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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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