I wandered into KUNSTHALLE wien’s exhibit “Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs” unsure of what I’d see. In fact, the first thing that struck me was something I heard: Burroughs’s dry, damaged, sonorous voice ringing through different rooms, reading from selections of his work. If you stood in the right place, you could hear Burroughses of different eras overlapping their narratives: a kind of auditory collage.
Clever, I thought.
The exhibit spans Burroughs’s life, and features everything from his collaborations with Byron Gysin to experimental manuscript pages divided into columns and grids. It’s a comprehensive look at the evolution of his writing process, and while it may not be a process that anyone other than Burroughs can emulate as decisively, it’s an illuminating look into one of the most striking creative processes in recent history.
There’s also no shortage of media coverage of Burroughs, from appearances in Rolling Stone to the first issue of a publication called Instructional Times, which featured Burroughs on his cover alongside Norman Mailer, Paul McCartney, and Allen Ginsburg. The notion of Burroughs as media star becomes all-consuming; a collage featuring him on the cover of Time doesn’t seem, in this context, surreal; rather, it seems like the next logical step.
As you move through the exhibit, Burroughs’s shift into the iconic becomes clear: bills for gallery shows and a progressively more iconic version of his aged face are prevalent. It was at that point that I first encountered his work: the outlaw figure beloved of Gus Van Sant, Kurt Cobain, and David Cronenberg. Walking into the exhibit, you see a timeline of Burroughs’s life, which brings to mind the problematic aspect of discussing his work: namely, that few other legendary American authors have, you know, killed their spouses.
Reading about Joan Vollmer’s death as one enters the exhibit should leave a strange feeling as you walk through the literary detritus that follows. Burroughs is a major figure in 20th century American literature, but he’s also one of the hardest to embrace. This exhibit offers plenty of fodder for debate on either side of the issue.