“There are more than one of you
Maybe hundreds to chose from.
Stop being possessed by characters
Written by others
Rebuild your SELF
From the FOUND UP!”
–Genesis & Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, “Prayers for Sacred Hearts–Prayers for Pandrogeny & Breaking Sex”
Spirituality is a curse word in the art world. Just mention spirituality and watch most curators run for the hills. Despite building elaborate white-walled shrines to worship art rather than omnipotent beings, much of the contemporary art world would like to conveniently forget that the centuries of art acting as devotional objects far surpass our current understanding of art as a commercial product for collectors.
Perhaps because of this reticence to dive into spiritual beliefs and ritual practices in art, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has always seemed, to me, closer to a mystic or a shamanistic figure than merely an artist, musician or performer. Like h/er friend and mentor in magick Brion Gysin, Breyer P-Orridge’s transcendent and transgressive art conceives of ways of being beyond the strictures of, as David Wojnarowicz would say, “the preinvented world.” Beyond just conceptualizing structural destabilization, Breyer P-Orridge lives it, separating h/er from most other artists.
As Richard Metzger once said in an interview to Breyer P-Orridge on his own Dangerous Minds, describing his decision to seek h/er out in London when he was seventeen: “I had this idea that Genesis knows something that I don’t know and I want to know what that is.” We all do, Richard.
Illuminating some of the spiritual traditions that influence Breyer P-Orridge’s expansive artistic output, the Rubin Museum’s current retrospective Try To Altar Everything, on view until August 1, masterfully delves into Breyer P-Orridge’s deep connection with the beliefs, symbolism and artistic practices of the Himalayas and nearby regions. The title derives from a sigil in the exhibition, which features a photograph taken inside Breyer P-Orridge’s apartment of a chicken coop where, as the wall text exposes, s/he “would fast, cleanse, take a strong dose of psychedelic drugs, and inhabit the coop in a fetal position in an attempt to mimic being in the womb and leave the body behind.”
True to its title, the exhibition unquestionably depicts how Breyer P-Orridge has indeed both altered and altared everything from h/er body to h/er gender to h/er language to h/er art. Breyer P-Orridge even converted the museum itself into a monumental communal altar with a participatory site-specific installation Try To Altar Every Thing, which encourages viewers to bring meaningful objects to be placed in little shrines covering the surrounding walls of the exhibition in exchange (if you’re one of the first) for a psychic cross.
With an enormous fluorescent psychic cross hanging from the skylight in the middle of the exhibition space, the Rubin Museum undeniably announces that this is a different sort of exhibition from their typical fare. I associate the Rubin more with beautiful but fairly conservative exhibitions of mandalas rather than Breyer P-Orridge’s blood-soaked sculptures and sigils.
Curated by the Rubin’s Beth Citron, I couldn’t help but fantasize how Citron convinced the museum’s board and donors to support Try To Altar Everything. Admittedly, Breyer P-Orridge’s art is relentlessly challenging, questioning much if not all of our preconceptions and layered with multiple references and meanings. You just have to look at the extensive companion flyer of terminology provided with the exhibition to witness the complexity of Breyer P-Orridge’s vision. I’m just saying, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when board members were introduced to Mousetrap, a resin-covered collection of bloody tampons marking both the passage of time and Breyer P-Orridge’s deliciously subversive sense of humor.
Tracing the ties to primarily Nepalese and Tibetan forms of spirituality in h/er art, Try To Altar Everything provides cross-cultural context as an essential entry point into an ostensibly impenetrable and intimidating body of work. While the Andy Warhol Museum might boast Breyer P-Orridge’s first major museum exhibition with S/HE IS HER/E in 2013, Try To Altar Everything is perhaps the most successful curatorial display of h/er work I’ve experienced. Breyer P-Orridge’s art is best understood and viewed with a concrete thesis in mind rather than a simplistic–and some might say, lazy–chronological retrospective.
Trust me, I understand how difficult it is to explain h/er work. Featuring Breyer P-Orridge’s sigil for director Derek Jarman in Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, I recall stammering in a walkthrough for a quick answer to the question “What is a sigil?” without rambling about the Occult for twenty minutes. Well…they’re ritual collage objects made to channel energy when reaching sexual climax typically on the 23rd day of the month at 23:00…
A frequent traveler to the Kathmandu Valley where s/he pursued equally impressive philanthropic endeavors including running a soup kitchen and funding clean water for a monastery, Breyer P-Orridge discussed h/er unanticipated connection to the Nepalese’s ritual traditions in an interview “Music, Magic & Media Mischief” with Jay Kinney, collected in Thee Psychick Bible. S/he explains, “When I was in Nepal with both the more Bön Pa-oriented Tibetans who are basically sorcerers, and then the Shiva and the Aghori and the Naga, I felt the really deep sensation of ‘Wow! All this stuff we were doing based on impulse and instinct and observation, here it makes sense! We were right! These techniques are being used as a daily thing over here. We are Mr. and Mrs. Normal. We don’t have to explain our practices. We don’t have to explain scars and tattoos and piercings because the people here do it too. It’s a symbol of devotion and a quest for holiness. And that’s wild!’ I just felt, ‘Ahhh, at last, a homeland!’” (335).
With h/er sense of arrival in a homeland in Nepal, Breyer P-Orridge’s art richly draws on the cultural and ritual iconography the Nepalese ascetics including the marigold-strewn Begging Bin-ESHE, a nod to the tins that the Naga Bagas carry to collect donations, which Breyer P-Orridge covered with multi-armed self-portraits. Similarly, h/er Feeding The Fishes–in addition to h/er own dead fish and glitter– contains a photograph of a Tibetan mandala. The sculpture also includes a construction of a copper ball set on top of a tooth mold in order to resemble a lingam, which is a phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.
However, the ongoing concept in Breyer P-Orridge’s work that is perhaps most elucidated by Nepalese thought is Pandrogeny. Even though I have covered Breyer P-Orridge’s ongoing venture into Pandrogeny–or Positive Androgyny–on Filthy Dreams previously, it’s never too late for a refresher. Pandrogeny takes William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s experiments with the cut-up technique to its logical–as well as illogical–conclusion. Like Burroughs and Gysin’s construction of a greater consciousness through the cut-up, which they termed the Third Mind, Genesis P-Orridge and h/er wife Lady Jay Breyer began to cut-up their bodies by undergoing plastic surgeries and behavior modifications to become most like one another as possible. In an ultimate expression of love and trust, as well as rebellion against the given body, individuality and ego, they created a third being–the Pandrogyne or Breyer P-Orridge.
In h/er manifesto Breaking Sex, Breyer P-Orridge states, “Pandrogeny is not about defining differences but about creating similarities. Not about separation but about unification and resolution,” continuing, “‘We are but one…’ becomes less about individual gnosis and more about the unfolding of an entirely new, open-source, 21st century myth of creation.” (445).
Rather than merely introducing Pandrogeny, Try To Altar Everything provides a contextual basis for Breyer P-Orridge’s experiments related to the divine Hindu couple–the god Shiva and goddess Parvati. In Hindu iconography, Shiva and Parvati are occasionally represented as one–a part-female, part-male figure called Ardhanarishvara. As much of an influence as Burroughs and Gysin, the pandrogynous ideal Ardhanarishvara locates Breyer P-Orridge bodily transformation and h/er corresponding artworks as a site for transcendent–if not holy–possibilities.
With a 13th century sculpture of Shiva and Parvati nearby, Breyer P-Orridge’s Medicine Chest reflects a similar oneness of Lady Jaye and Genesis through a kaleidoscopic mirrored image. Medicine Cabinet enacts a symbolic representation of Breyer P-Orridge’s continual evolution into each other–a transformation that endures even after Lady Jaye “dropped h/er body” in 2007.
Despite the exhibition’s proposed focus on the Himalayas, Try To Altar Everything thankfully does not shy away from Breyer P-Orridge’s heterogeneous employment of spiritual symbolism. From Byzantine icons in the gold leafed Cruciform (Sigil Working) to the Occult basis of sigils, Breyer P-Orridge’s treatment of ritual and spirituality becomes another form of the cut-up technique, converting the imagery and belief systems from both Eastern and Western religions into h/er own unique iconography.
In h/er interview with Jay Kinney, Breyer P-Orridge details h/er skeptical view of devotion to a singular dogma. S/he observes, “I like devotion for its own sake! (Laughs) And it gets me into strange conflicts with people. I haven’t been able to align myself with an orthodoxy. Sometimes I wish I could, but I just can’t. I start to blaspheme and I start to make jokes all the time or change the sentence around to see if it’s more fun reversed. I always have to check and double-check things. And not feel that I am subservient to the dogma so much as that it’s working for me” (336).
Perhaps my favorite work showcasing Breyer P-Orridge’s amalgamation of iconographic symbolism is the disturbingly cute Blood Bunny. A play on the affectionate name Genesis and Lady Jaye call each other–“bunny”, Blood Bunny is, as its name suggests, a wood bunny sculpture purchased in Mexico. Blood-splattered, the blood is sourced from both Lady Jaye and Genesis’ deep experimentations with injecting ketamine, which unquestionably accounts for the altered consciousness and disappearance of the self consistent in Breyer P-Orridge’s work. The bunny also sports a jaunty blond ponytail from Lady Jaye’s hair making the bunny a powerful sacred object as derived from African Voodoo beliefs.
By celebrating the diversity of Breyer P-Orridge’s spiritual references rather than viewing it as a curatorial impasse, Try To Altar Everything connects Breyer P-Orridge’s refusal to submit to a singular orthodoxy as similar to the Nepalese’s tendency to follow to both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The exhibition portrays the rejection of restrictive binaries in both the culture of the Himalayas and in the art of Breyer P-Orridge. As Breyer P-Orridge asserts in Breaking Sex, “Breyer P-Orridge believe that the binary systems embedded in society, culture, and biology are the root cause of conflict and aggression, which in turn justify and maintain oppressive control systems and divisive hierarchies. Dualistic societies have become so fundamentally inert, uncontrollably consuming and self-perpetuating that they threaten the continued existence of our species and the pragmatic beauty of infinite diversity of expression” (445).
Taken in entirety, Try To Altar Everything offers Breyer P-Orridge’s art as a source for a variety of spiritual knowledge that has the potential to be passed onto viewers at the Rubin. The most touching (*rim shot*) work in the exhibition is a new sculpture titled Touching of Hands. Based on Brion Gysin’s notion as told to Breyer P-Orridge that true knowledge can only be attained through the touching of hands rather than in a book or in an exhibition, Breyer P-Orridge cast h/er hand in bronze, allowing viewers to touch hands with h/er. As the bronze becomes more worn over time, the sculpture exists as a record of bodies and knowledge passed on, revealing, as Breyer P-Orridge writes in Breaking Sex, “Change the way to perceive and change all memory.”