Over the last five decades English artist, musician and poet Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has become the kind of person that others seek out. For some it might have been during the early 1970s when P-Orridge, and h/er involvement with performance art collective COUM Transmissions, was gathering attention for making use of soiled tampons, blood and milk enemas, urine and hypodermic needles (eventually there were parliamentary inquiries). Maybe it was the mid-1970s when P-Orridge was busy becoming one of the godparents of industrial music via Throbbing Gristle. Or perhaps the moment of resonance came with the electronic pop of Psychic TV and their song 'Godstar,' which, as an homage to Brian Jones, saw devotees bring P-Orridge all kinds of intimate and strange Jones-related paraphernalia. The search could have been related to P-Orridge's worldwide artist collective (or religion or cult, depending how you see it) Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, which at one point had 10,000 members (the dream may be over, but the manifesto is still on point: "THEE OBLIVION OV THEE OBVIOUS"). Or perhaps it was the later period when P-Orridge began h/er Pandrogyny Project with h/er late wife Lady Jaye, which saw the two lovers attempt to become a unified, third being, both spiritually and biologically.
Whatever the period or reasoning, there is a certain 'precise impreciseness' surrounding the pilgrimages people make to P-Orridge. As American cultural personality Richard Metzger says of his own ambiguous reasoning for tracking down the artist: "Genesis knows something that I don't know." If it's a question of looking for unknown knowledge, then it's fitting that P-Orridge's current exhibition Loyalty Does Not End With Death requires a near-pilgrimage to the isolated outpost of The Substation.
Yet from the outset we're positioned not to think of our own loyalty (or at least curiosity), but rather, as curator Lawrence English prods, to see loyalty as operating within P-Orridge's compatible devotions to the avant-garde of the twentieth century and to Lady Jaye. Despite the clear premise, there is a sense of deflation happening. It would be false to say there is no meaning in Loyalty Does Not End With Death: meaning is abundant, but you're required to bring it. Perhaps a divide is needed: at certain moments I find myself in profound communication with P-Orridge and h/er work, but that doesn't necessarily imply being in profound communication with the exhibition at large.
P-Orridge is still somewhat neglected in the art world: Loyalty Does Not End With Death is h/er first substantial survey show outside of North America and h/er first solo exhibition in Australia. While a 2013 retrospective at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh featured over 100 works from the 1970s to now (this was h/er first ever solo museum exhibition), and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York held a vast survey show in 2016, Loyalty Does Not End With Death is a mere 14 pieces spread across seven rooms. With works mostly from mid-2000s onwards, there are prints and polaroids on plexi, as well as collages, sculpture and video (although the video work, based on an amusing "weird woman," (can be found on YouTube)(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_0nCi7hzfs) anyway). The works feel strangely isolated and are unavoidably scattered across rooms in the gallery's labyrinthine layout. Sometimes they're positioned like totemic offerings, making them feel a little too sentimental. Considering the performance area of The Substation is the main draw card, the venue was suitable had P-Orridge been able to perform as part of the exhibition (sadly s/he was diagnosed with leukemia around five months ago and had to cancel h/er Australian shows).
So while there are pragmatic questions surrounding things like scope and layout, these aren't really the points of contention. Instead I think about what William Burroughs, one of P-Orridge's mentors, said: "Your task, Genesis, is to short-circuit control." From the '60s to now, a sense of meaningful spectacle has surrounded P-Orridge's work, where Burroughs' impression of control always lingers: P-Orridge's modus operandi has been not only to subvert control, but to properly identify it in the first place. This sensibility is entwined with a very real, and very vivid, three-dimensional life, as well as this life's ideas and knowledge—and I wish it flourished more in the exhibition.
On Valentine's Day of 2003 P-Orridge and h/er wife Lady Jaye gifted each other with dual implant breast surgery. The procedure was part of their Pandrogyny Project where the artists sought to become a third, unified and pandrogynous being: Breyer P-Orridge. Melding Tibetan Buddhism and the idea of a Third Mind, they took Burroughs' and Brion Gysin's cut-up/collage method to extremes of aesthetics, biology and, perhaps most importantly for P-Orridge, love. The pair eventually merged using hormone therapy, cross-dressing, two hundred thousand dollars' worth of plastic surgery and altered behaviour and language. Yet in 2007 Lady Jaye, as P-Orridge likes to say, "dropped her body" (she passed away suddenly from stomach cancer). Now P-Orridge is the vessel on Earth and Lady Jaye exists elsewhere—but their joint-metamorphosis is always attested to.
The most visually arresting piece in the exhibition is a photographic portrait of P-Orridge and Lady Jaye—they sit naked, genitals covered: all regality and seriousness. It's a defiant celebration. Nearby P-Orridge also poses in crucifix-form (perhaps playing on Salvador Dali's Christ of St. John the Cross?), surrounded by a gold-leaf collage and little naked body parts, all akimbo: faces, bottoms, leather-bound limbs and unidentifiable fleshy bits. Further along are smaller contextual pieces: references to Tibetan spirituality and an article prophesising our future of "headless human clones, artificial wombs and body organs grown in jars." In the room over is a nine-panel worm-and-lip piece, which is beautiful in the way that mixing charm and disgust always is. Although beauty is never the point: as far as the aims of altering human behaviour and thoughts go, P-Orridge's work is functional.
So the logic is clear: if language, images and sounds can be sampled and altered, why not bodies, behaviours and consciousness? Here is the P-Orridge I love: the one with a sense of commitment who will do while the rest of us say. While deconstructionism often signals an artist squaring off some debate with art history, P-Orridge uses the method to think about the very real communication between a person and an artwork. By feeling what they call "trapped in our old bodies," and tired of living out inherited binary conditions, P-Orridge and Lady Jaye have developed a new, entirely singular ontology. Selves, rightly so, are fluid, polymorphous things, but for P-Orridge this doesn't mean they can't also be whole. Essentially the project epitomises what P-Orridge has always done: by taking certain freedoms for themselves, they inevitably pass these same freedoms down to us.
It's humbling that P-Orridge is not only the sought, but also the seeker. It took h/er seven years to convince Burroughs to hand over Brion Gysin's Paris address, and once Gysin was tracked down he became, in P-Orridge's words, "the true mentor." There are two obvious homages to Gysin; one is a Polaroid of Gysin titled 7th Day Ascensionist (Brion Gysin) (1986), which faces an Andy Warhol collage called Enough Said (2002). This later piece relays a Warhol quote: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
The other overt homage is sculptural. In a room, entirely on its own, sits a bronzed hand that viewers are prompted to shake. The work's title, which is scripted on a placard under the hand, comes from something Gysin personally iterated to P-Orridge: "Wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands."
I can't decide if it's meaningful or forced, but what I definitely found too tenderwas the corridor exchange, where people could trade a small item for a Psychick Cross (a symbol which has its roots in Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and is now more a totem of connection whose references exist within a perpetual middle-point, rather than a stagnated binary). The objects given to P-Orridge sit between the predictably gushy (thank-you notes, crafted offerings) and the simply droll (bus tickets, gum wrappers, tampons, condoms, an egg).
At times, the fierce push for connectivity and unity feels too burdensome—but then later, at home, I feel secretly pleased that I now have a Psychick Cross (in exchange for my partner's used gum, sorry). But what I ultimately appreciate is how these works attempt an intimate and emotional experience with another person, which contemporary art sometimes struggles to deal with. After all the theories, arguments and scepticism against the sentimental and transcendent impulse of connecting with others, here we have a hand reaching out, treating these impulses as real and necessary.
We're also met with the idea that knowledge can only be passed from one person to the next, by touching and meeting. "You can't read it in a book; you can't see it in a film. That's just back-up information. The actual experience of meeting someone is what changes you," says P-Orridge. In this case it's not some misguided romantic fallacy to rely on an artwork for a connection with the artist as a lived person: isn't this partly what the Andy Warhol quote before alluded to? Or was it simply being facetious? Feeling exasperated, I have to admit that I believe that it's P-Orridge—and h/er life, experiences and body—that are the real artworks at stake here. Everything else is a gesture. The question, then, is whether the inspiring sense of "Genesis Breyer P-Orridge" comes off in the exhibition? You might glimpse it— I certainly did—but I doubt it would touch the uninitiated or convert the sceptical
Loyalty Does Not End With Death comes at a time when P-Orridge has shifted from reviled to revered. Even the used-tampon sculptures that caused such a fuss in 1976 have now found a home in Tate Britain's collection (although if a relic happened to exist from when P-Orridge placed a severed chicken head on h/er penis and masturbated with it, do you think Tate would collect this?). The rules have changed, and P-Orridge is enduring because s/he keeps up-to-date without growing didactic (plus s/he's always had an uncanny ability to spot the 'new', something that any artist is wise to exploit).
Yet the final endurance of P-Orridge is how s/he can fluently speak the languages of capitalism, spirituality, gender and identity, across generational divides. S/he talks to an older crowd, one that is less inclined to the identity politics of today, while also connecting to a younger generation, who are less explicitly concerned with the structures of capital, and more invested in the politics of lived experience.
Tiarney Miekus is a Melbourne-based writer.
Title image: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Speak No Evil, 2004, C-print face-mounted with UV Plexi, artist frame 61 x 183cm. Photograph by Adam Stone.)