ArtSlant's resident London critics and lovers Philippa Snow and Thogdin Ripley first met at a William S. Burroughs show. They recently revisited the artist and writer's work in Animals in the Wall at London Newcastle Project Space.
Thogdin Ripley: I'm going to put my cards right here on this table to start with. I've always been a big fan of Burroughs’ writing—he was one of the most inventive writers and at times one of the best, in my opinion—but I've never, never really got on with his work as a visual artist. And I can say after seeing this exhibition: I still don't.
Philippa Snow: It actually pains me a little to agree with you on this—not because I'm willfully obstinate, but because I'm one of those people, as you know, who is a little bit slavish in my devotion to him as a writer. But yes. If I'd come to it cold and expected the work to be by someone entirely different, I might have said that a lot of it was "dreck." Or a synonym for "dreck" but with the same number of letters. (Perhaps that's unnecessarily harsh, but I've decided to take a firmer-than-usual stance to offset my usual Burroughs mania. I'm interested to see whether that makes you the Good Cop by default.)
TR: A functioning police state needs no police, though, eh? I see the artistic analogy—the visual analogies, really—with the cut-ups from his writing, in fact the cut-ups always seemed to be so process-led that they crept over that divide and transformed the literature into something else, something that was akin to visual art. But the point always was that that process, reconfiguring the words in surprising ways according to chance or, perhaps, letting a truer, hidden meaning rise up, that process always imparted meaning, even at its most obscure. These... I don’t see that there is anything. What am I missing?
William S Burroughs, Warhol, A Portrait in TV Dots... we is all made of, waiting to be observed..., Spray Paint on Paper; Courtesy Burroughs 100
PS: I will say that although I don't particularly feel very much for them, I will acknowledge that they do feel as modern as a number of other works which I also don't feel much for, but which are fashionable right now: I could imagine them showing in Zurich and having been made by some twenty-three-year-old wunderkind, and looking much the same as they do, and getting a good reception.
At the time, I think I mentioned those Andy Warhol drawings that he did on the Amiga: they still appear in vogue, because what's in vogue currently is a kind of pastiche of the art of the eighties and nineties. I don't know, just an observation. They don't feel dated, even if they aren't especially visionary, either.
TR: Yeah, but it's William Burroughs, though, isn't it? And his art, I want it to be as searingly brilliant as the way his writing became. That sense of hanging over some vast kind of precipice as you read him, with the steady creak of the noose tightening, whilst your body—spurred on by its own deep reaction—takes the trembling steps toward the edge with each page you turn. I mean he's so exciting to read. I remember when I first saw his visual stuff just being really, flatly disappointed. And as I said I still am.
I see the links between the stenciling paint over and over, masking out with whatever into asemic writing-looking patterns, and Brion Gysin's long-running work on glyphs and calligraphy, which then overlap his (Gysin's) designs for the Dream Machine [also presented at the exhibition], but Burroughs... He takes the idea, and, what?—sprays "FUCK" on an old piece of chipboard in neon yellow? I don't see how it can be re-interpreted, really. The shortcut is to assume he just fell into the same trap as Dali as he got older.
Yuri Zupancic, WSB Speaking Effigy, Mixed Media Installation; Courtesy Burroughs 100
PS: I think we should probably take a minute at this point to acknowledge the fact that we drew a certain amount of entertainment from the exhibition's being "sponsored by Whole Foods and Planet Organic," presumably because when one thinks of William Burroughs, one immediately thinks of clean-living and pleasantly-packaged kale. But then if I think about a piece of chipboard with FUCK painted on it, I think of a comfortably-racy gallery show in a trendy but uninventive neighbourhood. And then I DO think of clean-living and pleasantly-packaged kale. So the sponsorship suddenly makes sense.
I guess the issue we both appear to be having is that the Burroughs behind this kind of work is the same one whose face appears over and over again in the other artists' tributes (and as I said, I can't think of a worse slow death for a provocateur than to become the kind of super-icon whose portrait gets painted in these "works inspired by" shows)—The Man, The Myth, The Legendary Edgy Dream-Dinner-Party Guest, instead of the real deal. (Next time: Rentokil sponsorship, no?)
TR: Ha, yeah, "give Mr Burroughs as much morphine as he likes" but tell him to stay the damned hell away from the spray cans. Sorry, Bill.
(Image on top: William S Burroughs, NO TRESPASSING, Lithograph, Limited Edition of 100; Courtesy Burroughs 100)
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