Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beat Generation @ Centre Pompidou

Bruce Baillie, Castro Street, 1966
The real joy of this exhibition, and in my mind, the main reason to go, are the rarely screened films. The exhibition includes lots of photographs of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Corso and all sorts of other characters, there’s the original typescript of On the Road laid out down the centre of the first rooms, a handful of Burroughs machines, a sampling of Frank’s The Americans, and other treats. But it’s the opportunity to see, for example, two of Bruce Conner’s never screened films, Looking for Mushrooms (1962) and Crossroads (1976) that make the exhibition exciting. Even films that are available such as Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street are so rarely screened, and it’s a treat to see them in large format. Even if they are shown on DVD, as opposed to projected, they are absorbing viewing. I also loved the anonymous footage of Vietnam War protests in New York City for its examples of early video. The colour is unlike anything we would see today. And films by Christopher MacLean, Burroughs, Bruce Baillie make great viewing.

Beat Generation exhibition view
Kerouac's On the Road laid out in the middle

I also have to admit that even though I loved seeing these films, many of them are not Beat Generation films. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), and the collaborations made with Antony Balch for The Cut Ups (1966), and maybe a couple of others can be seen as Beat films-including Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) and other films, and Harry Smith’s great experiments-- but many of the others screening in Gallery One are not. The late 50s and early 60s was an incredibly furtive moment in American filmmaking, so there were lots of filmmakers and artists making films at the time, experimenting with the medium, doing wild and wacky things. But Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie and Bruce Conner for example are not Beat filmmakers.
Kerouac Paraphernalia ... is this really that interesting?
Which leads to what for me was the biggest problem with the exhibition. It uses images of all kinds—photos, films, paintings, graphic art, drawings as documents to exhibit social and cultural and political beliefs. There is no attention to the artistic value of some of these documents. The whole point of the Beat Generation was that they challenged the social and political domain through experimentation in form and aesthetic of their chosen media. Moreover, for the filmmakers such as Smith and Rice, they weren’t just tripping out on drugs and making their experience into films, but their films contain a highly sophisticated philosophy regarding around the use of experimental film (as opposed to other media). The critical ways that these artists manipulated form and aesthetic is completely lost in this exhibition. Similarly, the exquisite use of the camera by Robert Frank in The Americans or even by Burroughs in his never-exhibited photographs is completely lost here. These guys changed art in a way that Duchamp had forty years before them, and because there is no discussion of the aesthetic, there’s no way of knowing the influence and impact they had.
Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangiers. 
I am always irritated by these exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou because of the conventional mainstream vision they offer of a movement such as the Beat Generation. A visitor to this exhibition could well come away with the belief that there were no women, at all, working in this time. From what the exhibition tells us, if women existed in this world, they did so as accessories to the men’s genius. The only relationships that are given significance as having a formative influence on the writers and artists are their gay male lovers. There were in fact a whole host of women who were producing and collaborating and inspiring these works, but they are not shown here.
Harry Smith

Lastly, the all-over-the-place nature of the exhibition really dilutes the power of what the Beats were doing. Rather than going for the all out summer exhibition bonanza, I would have liked something that was more sensitive to the relationship between all these different movements, art works, artists, art forms and a much more nuanced placement of the movement vis-à-vis political and historical events. It is true that footage of the Vietnam War, for example, is gorgeous, and yes, it’s going on at the same time as the Beats develop their ideas and work, but more information on their actual engagement with it would have been more satisfying the events as something like background scenery.

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