Say the name Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in the company of others, and a montage of images and associations will flood their minds. For the vast majority of people, P-Orridge is one of the pioneers of industrial music with h/er work in Throbbing Gristle in the late 70s. That alone might cement h/er legacy as a creative force. But the before and after details are just as important in understanding P-Orridge and h/er work.
From the late 60s to mid-70s, P-Orridge worked at the very transgressive intersection of Neo-Dada and Fluxus in the performance art and sound collective COUM Transmissions. After Throbbing Gristle ran its course, P-Orridge and bandmate Peter Chistopherson (aka Sleazy) formed the video art and music group Psychic TV, which gave birth to Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, a network of artists and musicians. In 1993, P-Orridge’s life took yet another interesting turn when s/he met Lady Jaye, with whom s/he would apply Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique to body modification, attempting to become one being through the Pandrogeny Project.
Personal history plays a part in P-Orridge’s new exhibition Try to Altar Everything, now on at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Located at the museum’s top floor, visitors emerge through elevator doors to find P-Orridge’s glowing psychick cross, Thee Ghost suspended over a spiral staircase. The neon message is clear: visitors are entering a temple of P-Orridge’s art objects. Like Gateway to Pandrodise: Walk Towards Thee Light (2010), two life-sized illuminated images fixed to repurposed caskets—one featuring a naked P-Orridge alone and the other of Lady Jaye superimposed over Genesis. And beyond these works, along the back wall, lies a sort of psychick altarpiece titled Cruciform, in which P-Orridge reimagines h/erself as a remix of Salvador Dali’s depiction of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion in Christ of St. John the Cross.
These and more artworks lend The Rubin an air of psychedelic and spiritual transgression. As a center for the arts and culture of the Himalayas and nearby regions, might seem an unusual partner for P-Orridge’s multimedia cut up works. But P-Orridge doesn’t see it that way. There is nothing arbitrary or strange about a Genesis Breyer P-Orridge show at The Rubin Museum. In fact, Try to Altar Everything has its origins in P-Orridge’s time spent playing tour guide at the Rubin. P-Orridge escorted visitors through the museum, picking out different objects to share about Kathmandu Valley and Tibetan art objects. This being well received, Rubin curator Beth Citron invited P-Orridge to give a talk at the museum’s Artists on Art series.
“That is when Beth started thinking, ‘You know, there is a connection between Breyer P-Orridge and how they make things, and the influences of where they’ve traveled and the things in this museum’,” s/he adds. “‘Wouldn’t it be great and interesting to conceive of some kind of interface between what could be seen as contemporary shamanic work and ancient shamanic work, at least in terms of motivation?”
Breyer P-Orridge worries about whether s/he was actually qualified to articulate a contemporary shamanic experience but s/he credits seeing an exhibition at the Rubin, which included shamanic masks, as the catalyst. “We had a eureka moment when we looked at these objects, and we said to Beth, Oh my god, our things look just like this,” P-Orridge recalls.
“Quite instinctively and intuitively we have, at least in a parallel expression, been making things that are innately not valuable; like the cowry shells and bits of old metal and bone used in the old pieces, and we’re using our own hairpiece, bits of skin, stuff that’s lying around that’s ours too and creating something in the amalgamation of disparate elements that we believe develops a power of its own—that expresses something deeper than the items when they’re separated.”
P-Orridge was initially concerned that there would be a conceptual clash in the process of bringing these ancient modes of expression into the present. But P-Orridge credits Citron with seeing beyond those concerns and spotting something synchronous between the works. P-Orridge says a forthcoming book of essays will describe contemporary shamanism in more detail.
As part of the assembly of the exhibition, Breyer P-Orridge and Citron went to Kathmandu Valley in October of last year. There they paid Tibetan refugees to make the psychick crosses that visitors get if they bring items to exchange for the cabinet installation Try to Altar Every Thing. They also paid Tibetan refugees to make the rug for the domestic piece Listen Here, which is meant to be an interpretation of P-Orridge and Lady Jaye as Ardharnarishvara, an aspect of the male and female gods Shiva and Pavarti. This, P-Orridge believes, gives the art more meaning than if they had simply asked some Chinese factory to manufacture the crosses.
The art that interests P-Orridge is functional — ”art that makes things happen,” as s/he puts it. Art made not for aesthetic judgements, or because it looks good hanging in a penthouse, but designed to make something happen — whether that is to heal someone or show the impermanence of existence.
“One of the ones from Africa is two bones joined with leather and two cowry shells, and it represents the twins,” P-Orridge says. “And that’s where we suddenly saw that connection: that we’re taking things and making them sacred. We’re taking everything and making it sacred — how we see the world and interpret it can give so much more if we let in the invisible, the whispered stories that are implied by things.”
“If I take commonplace things that are just lying around in drawers and then reassemble them to make this object that does have a purpose, that is also just a gift and may never get used, but it’s still a beautiful item, it contains all the energy of your intention within it,” P-Orridge adds. “And that’s the kind of art we like.” P-Orridge likes and often references the work of English artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Like the Surrealists, Spare explored automatic drawing. But he also created sigils that functioned as artistic vessels for desire.
“His pieces were made to make things happen — to get food, money, prostitutes, whatever it might have been,” P-Orridge says. “We’ve always been fascinated with the interface between aesthetic constructions and spiritual connotations, where they meet.”
P-Orridge believes that art should be about stories, and the work should provide more bang for the buck. But when P-Orridge goes to galleries s/he is disappointed to see what Brion Gysin called “Deceptual Art,” art made to be collected and put on walls, but which tells the viewer nothing at all.
For three years P-Orridge worked with a Shina Apache shaman, who inspired h/er to seek out and make art infused with meaning. The shaman told h/er that when he looks at art he asks himself if the work is telling him something he doesn’t already know. Beyond that, the shaman wanted to know if anything about the art was useful to the people around him, and if the art actually taught him something, or if it was just there. “He said, ‘If it’s not talking to me then I just don’t want to know’,” P-Orridge recalls. “That was another critical moment for me, and that was back in the early 80s.”
When talking of Try to Altar Everything, as well as h/er life’s work in general, P-Orridge often returns to the work of artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin. Born in the United Kingdom, Gysin was initially embraced by the Surrealists, then just as quickly expelled from the group by André Breton. After World War II, Gysin moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he later met William S. Burroughs. Together, the two pioneered the cut-up technique, applying it to literary, sound and visual works.
As hinted at above, the cut-up technique has been central to P-Orridge’s work over the decades, from the industrial sound collages of Throbbing Gristle to the collaged works in the Rubin exhibition. So much so, in fact, that P-Orridge created a piece for the exhibition, titled Touching of Hands, that was directly inspired by something Gysin told h/er back in the 80s.
“It’s a cast in bronze of my right arm from the elbow to the hand, which we are shocked that have details of all the little creases in my arm and the two rings on my fingers,” P-Orridge explains. “The title comes from ‘wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands’, which is something that Brion said to me.”
“In other words, it’s one-on-one,” s/he adds. “The best way to really learn something you didn’t know is in the presence of someone who will pass it to you, and also just the idea of networking; that people who are likeminded should try to find each other because it become a supportive network.”
P-Orridge says that Touching of Hands does just that as a work of art. S/he says that the sculpture has been donated to the Rubin, and will be permanently installed somewhere in the museum so people can come and “shake hands” with P-Orridge.
“It’s bronze because we’ve looked in Tibetan and Thai monasteries, Catholic cathedrals, you name it, and certain [bronze] statues get touched all of the time on a foot or on the face and they get really shine, once hundreds and hundreds of people have touched them,” P-Orridge explains. “[Touching of Hands] actually says, ‘Please touch the sculpture’, so we really would like it that this eventually over the years would get really shiny once people have touched it.”
The exhibition’s surrounding cabinet installation, Try to Altar Every Thing, also encourages touching or interaction. It contains an evolving collection of visitor offerings that P-orridge deems particularly potent or interesting, along with a selection of h/er own objects. It’s intentionally unlike a gallery, where the visitor is, as P-Orridge puts it, “just someone who looks”.
“You know they say with a hologram that if you smash it every little piece has the whole hologram in it?” P-Orridge muses. “We think that is true of words and objects as well, so with this exhibition every time someone sees that psychick cross they remember the entire experience instantaneously.”
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