Sui Genesis

Alex Jovanovich on Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s retrospective at the Rubin Museum

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge at h/er opening at the Rubin Museum. (All photos: Filip Wolak)

IF YOU’RE OLD ENOUGH, you’ll remember the term “urban primitive,” a pejorative (I always thought) coined during the late 1980s or early ’90s for the tatted, pierced, and dyed set who, through these various cosmetic alterations to their bodies, were somehow more in touch with the dissipating collective id that was being ravaged by Western cynicism and late capitalism.

I dunno—back then I recall the majority of UPs being aggro straight white dudes who smoked the shittiest weed and drank too much, calling anyone who had a sense of humor and not a jot of “tribal” ink on their bodies “fuckin’ faggots.” Well, imagine their horror, and my delight!, when Genesis P-Orridge, founder of industrial music and post-punk icon to many of these gents, married the irrepressibly sharp and sexy Jacqueline Breyer, aka Lady Jaye, in 1993 (“Gorgeous, like a female Brian Jones,” Genesis once said to me) and took in not only her surname, but her entire being as well (and she, of course, his) as part of a project they called Pandrogeny, an endeavor to throw off the shackles of binarism connected to sexuality and identity through various rituals and surgeries to look and become more like one another (gifting themselves with matching nose jobs and breast augmentations, for instance), and, in the process, blow the scope of their love up into the cosmos. Lady Jaye died in 2007, but s/he (a refangled pronoun, like h/er, to refer to the postsynthesis being of who they are as one) is still quite vividly alive in the artwork and music of Genesis, and in Genesis h/erself, who goes wherever h/er imagination guides, engaged more by novelty than consistency, and leaving a certain strain of likely gobsmacked fan from the era of Friends and denim rave pants where they firmly belong.

Left: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Tongue Kiss, 2003. Right: Visitors to “Try to Altar Everything” at the Rubin Museum.

On Friday the Rubin Museum had an opening soiree for “Try to Altar Everything,” a retrospective-cum–site-specific installation, which contains over thirty years of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s visceral paintings, sculptures, drawings, and collages that focus on h/er relationship to Hinduism and the Kathmandu Valley, beautifully appointed throughout that building’s gorgeous sixth-floor penthouse suite (anytime I ascend or descend the Rubin’s circular Art Deco staircase, I’m Jean Harlow…but fat). The lines were out the door as friends, fans, museum members, and the sundry curious arrived to see the show and contribute offerings for the 750 circular compartments installed into the walls of the exhibition, an artwork that is the titular centerpiece, a kind of all-encompassing shrine and aboveground catacomb for small (no larger than two by three inches) objects.

Admittedly, some of the things given enjoyed an upgrade to the sacred by dint of Genesis’s numinous hands touching and placing them into their compartments (a Pokémon card, a luggage tag), while others seemed to wear their specialness a bit more openly (a delicate-looking, helix-like object cut from acetate with text printed on its fragile strands; a heart-shaped sachet with a silky ribbon). One man I talked to had a hard time deciding whether or not to let go of a silver dollar his wife gave to him when they were teenagers. I think he just kept it. Another woman unloaded a necklace from an abusive ex-boyfriend: “The only nice thing he ever did for me during a rare lapse of complete selfishness,” she said. The first thousand people who brought in objects received a psychic cross, somewhat Orthodox in character, and a symbol of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, a religion founded in 1981 by Genesis and h/er band Psychic TV, whose manifesto contains a fabulous tenet we should all work a little harder at upholding: “THEE OBLIVION OV THEE OBVIOUS.”

Left: Visitors look at Cruciform (Sigil Working), 2005. Right: A visitor at “Try to Altar Everything” at the Rubin Museum.

I caught a couple of cute goth kids canoodling while admiring an illuminated coffin standing upright, its lid emblazoned with a composite image of Lady Jaye and Genesis nude, sans navel or sex organ (Gateway to Pandrodise [Walk Towards thee Light], 2010). Another couple looked at it, wishing they could buy it. They ended up sharing a big sweet kiss too. A docent looked at me, maybe somewhat puzzled by all the amour unfolding before a casket. “Well, you know, death makes a lot of people feel sexy,” I offered. “Being confronted with it makes them want to affirm that they’re alive.” She grimaced, and walked away. I then gently scolded someone for trying to touch a collage.

I managed to find Genesis hiding out downstairs, holding court at a cocktail table surrounded by Invisible-Exports’s Risa Needleman, filmmaker and producer Gala Verdugo, artists Dean Holdiman and Francesco Clemente, and the exhibition’s curator, Beth Citron. Anytime I’ve heard, publicly or privately, Genesis’s various tales about life and death (s/he’s been legally declared dead three times), magic and discovery (s/he was on a camping trip with h/er family in 1991 in Scotland when a random encounter with a Tibetan monk in the country brought h/er to Lama Yeshe, who said “If you’re fed up with this rock-’n’-roll business, why don’t you go to Nepal?”), or art and romance (Genesis first met Lady Jaye at an s/m club, where they had a besotted and hours-long conversation, with Genesis noticing toward the end that Jaye had been grinding h/er stiletto into some guy’s hand the entire time), I’m reminded of how dull and risk-averse much of my life is these days. When I tell Genesis that h/er hordes of fans are dying to see h/er, s/he said, “That’s why we’re sitting here, keeping our nerves intact.” Even goddesses need a break.