been shown in Austria before. Here the author’s diverse working style is made accessible – and it is perhaps interesting to note that he studied medicine in Vienna for half a year in 1937. Colin Fallows, a British curator and professor of sound and visual arts at the Liverpool John Moores University put together the exhibition over a period of four years. The results of his intense detective work – the material in the exhibition stems from locations such as the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and the New York Public Library – not only illustrates the cut-up technique, it is also visually appealing. The author did not always work with scissors, he often also placed a colour grid over his texts which he then numbered. Sometimes he replaced the individual letters with dots of colour or adorned the pages with symbols, photographs, newspaper clippings or covered them with dabs of paint and scribbles.
A gun nut making artEven though Burroughs turned to a more conventional writing style in later years, he continued to straddle different genres and to experiment his whole life long. He was a diehard gun nut – it is known that he shot his wife while he tried to shoot an apple from the top of her head while he was stoned on drugs – and in his old age he created a series of shotgun art paintings. This was a technique by means of which art was created by shooting at spray cans. After they exploded the paints left interesting patterns of the canvases, doors, pressed fibreboards, etc. The exhibition also features a small selection of these work along with a large number of sound documents by Burroughs. The visitors thus not only have the chance to listen to live recordings of the artist while looking at a variety of photographs, they also have the option of lounging on a sofa and getting their own impression of the impact of the author’s southern voice.
A further highlight in the show is the rich selection of literature, which provides an exciting glimpse of the books that Burroughs valued. These included, first and foremost, works by Joseph Conrad and Jane Bowles as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald. A wall with sheets of paper that can be moved invites the visitors to experiment with the cut-up principle themselves. You should certainly take time for the exhibition. This is particularly true if you are just getting to know Burroughs’s oeuvre. But even if you are familiar with the cut-up method and have already seen many of the exhibited photographs depicting Burroughs – whose presence certainly leaves an aura on the originals – you should take an afternoon’s time to really delve into the world of the artist who straddled so many different genres. It is certainly worthwhile since William S. Burroughs was surely one of the most interesting writes that the 20th century produced. And last not least because he succeeded in anticipating so many things that surround us today or as John Savage writes in the excellent catalogue accompanying the exhibition: “We are living in Burroughs’s cut-up future.“
Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs - The Art of William S. Burroughs
15 June to 21 October 2012
Tel.: +43 1 52189 33
Opening times: daily 10.00 to 19.00, Thursdays 10.00 to 21.00
Entry: 8 Euro / concessions 6 Euro
The exhibition is accompanied by an interesting catalogue in two languages with contributions by Burroughs expert Barry Miles, John Savage and curator Colin Fallows and two Burroughs interviews.
Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs - Die Kunst des William S. Burroughs (The Art of William S. Burroughs), ed. Kunsthalle wien, Colin Fallows and Synne Genzmer. German/English. Kunsthalle wien. Verlag für Moderne Kunst: Vienna 2012. ISBN 978-3-869-84-315-5