Reflections of Self: Shoreditch Exhibition of William S. Burroughs’ Art

Upon its publication in 1959, William S. Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ changed the face of literature forever. With its chaotic, rambling, surreal scenes of nihilistic, nonsensical hedonism, it became a benchmark for the dissemination of characters, events and ideas that defined postmodernism. And, predictably, with its graphic descriptions of sex and drug use, it shocked its mid-century audience.

It’s no surprise then that Burroughs’ artwork, much of which is only now properly being discovered and explored since his death in 1997, follows the same plethora of chaos which defined his work and his legacy. ‘Animals in the Wall’ is an exhibition that contains a wide variety of Burroughs 2D and 3D artwork alongside other multimedia creations from contemporary artists who have been inspired by his work. His body of work, most of which was created in the 1980s and 1990s, follow a common theme – art which was first created by a series of child-like paint scrawls and spray paint, enhanced by the addition of magazine cut-outs of skeletons, sharks, guns and pornographic images and then destroyed by bullet holes from Burroughs shotgun.

Burroughs writings are starkly autobiographical, much of his work stemming from his lifelong heroin addiction. It was said the artist often painted with his eyes closed to allow his work to express his psyche rather than be influenced by aesthetic appearance. The gun theme, both in the images of guns themselves but also the bullet holes that form part of Burroughs destruction (or perhaps, creation) of his own artwork, is prominent: he accidently shot his own wife accidentally in 1951 and has previously said the remorse from the event created the wealth of emotion needed to launch his writing career.  This is the work of a man, seemingly up until just a few years before his death, still overcome by regret, anger and self-evaluation of self.

Over forty works are included in the exhibition, including collaborations between Burroughs and other artists. One such collaboration is ‘Dreamachine’, a mind-altering work with painter and poet Brion Gynsin in which visitors are invited to stand in a dark room in front of a lightbulb contained within a spinning lampshade of cut-out shapes, in order to induce trippy shapes and visuals. Also included are artistic responses to work of Burroughs from the like of Shepard Fairey, Cleon Peterson and Mobstr. The responses, ranging from paintings to videos to sound installations all have one thing in common – an appreciation of disorder and a nod towards experiences of a chemically-induced nature. One such work used magic mushrooms as a paintbrush and another depicts a cartoon of heroin addicts injecting themselves – so parts definitely require an acquired taste.

Much of the exhibition is uncomfortable, yes, but arguably Burroughs had anything but a comfortable life. His provocative work has inspired everyone from The Beatles to The Klaxons, but with this exhibition marking just the beginning of exploration into the artwork of the late writer, there’s no doubt there will be more of Burroughs’ stark reflections of self to come.

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