“And if I die tonight, bury me in my favorite yellow patent leather shoes”
–Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Higgs Boson Blues”
Can shoes become sacred objects with the addition of other symbolic matters? Do shoes already contain a transformative strength? Certainly, nobody will dismiss the sexual domination of a stiletto. Similarly, neither Nick Cave’s desire to be buried in his favorite yellow patent leather shoes nor Francine Fishpaw’s foot-stomper-turned-artiste son Dexter in John Waters’s Polyester would deny the sacrosanct power of good footwear.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s series of shoe horns, on view in a small exhibition TOWARDS THE END OF BIOLOGICAL PERCEPTION at Marlborough Contemporary’s Viewing Room, seems to answer this question with a resounding yes, with their amalgamation of materials as disparate as a fruit bat, feeder fish, stingray skins, copper, Santeria sacrifice feathers, and more affixed to glamorously high-heeled shoes. Admittedly, I’ve always found Breyer P-Orridge’s unique form of cut-up mysticism fascinating, revealing a radical embrace of a plethora of spiritual, shamanistic and magical practices and traditions.
And this resonates because in recent years, perhaps prompted by the chaotic whirlwind of both the Trump presidency and Brexit, rendering Judeo-Christian traditions inadequate, there has been an increased interest in various metaphysical practices. This can be seen in the popularity of stores like Bushwick’s Catland or exhibitions by mystics like Leonor Fini or Hilma af Klint. In his collection of lectures Occulture: The Unseen Forces That Drive Culture Forward, Carl Abrahamsson also remarks on this influx of fascination with the occult and its “visible contemporary cultural context.”
It’s no mistake that Abrahamsson’s book is titled after a term coined by Breyer P-Orridge h/erself (occulture being, as Abrahamsson defines, a “very active and integrated banner for individual and group behavior rooted in magic”) since Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) emerges as a forbearer to this era’s look toward alternative modes of spirituality. Founded in a similar era of right wing nonsense and lowered expectations during the Reagan/Thatcher years, TOPY was connected to Breyer P-Orridge and h/er band Psychic TV, but expanded internationally. In his lecture “Abstraction Made Concrete: The Occultural Methods and Mutations of Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth,” Abrahamsson notes, “hundreds of TOPY members digested and divested arcane lore in new and pop-scientific ways to a DIY generation frustrated with lies, blunt propaganda and mass-market ersatz commodities.” Sound familiar?
What seemed to set TOPY apart, and what still seems unique to Breyer P-Orridge’s thinking today, is the all-encompassing acceptance of a diversity of spiritual practices and philosophies. Abrahamsson lists: “magical mentors like Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, tribal shamanism, and the literary and artistic cut-up applications of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and artistic seeds like the surrealists, Dada, mail art, situationism, sixties counterculture and many, many other things…” Put bluntly, TOPY’s worldview, as well as that of Breyer P-Orridge, is essentially a form of the cut-up technique, querying as Abrahamsson poses: “Can we use this for something?” It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, then, that much of Breyer P-Orridge’s art is assemblage and collage, artistic disciplines that cut up and rearrange ideas, symbols, talismans and objects into something new, which can be seen in TOWARDS AN END TO BIOLOGICAL PERCEPTION.
Admittedly, though, first confronting Breyer P-Orridge’s shoe horns en masse in Marlborough’s Viewing Room is a disquieting experience. The first I encountered was Shoe Horn #10, in which a dead fruit bat lies upside-down in a glitter-encrusted shoe with its mouth open to reveal its little sharp teeth in its gaping maw like a fabulous tiny vampire. The shoe is placed on top of a Nepalese fabric printing square with goat horns. Nearby, another sculpture–Shoe Horn #6–sparkles with gold glitter on which a school of feeder fish, dry and crunchy, rests as if perpetually frozen.
After getting over the initial shock of so much…ahem…organic material, the shoe horns’ plethora of symbolism reveals itself. Perhaps unfortunately, the exhibition’s press release describes the shoe horns as a “radically simple project,” against which I would wholeheartedly argue. Sure, the act of putting these disparate materials together might be simple (Breyer P-Orridge explained h/er initial inspiration to the Miami Rail: “My niece wanted to know how we came up with ideas and we said, we just stick things together like that shoe and that horn, and I stuck the horn onto the heel of the shoe. Oh, I’ve got a shoe horn. Then I thought, I like that, I think I’ll make some more shoe horns.”). However, the symbolism contained within each piece is anything but. And anyway, where do you even find stingray skin?
Naturally, there are countless angles with which to analyze Breyer P-Orridge’s shoe horns. The first being their art historical references. Breyer P-Orridge is certainly not the first artist to discover a ritualistic power within shoes. With assemblages like Objet Surréaliste à fonctionnement symbolique—le soulier de Gala, Dalí displayed a distinctive fascination with shoes, even writing in his autobiography, “All my life, I have been so preoccupied with shoes, used in several objects and images–that I wound up converting them into divinities…In fact, the shoe, in fact, appears to me to be the object most charged with realistic virtues…” Similarly, Warhol depicted shoes throughout his career, from his early commercial drawings to his later Diamond Dust Shoes, which with their shimmering sheen, resonate with Shoe Horn #10 and Shoe Horn #6.
Thinking beyond the hallowed halls of art history, though, Breyer P-Orridge’s shoe horns are best understood as fetishes, corresponding to the multiple meanings of that term. First, taking fetish in relation to sexual kink, the shoes used as the starting point for these sculptures are all from sex workers. In a clip from the Rubin Museum, Breyer P-Orridge says the shoes are from “dominatrixes, topless dancers, strippers, women who sell themselves…” Some of the shoes even come from Breyer P-Orridge’s own sex work as h/er dome personae Lady Sarah. As s/he explained to the Miami Rail, “when we met Lady Jaye, she was a dominatrix, and within four or five years we were working as a female dominatrix in the same dungeon. We completely went into another personality, and we could do that partly because of all the other things we’ve done. And we did it for a while and then it was boring so we stopped.”
And looking closer, it’s not a reach to fetishize these shoes. Ranging from hot red to sultry black leather, these shoes are tactile, inviting caresses. In this, the shoe horns contain a sexual power, one that resonates with the sex magick explored in TOPY’s “Thee Grey Book.” In sex, Breyer P-Orridge with Simon Dwyer note, “Individuals can release a power and energy from within that renders any system of society, or regime, meaningless. It is a liberator.”
But more than just sexual fetish, the shoe horns can also be understood as a fetish, literally as sacred objects. Ironically, as shown by William Pietz, the term fetish originally derived from a colonialist drive to distinguish the division between African religions and their use of material objects, and European Christianity. In contrast, Breyer P-Orridge’s shoe horns erase these divisions by adopting a wide-range of ritualistic objects, from copper, representing alchemy, to Santeria sacrifice feathers to a Nepalese candle to a Voudon python fetish. And in this, s/he gestures to the potential of transformation, particularly for sex workers whose work is often maligned, overlooked or outright rejected. “That’s the basic premise,” s/he explains in the Rubin Museum’s clip, “that everybody can make their life more sustaining, more fulfilling, more spiritual by looking at everything as having the potential to be sacred. Everything, without exception.”
Admittedly, it is interesting to see these shamanistic artworks inside a commercial gallery, particularly one as blue chip as Marlborough. But, as Breyer P-Orridge states in h/er interview with the Miami Rail, after being asked whether it was weird to show in art spaces: “Sometimes it feels kind of transgressive that people you might not want to have dinner with are looking at something that is that private. But at the same time, maybe it will change them a little bit without them even realizing it.”
However, there is a little mischief in the only non-shoe horn inclusion in the exhibition, titled No Mercy, perhaps pointed at the blue chip audience. Papered with dope bags, the antique clock box opens to reveal a small pistol, a spider, copper nuggets, and two Voudon twin fetishes that hauntingly recall Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge who themselves investigated the notion of twinning through the pandrogyne. Glancing farther inside the box, at the right angle, small mirrored pieces reveal the phrase “No Mercy.” In combination with the pistol and the spider, No Mercy seems to invoke danger to the viewer or at least, a sense of fatalism with its coffin-like enclosure. However, the Voudon twin fetishes maintain a similar sense of spiritual transcendence as the shoe horns.
No Mercy is perhaps wonderfully inexplicable–an ongoing mystery, inviting multiple interpretations that could change upon repeated viewings. Like this sculpture, the show as a whole is about the possibility of change–change in perception, change in interpretation, change in meaning, change in matter and form. And actually, just this morning before publishing this essay, I saw on Instagram that a photograph was added to the exhibition, featuring Genesis and Lady Jaye. In “Thee Process Is Thee Product” in Thee Psychick Bible, Breyer P-Orridge asserts the importance of mutability: “My lifelong search is for focused on mutability, and to change the means of perception. To challenge every status quo as a matter of principle and never rest, never assume or imagine that the task of reinvention has a finite ending. Permanent change towards a radical, positive and liberating evolutionary mutation of the human species is the core essence and motivation of every single aspect of my creativity.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.