Through five decades of transformative art and music, Genesis P-Orridge has broken down binary thinking – s/he talks divine creation, dinner with Donatella, and America’s political apocalypse
Taken from the summer 2016 issue of Dazed:
Perhaps no living artist personifies the communion of art and life as profoundly as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Through half a century of transformative performance, music, visual art and personal evolution, the radical artist has laid a prophetic groundwork in dissolving binaries – between physical and spiritual, sacred and profane, and even life and death. To plumb the depths of h/er oeuvre – h/er pioneering work with COUM Transmissions, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Splinter Test, Pigface, PTV3, the Pandrogeny Project, etc – is to initiate a study in the ecstatic power of energy and intent. Nearly everything Genesis touches becomes art, or anointed with symbolic juju for use in an artwork to come.
This year, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York has launched Try to Altar Everything, devoted to P-Orridge’s works. In it, the artist presents a variety of sculptures and found objects that build on the Burroughs ‘cut-ups’ mode of creation – something P-Orridge has made a habit of taking to its most radical and rapturous extremes – employing materials that range from prehistoric fossils to resin-covered tampons. In the booklet that accompanies the show, the artist articulates h/er modus operandi thusly: “It has always been my belief that Creation, the making of ‘art’ in any medium or combination of mediums, is a holy act. To be an ‘artist’ is as much a calling from and to a divine service as becoming a physician, nurse, priest, shaman, or healer.”
When I moved to New York in 2007, P-Orridge was one of the first people I met. I sat in a space-age red swivel chair belonging to the late Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge in Gen’s old house in Ridgewood, filled with vestiges of Nepalese adventures, small piles of dominatrix footwear, and heartbreaking Polaroids of Jaye and Gen’s magic love affair. P-Orridge expounded on the meaning of pandrogeny – the practice, reflected in the use of pronouns ‘h/er’, ‘s/he’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, through which s/he and Jaye physically transformed their bodies to resemble each other and evolve into a singular spiritual union, and my understanding of the power of love expanded irrevocably. It was in P-Orridge’s new apartment in the Lower East Side where I sat, in h/er bed, and watched the 2012 American presidential election unfold, hysterically accompanied by Gen’s venomous political commentary. I visited h/er in this same apartment just a few months ago to discuss this year’s apocalyptic horserace, the power of talismans in artwork, and h/er unexpected late-career return to fashion modelling.
What do you make of the American presidential election?
Donald Trump has to be the most narcissistic media character there is at the moment. Anything he does seems like it’s part of a reality show. He has lost his mind. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t realise that he could potentially have the power to create the end of humanity, with wars and so on. He’s living in a fantasy. The first thing he has managed to achieve is that he has given tacit permission to rednecks, racists, homophobes, neo-Christians, and all those nasty little people who do not like the human species. Their hatred is being validated and it’s already taking off. They’re the same people who demonstrated against universal health care when they didn’t have any health insurance themselves – that’s how insane they are, and that’s the group he’s appealing to. We met his daughter, Ivanka, when we had dinner with Donatella Versace.
You had dinner with Ivanka Trump?
We’re good friends with Asia Argento. One time, we were hanging out at some chic hotel and she said she was hungry and asked if we should go get dinner. Of course, we went, and we arrived at this very high-end building and went upstairs to the penthouse. Asia’s idea of ‘dinner’ turned out to be a dinner party being held by Donatella Versace. It was Benicio del Toro, Ivanka Trump, Asia and me. (laughs) Somebody else was there, whose name I can’t remember. And it was when we were skinny and would wear nice clothes and had a bob, so Ivanka’s conversation with me was all about hair and hairdressers. We had a really nice talk for about 20 minutes about how we liked each other’s hair. Donatella hardly spoke. Benicio was trying to get me to go back to his hotel with him because he didn’t realise that we weren’t biologically female, so Asia made out like I was her lesbian lover. (laughs) Ivanka had no strong opinions about her father. Her point, I think, was that in private he is a different person. He’s actually a very banal, mundane individual in his private world. All the stuff we’re seeing is just testiculating and ego-stroking.
Tell me about your show at the Rubin Museum in New York and the significance of the title, Try to Altar Everything.
The museum’s collection is basically Buddhist, Tibetan, animistic and shamanic arts and objects from the Himalayas. Beth Citron, the curator, got in touch with me two or three years ago and invited me to do a talk, (and then) she thought it would be a good idea for the museum’s first contemporary show to be us. It grew very slowly, brainstorming over two or three years. Once we decided on the title it became easier, because it really does sum up a lot of what we do, taking things that are already around and reassembling them to inject them with something special, an energy or resonance that speaks to you in a way you wouldn’t expect. I have to say it has been amazing. Beth has supported every idea throughout. It’s been a remarkable experience... Somebody gets it! And it’s the perfect place, a museum of shamanism and devotion.
You’ve studied so many religions, including Christianity, and they are all flawed in their own ways. Where do you find the connecting threads that form your own spiritual understanding?
Living in England when we did, we were in private school. In the 70s they were actually saying, ‘You are the future leaders of Britain.’ Our job was to maintain the status quo. We were also brought up under the Church of England, which is a bit like Catholicism without some of the bullshit, so we had to read the Bible everyday for years. There’s a moment for everybody when you look at that picture of Jesus in the church and think, ‘This doesn’t totally make sense.’ If God made everything, then who made God? We have no idea. Human beings are not capable of creating a thought that truly conceives of this existence. Nobody knows if we are really here, alive, or anything. It’s a mystery. And ultimately, the best thing you can do is to accept that it’s a mystery and look for what’s useful among all the different theories, and see if you can find a more generous way to live your life. My feeling at the moment, as far as we have gotten in thinking, is that it’s a loop. It’s an eternal loop. But where it originates doesn’t make any sense.
“It has always been my belief that Creation, the making of ‘art’ in any medium or combination of mediums, is a holy act. To be an ‘artist’ is as much a calling from and to a divine service as becoming a physician, nurse, priest, shaman, or healer” – Genesis P-Orridge
Probably your most devotional work has been the Pandrogeny Project with Lady Jaye. How have you found it to evolve in the past few years? Have you been surprised by it in any way?
What has surprised me is the way it has spread out through the culture. It has become another word we have invented that has entered the lexicon. People have either found out about it or they’ve come to it for their own reasons – maybe they’re transsexual, or lonely, or in a relationship they think mirrors ours. But I do find people come to it knowing the word already. The film (Marie Losier’s 2011 documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye) is quoted a lot. The film is not easy to see, but it seems to have gotten around and that’s good.
Part of what makes it stick is that it’s such a striking, simple, profoundly original concept. It’s something that, once you’re aware of it, you can’t un-know it.
And it has become quite complex and grown on its own. We were just expressing love, but now its tentacles have reached into genetics and evolutionary theory and space travel and everywhere! It’s a remarkable word, because it doesn’t have any baggage. We think an unfortunate part of the Caitlyn Jenner phenomenon is that it set up a stereotype that fed into the negative, and it has animated the bigots. It worries me, the violence that could ensue if it carries on, with people like Trump stoking the fire, not to mention the other fake religious bigots. When we were a teenager we wrote poems and one of them was about New York and the United States, and it referred to it as the toilet of Europe. Europe flushed all the insane fanatics into America and they are still fucking here!
No idea! I think it’s a continuation of (the loosely witchcraft-inspired theme of Jacobs’ AW16 collection). It’s (about) people who have inspired him in his life in different ways. So we were there with Susan Sarandon the day we went, and Marilyn Manson had been there the day before. It’s a very idiosyncratic group of people that he picked. Kembra (Pfahler) went. Unwittingly, we have become darlings of the fashion world. Isn’t that strange?
No, it’s not strange. Everything you’ve done visually has been so spectacular throughout your career, it’s the kind of art that designers love. Aside from the spiritual aspect, there is so much psychedelic beauty to it, and this industrial darkness.
In the 60s, we really wanted to be mod, but we couldn’t afford the clothes. So we went the other way and dressed sort of utilitarian. We got denim jeans from the Army & Navy Stores for ten shillings or a dollar, and an army combat jacket and desert boots, which in those days were like Hush Puppies in suede, and then we decorated them with psychedelic drawings. We added trinkets and objects to the jacket straight away. We have always had a kind of anti-fashion fashion. And because everyone else was wearing mod suits, my outfits stood out, which wasn’t my intention.
“Nobody knows if we are really here, alive, or anything. It’s a mystery. The best thing you can do is to accept that and find a more generous way to live your life” – Genesis P-Orridge
But if you look back, which looks more modern now? I would argue yours, which you could still wear now. And you have always incorporated patches and talismans and made your own unique items of clothing.
We retain an obsession with this idea of patches. We always thought that was a great idea, that you would get a memento for each thing you do, sort of like in an army campaign or something. So we have always done that, from Throbbing Gristle onwards. It’s a medium that is very commonplace, that can be completely unique, and that implies authority if you are in the army, or a reward if it’s a medal. There are connotations of the establishment, but it’s mutated and satirised simultaneously. Most of the records we make do have a patch that goes with them, and we encourage people to make their own. It’s a uniform but it’s also individual. Everyone is unique, but everyone is the same. There’s something about that tension that fascinates me. It is uniform non-conformity.
A common thread with all of your work seems to be your obsession with imbuing everything with personal meaning, mixing items or elements together, and creating a sort of alchemical magic.
You are much better at analysing what we do these days than we are! It’s all very instinctive and it’s in the title of the show (Try To Altar Everything). You know, the chair has meaning, the rug has meaning, all the objects are made from things with meaning. We used to work with a shaman and he said the world is telling you stories all the time, but we have been numbed from hearing and feeling them. This exhibition is trying to say to people that they are everywhere all the time, it is you who has to re-energise and open yourself up and be vulnerable to the stories that are coming. If you do that, it enriches everything. So, that shoe is on a piece of wood that is a Tibetan block used for designing material, and the bone is from a trip to Scotland, and the fur is from my dog’s tail, and the crystal is from Jaye’s grandmother who raised her, and so on. Everything is connected to lives and people. It is absolutely and utterly all part of the creativity, and it should be. Because that is how you learn new things: from those resonances, clashes, unexpected combinations and rejections of words, items and materials. Those are the things that open up the imagination, which opens up the heart, which opens up the possibility of living an enriched life.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Try To Altar Everything is on show at The Rubin Museum in New York until August 1, 2016
Hair Tomi Kono at Julian Watson Agency, make-up Seong Hee Park at Julian Watson Agency using M.A.C, photographic assistants Michael Tessier, Chris Smith, fashion assistants Kuschan Hojjatian, Arianna Aviram, make-up assistant Kenji Onoe