Genesis P-Orridge; Untitled (Mail art to Robert Delford Brown), 1975; Mixed media; 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches; Courtesy INVISIBLE-EXPORTS Gallery
Genesis P-Orridge, 30 Years of Being Cut Up
14A Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
9 September through 18 October, 2009
By MARK BLOCH
In 1989, almost 20 years ago today, I witnessed a performance of loud hypnotic music by Genesis P-Orridge’s post-Throbbing Gristle band, Psychic TV, at a Glasgow show that I remember as bordering on revivalist rave, transforming tranced-out Scottish kids into late 20th center whirling dervishes with time and space left behind. Like a post-hippie teenaged Baptist prayer meeting, all in unique British Isle style, devotees practically speaking in tongues were writhing on the floor projecting something between angst and anger for close to 3 hours with lots of speakers, TV sets and P-Orridge’s signature irreverence at its center, overseeing the barely-controlled roar. That and my own forays into mail art in the late 70s and early 80s - after he was long gone from that scene - made me want to revisit what this Genesis fellow was all about.
My favorite works in the show were playful, symmetrical collages that reminded me of the surrealistic paintings of the late psychedeilic painter Mati Klarwein. British flags and guards in fuzzy hats mingled with classical Indian art pictures of spiritual avatars. A triptych of horns and Om symbols and ripped paper. Slavery-related social commentary - people as property - were juxtaposed with images of the artist in bondage with writing around the edges.
At times the sexuality was a mere undercurrent. I saw holes drilled in rock that look like nipples, images with a feel like National Geographic but a closer look revealed telephone pole-like crucifixes and a vagina at the center of a giant mandala.
A press release referred to Genesis P-Orridge as "she" and "her." Because I am, in spite of myself and the fact that such qualities are the artist’s sworn enemies, hopelessly "sensible, orthodox, and predictable," I went backwards through the exhibit of collages by the very British and previously entirely male artist P-Orridge, searching first for outrageous and salacious images of his/her/its recent trans-sexual phase which I suppose I wanted to see because it is so difficult to fathom in the mind of a sagacious fellow like me.
Starting at the end, I was immediately rewarded with off-putting two-dimensional renditions of body-altering performance work reminiscent of Nip Tuck and other now commonplace self-flaggelating images one can now see while moving from channel to channel on one’s cable TV in the early 21st century. Do we have Christine Jorgensen and the likes of Genesis P-Orridge to thank for the breaking down of yesterday’s taboos in today’s society? P-Orridge and his late partner, Lady Jaye Breyer, applied their strategy of "cutting-up" their own bodies, in an effort to merge their two identities through plastic surgery, hormone therapy, and cross-dressing into a single, "pandrogynous" character. Here were the hacked up photos of hacked up body parts I was looking for, all belonging to people with hacked up self-images: twisted, rotated and nudged into submission at the hands of two perfectly lovely human beings whose only dream was to resemble one another as much as possible.
But ultimately unsatisfied by mere carnage, I went back and began again - this time chronologically - to put together a narrative in my order-addicted mind and perhaps unearth what might have inspired this fleshy freakfest.
In the beginning, within what looked to me like a layout of a sheet of 1971 commemorative mail art postage stamps, were the quite normal looking Mum and Dad of Genesis P-Orridge, who was born to them as Neil Andrew Megson in 1950. "Where did mum and dad go wrong?" I asked myself.
Next I saw Genesis as a young Oscar Wilde type. His work in the confrontational Dada-inspired performance collective COUM Transmissions moved conservative member of Parliament Nicholas Fairbairn to famously say in 1976, "These people are the wreckers of civilization." Indeed. In the mid 1970s', with his then-partner Cosey Fanni Tutti and fellow artists John Lacey, and Peter Christopherson, Genesis P-Orridge began their experimental sound collaboration and performance art coaction giving simultaneous birth to their own record label and the pre-punk "Industrial Music" genre.
In a historic photo labeled L’ecole de l’art infantile, P-Orridge, his then-muse Cosey, and six others posed behind a collaged image obscuring some of the participants. The couple’s I.C.A. art show Prostitution became a seminal event (pun intended) in the history of vanguard British art and counterculture and "shot" Tutti and P. Orridge into the public spotlight. To this day, the Tate Museum dedicates a small room to the exhibition that generated massive tabloid coverage and made the pair into household names in the UK.
Exhibiting used tampons, chains, anal syringes, and framed pornographic magazines featuring sex worker Cosey (whose importance, like Breyer, is not within the scope of this exhibition credited only to P-Orridge) the opening night of the show featured strippers, a performance by Billy Idol among others and served as a wake for COUM - which, that very night, promptly transformed itself into Throbbing Gristle, their legendary noise band.
Genesis P-Orridge; Genetic Fear, 1974; Mixed media; size unknown; Courtesy INVISIBLE-EXPORTS Gallery
Thus did Genesis, Cosey, COUM and finally Throbbing Gristle rock the quickly expanding mail art world of that time and here in this show were some prime examples - mostly addressed to either Anna Banana, the town fool of Vancouver British Columbia, or Robert Delford Brown, the legendary Happenings artist and creator of the 1964 Meat Show who lived in New York City in a giant house he made into his own church. As early as1973, Genesis had sent the aforementioned "Oscar Wilde" self-portrait collage to Brown and Hoss from Bonanza and other banana-related mail art to Ana who collected such imagery. Rubber stamped with phrases like "File under COUM," "Dada processing" and my favorite: "COUM: the greatest human catastrophe since Adam got a hard on," they reflected the period - irreverent, Ray Johnson-inspired "throwaway" art designed to irreverently criss-cross the globe in the pre-Internet postal net. I was struck by an image of a machine-like installation piece that looked more Fluxus- or even Picabia-inspired than anything else in the show. It was peculiar and mechanical yet dignified and made me think this is the way P-Orridge’s art might have gone, had he not jettisoned Mum and Dad and nurtured his rebellious streak. But rebel he did and his obstinacy soon became inseparable from the rest of him - if it wasn’t already.
In a piece accurately labeled Ministry of Anti-Social Insecurity the obstreperous and perhaps insecure Mr. P-Orridge appears again as a sad looking youth, this time in four black and white photos surrounding Queen Elizabeth, marking his permanent transition to life as a misunderstood outlaw artist fighting against the status quo. The UK General Post Office charged him with sending "indecent and offensive material" through the mail in 1974 with images such as these - desecrated images of the Queen juxtaposed with exposed buttocks, mandala style, an attempted spiritualization of rebellion, elevating blasphemy to a sacred and feverish pitch. It is not surprising that P-Orridge previously was a follower of Aleister Crowley and later began an occultist practice influenced by the theories of the artist Austin Osman Spare. Words of a statement of intent are reduced to abstract designs called "sigils," used to explore the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self through magical techniques such as automatic writing, drawing and actions, relics of which can be found in much of this work.
What followed was the show’s core: a blur of collaged images that took me through next three decades. Here one moved through work suggestive of bondage and bodily fluids; "constructivist colors"; 1989 scribblings of quasi-supernatural phrases like Thee Priestess, Thee Chant, Thee Universe, and Thee Star juxtaposed with woodcuts from the Middle Ages and a "Princess ov Cups" populating a sexually charged Tarot matrix.
Things got personal and a little more interesting but no less disturbing when a Polaroid photo of P-Orridge in high heels awkwardly navigating mankind ultimately reveals little but an unwillingness to conceal his tortured face. The same could be said for another of him in a maid’s outfit, exuding acrimony again - this time from in front of a sunset - an inwardly directed anger scowling out from the natural world. I felt myself grimacing, echoing his pained expression, reflecting on my own inner and outer homeliness, as I forced myself to endure the show’s ultimate torture: the one and only multi-media presentation in this exhibition by a dominant force in the electronic age. Real live footage of unidentified body parts being snipped as flower petals fall across the screen followed by a hand attached to a feminine arm drawing lines shaped like pregnant 6’s and 9’s transforming themselves into wiggly worms that escaped the digital picture frame. While body parts were cut up, while sewing and cutting were taking place in a box in one corner of the screen, vague phrases appeared… "There is no reason on earth… why… you should… run on.. with people…" and a woman with a tube on the tip of her nose stared out from a still image that seemed to hold her captive.
Should I assume that was Breyer? Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge - born Jacqueline - who died suddenly Tuesday October 9, 2007 at her home in Brooklyn from a previously undiagnosed heart condition related to her long-term cancer battle? And was that her cut out from a Polaroid in a nearby collage? Was she that girl looking into the camera so very human-like? Like so many images we all have in a paper bag or a drawer at home? Whoever it was, like Lady Jaye’s barely mentioned death, it humanized all the images for a few seconds. Breyer died of complications related to stomach cancer in 2007 and according to the gallery, if P-Orridge has made art related to that tragic loss, this was not it. Should he use his considerable bravery to give that a shot, it might be a very human exhibition worth seeing. Meanwhile P-Orridge repulsed us with this work from before her death. Body parts competed with beans, sausages, eggs and cups o’tea to draw my attention while "S/he is her/e," P-Orridge’s most recent battle cry, echoed from fragment to fragment.
A soiled and worn out pink and white blindfold used in many of the photos adorned the wall in its own right, from a frame, seeming a little out of place. It pointed to a show that might have been - a look at P-Orridge’s truly legendary performance works. But these were collages - influenced by Bryon Gysin and William Burroughs, neatly dovetailing with his "cutting up" of himself and difficult to separate from his being a perpetual "cut up" in society. This disturbing but important show was an incomplete documentation in fragments of one of society’s irritants.
Perhaps by presenting us with a portrait only out of shards, Genesis P-Orridge is avoiding something whole and human within himself, but we, the hopelessly "sensible, orthodox, and predictable," by bearing witness, see a fuller picture of our mysterious selves.
Genesis P-Orridge; Mum and Dad, 1971; Mixed media; approximately 8.5 x 11 inches; Courtesy INVISIBLE-EXPORTS Gallery
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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