Chameleon Artist Genesis P-Orridge Takes on Mysticism in New Exhibit
There are few things in life that you agree to without a second thought. One of those things happens to be getting the chance to sit down and talk with the fabled Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Born Neil Andrew Megson, Genesis became something else entirely with the creation of the artistic work “The Pandrogyne.” Like a fairy tale on ecstasy, Genesis and longtime love Lady Jaye Breyer committed to each other in both mind and body, undergoing plastic surgery to resemble one another and thus becoming a collective being, Breyer P-Orridge. In that way, The Pandrogyne embodies neither male nor female, but a third.
When together, The Pandrogyne worked as one unit. Yet even though Lady Jaye passed away in 2007, it did not stop Genesis’ work. Genesis prefers to be referred to as h/er and s/he, and s/he continues to use “we” as he/r own pronouns. On the whole, the work just goes to show the limits of the human body and the endless possibilities of the mind. As Lady Jaye put it quite succinctly in their film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, “The Pandrogyne just feel trapped in a body.”
It’s hard to know how to prepare for a conversation with someone that has a resume like Genesis’. There are few paths s/he has yet to cross, from essentially fathering industrial music with the now defunct Throbbing Gristle and he/r current band Psychic TV, to he/r tantalizing and disorienting film, and the never-ending Pandrogyne. Though s/he’s just hit 66 this year, Genesis’ mystic and prolific mind isn’t slowing down. Today, March 11th, at the Rubin Museum, Genesis will unveil he/r highly collaborative show, Try to Altar Everything. Encouraging show goers to contribute their own “small artifacts and objects,” Genesis will put together an ever-changing altar dedicated to the human existence. It’s a mix of sculpture, painting, and installation, centered around Hinduism and Nepal.
Figuring out the meaning behind all of human existence is a tall order for an interview. But when we talked, we still managed to fit in everything from Santeria and Nepal, to Lady Jaye’s wisest words: “See a cliff, jump off.”
Thanks for talking with me today. I’m sure this week has been very busy for you.
What an understatement, dear. In fact, we’re a real insomniac. We usually don’t go to bed until about five or six o’clock in the morning. We’ve been at the museum installing for days and days. Then we went to the recording studio to record vocals on a new record—which we’re glad to say came out great.
Are you working on new music?
Yeah, we’re in the middle of a four-track, 12-inch EP.
Is this for Psychic TV? I know you’re doing some shows this weekend.
Yes, this is all for Sunday night. We’re trying not to think about how tired we’ll be by four o’clock on Monday, but we’ll have a satisfied smile on our face once we’re in bed and sprawled next to the dog.
Does it ever feel like just another day in the office?
No, no, no. That would make it seem mundane and boring. There’s nothing like walking on stage and hearing, whether it’s 5,000 or 55,000, people cheering and welcoming us. You’re all there at the same moment, at the same place, to celebrate in some way. It used to be about being angry back in the ’70s. Now it’s much more of a celebration, or how to bring positivity to a world that’s crumbling into an abyss very quickly.
Try to Alter Everything came together after a trip to Nepal, correct?
How it happened was that somebody at the museum invited us to come and give a talk because they found out we go to Nepal as often as we can. We gave a talk to a full house in their theater so they decided to extend their collection of rare, powerful Buddhist and Shamanic artifacts. They were asking, “Where is that now? How can we find that today? In what way is it expressed?” That’s what lead them to us. They asked if we would be interested in doing an exhibition on the Kathmandu Valley, Tibetan Buddhism, and the voodoo we’ve encountered in Africa. We said, “We would love too!” Now we’re recognizing things we never realized were there.
About four or five weeks ago we were at the space looking it over to get the vibe. At the same time there was an exhibition of Shamanic masks, outfits, other objects. Suddenly we thought, “The things we make would fit perfectly here!” We could put our things in this exhibition and people would think it was an authentic, ancient, Shamanic tool. We hope it will awaken a recognition in the people who visit. There’s so much clutter, so much noise happening, that it’s really easy to miss the subtle connections in things. When you sit back and let the world speak, the mundanity of the world becomes sacred. People have these small habits that they don’t notice, but that connect them to the spiritual—knocking twice on a door, folding your tea towels just so, collecting your hair after a haircut. Lady Jaye used to collect her hair like that.
Oh yes, she would keep it in a little bag and bring it home. She was also a priestess of Santeria. Her head was Eshu, who likes gold and Chanel No. 5. She embodies luxury, but she’s also associated with sex workers. Lady Jaye was a dominatrix, but she was also a registered nurse. That clearly expresses her fascination with the human body and its limitations, so she would always collect her hair. She slowly but surely gave us a new appreciation for these small pieces of life.
Feathers didn’t have to be just feathers, but the feathers of a bird that was being carefully and consciously sacrificed. The supposedly civilized West loves to say, “Those people kill chickens!” Well, what happens on Thanksgiving? They’re not taken gently, or spoken to and prayed over. They’re not thanked for their giving. Western religions have their own sacred traditions. What’s the one with the why? We should know this. We taught Sunday school a year before they kicked us out.
Is there anything else you’re bringing into Try to Altar Everything?
Oh, we should mention that there will be little slots and containers for people to bring their precious things. We took our own special things there yesterday. One of the things we took was a photo of us with Jaye bandaged up in a car with these lovely furs on.
“Who really loses out: the person who decides not to jump, or the person who says, ‘Fuck it all!'”
Do you think that having people bring their own items is another way that you’ve come to “cut up” the art that you make?
Yeah, it’s much like the idea of sigils—the conscious making of symbol that you design yourself and charging it. You’re supposed to charge it with orgasm, but we can’t do that in a museum! So we started thinking about how we could do that. People put these very connective energies into important objects. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create this battery of positive energy? This huge sigil with small strings reaching out into the Universe.”
You’ve used theses ideas of magic and mysticism in your work before, often to subvert mainstream, Western thought. Do you think that magic is inherently subversive in a way?
It’s always a search for knowledge. It’s baffling to us that we end up having so many conflicts with established systems. The other day we thought, “Well now we’re sixty-six. Maybe now we’ll be accepted as a grand old lady of the art world.” And then the museum picked a beautiful image featuring my nipple to advertise the show in the subway, so we were all excited about that. Then the MTA rings up and says, “Oh we can’t use this. We can’t have a nipple on the subway.” So we guess we’ll never be done upsetting everyone. [Laughs] At this point, we try very hard to face the system that disapproves of us with a smile. We try to walk around it rather than through it. We still end in conflict though. It’s not so much that magic itself is subversive, just in opposition to the status quo.
There’s a piece of advice from Lady Jaye that you have used quite often: “See a cliff, jump off.” What advice would you give to people that see the cliff, but are too afraid to jump?
What a good question! Gosh dear, it’s easy—you jump! If you’re going to be in love, be in love! But be in unconditional love—not pretend unconditional. People hesitate because they think, “What if it doesn’t work out? What if something happens to the person I love?” That’s when you’ve already been defeated by your own fear. Most of us live lives, myself included, touched by fear. You have to take the risk of being hurt.
Could we have said, “Oh, we best not fall in love with Lady Jaye because we will grieve for years and years?” Well, then we would not have been able to enjoy the incredible highs and lows together. Who really loses out: the person who decides not to jump, or the person who says, “Fuck it all! Fuck them all! I’m going!” Once you say fuck it, you learn how vibrant and appealing and fantastical the world really becomes.
Catch Try to Altar Everything at the Rubin Museum, running from March 11th to August 1st.
All images courtesy of the Rubin Museum.
Stay tuned to Milk for more magic and mysticism.