Art as life
As the John M Armleder exhibition at KANAL Centre Pompidou continues unfolding in its never-ending pursuit of truth and experience in art, a new chapter focusing on musician, occultist and iconoclastic artist Genesis P-Orridge, who shuffled off this mortal coil one year ago, pushes the cycle forward. The exhibition module Loyalty Doesn’t End With Death provides a cursory yet impassioned glimpse into the world of a figure who was emblematic and divisive, worshipped through truthful ardency and mired in controversy of duplicitous natures. All the lives lived to exist beyond life itself, and now is as good a moment as any to remember and reflect on the many facets of the only Genesis P-Orridge the world will know.
A stroll through the existing YouTube footage of Genesis P-Orridge leads to results diverse enough to make you think you’re dealing with totally different people. There’s P-Orridge as an anarchist in the 70s, stills of COUM Transmissions passing like an increasingly more disturbing slide show. P-Orridge on the BBC, sharply dressed and bejewelled with cropped greying hair, describing our times as ones of ‘insidious repression’ and lamenting the conversion of artists into civil servants afraid to rock the boat. Then there’s a new P-Orridge in lipstick and lingerie, saying, ‘We live in a miraculous time, we can go into space and do all these fantastic things, but we still haven’t resolved how we behave towards each other and that’s the great downfall of the species.’ It’s countless hours of footage, filled with musings and maxims where the interplay of earthly and cosmic forces lead to questions about the artist’s role in navigating these realms. Through it all, he becomes a they becomes a she, but maybe there was never a he or a she, and now they are gone.
Genesis P-Orridge began life on this plane as Neil Andrew Megson. Early photos show an archetypal English schoolboy with an impish glint in his eye hinting at the unruliness swirling within. Adolescence saw the future Genesis involved in student politics and theologically-minded groups, as P-Orridge’s interest in the weird and the occult - combined with a penchant for subverting social norms - began to take precedence. After a stint at Hull University rife with radical student politics and increasingly excessive artistic gestures, P-Orridge founded the avant garde troupe COUM Transmissions with then-lover Cosey Fanni Tutti. They gained the attention of the press and, inevitably, the police, through performances that involved live sex acts, self-mutilation and the ingestion of bodily fluids. Eventually, COUM was assimilated into what may well be one of the most defining bands in experimental music: Throbbing Gristle, born in 1976, reined in all the abrasive, explosive energy floating about and unabashedly extemporized it unto a world caught off guard. Along with Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, TG are widely credited as the creators of industrial music, and their off the cuff, confrontational performances mixing brutally repetitive beats and uncanny electronics with bizarre stage antics gained them the title of ‘wreckers of civilization’ by the governing establishment.
We live in a miraculous time, we can go into space and do all these fantastic things, but we still haven’t resolved how we behave towards each other and that’s the great downfall of the species
All of that sounds like one part of the story of P-Orridge; at some point, the narrative shifts. Throbbing Gristle dissolved, got back together, broke up again. Sleazy and P-Orridge began the band-cum-multimedia art project Psychic TV and founded the informal occult order Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. Exile happened. An intensifying interest in scarification and body modifications took P-Orridge’s practice into an even deeper corporeal field than ever. And then Lady Jaye came along.
With Lady Jaye and the Pandrogeny Project, Genesis P-Orridge’s outward dissent took a dive inwards: precepts regarding gender, identity and the boundaries between self and other were decisively warped or altogether dismantled, catalysed by the idea of all-consuming love. In Marie Losier’s film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, we see this decisive turn materialize as P-Orridge and Lady Jaye take the enduring influence of the cut up techniques pioneered by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and physically turn themselves into a new entity embodying their union. Repeated surgeries in an effort to look more like each other resulted in a new being made of pure consciousness and which they were both part of.
After Lady Jaye’s death, the P-Orridge persona took on shamanistic undertones, expounding visions of one who has seen the world from deep within and far beyond our bodily canvases. However, this wisdom did not necessarily imply humility, as P-Orridge’s dismissive reactions to Cosey Fanni Tutti’s revelations of an abusive relationship during their time together betray, disappointingly, a person whose capacity for accountability extended only as far as it made sense to do so artistically. If breaking norms and taboos was not part of a larger spiritual message or artistic plan, the exercise appeared to be of no interest to P-Orridge.
The artist is the inheritor of the tradition of wise people, shaman, and priests, the ritual side of the social animal, there to expiate psychic and philosophical problems
Nevertheless, given Genesis P-Orridge’s continuous explorations through music and performance of the body as central to matter and consciousness, it should come as no surprise that her other artworks are tightly bound to these mortal carcasses. Used tampons became common fixtures in assemblages such as Venus Mound and Blood Bunny, and many of the pieces featured in the John M Armleder exhibition deploy hair and blood as symbolic devices that refract consciousness from material boundaries. Prints and myriad collages also push explicit body imagery into total harmonic abstraction. For Genesis P-Orridge, art as life, as it permeates the material and immaterial, could not be a truer mantra. ‘Art is the ultimate question, the ultimate thought,’ said P-Orridge to the BBC. ‘The artist is the inheritor of the tradition of wise people, shamans, and priests, the ritual side of the social animal, there to expiate psychic and philosophical problems. That’s what art is meant to be about: rescuing people from the fear of death and the fear of life.’