Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Photo: Seth Tisue.

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (1950–2020)

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge—the incendiary British performance artist and acid-house troubadour whose prolific subversions of normative culture made he/r a legend and Zelig of the underground—died on March 14 at age seventy following a 2017 diagnosis of leukemia. P-Orridge, who identified as third gender and used s/he and he/r pronouns, rose to fame in the early ’70s as the founder of the performance and music collective COUM Transmissions and as the frontperson of the industrial band Throbbing Gristle. When the latter disbanded, s/he cofounded the band Psychic TV, which went on to spawn the occultist sect Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. P-Orridge’s musical endeavors earned he/r the title “Godperson of Industrial Music.” FT wrote about the artist and he/r Instagram feed in Artforum’s February 2020 issue, saying that s/he “has spent a lifetime shattering assumptions about what we can be and what our bodies can do.” P-Orridge, who was based in New York, is survived by two daughters and a granddaughter.

Born in Manchester in 1950, P-Orridge became interested in alternative culture and occultism as ways to endure private school in the late ’60s. In 1968, s/he founded a short-lived band and happenings-maker called Worm, a name also given to a student-run magazine P-Orridge established at Hull University, where s/he studied English before dropping out in 1969. After a brief but formative spell at the Transmedia Explorations commune in London, P-Orridge initiated COUM Transmissions and legally changed he/r name. At the end of the decade, COUM—a protean entity headquartered in various English squats early on—began to shift its focus from music to theatrics, gaining attention throughout the early ’70s despite frequent police busts of their events. COUM Transmissions’ landmark “Prostitution” (1976) exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London incited a public and political outcry upon its opening due to its display of pornographic images and assemblages incorporating used Tampax, syringes, and other taboo items. This reception was integrated into the show itself, with the artists hanging up newspaper clippings during its weeklong run. Mutilation, sex, bodily fluids, Holocaust imagery: Nothing was off-limits for the members of COUM, who were famously called “wreckers of civilization” by the British Parliament. “Why is it that a journalist can discuss brutality, nihilism, suppression of ideas, and other unsavory things, but if artists do, we’re irresponsible, labeled evil?” s/he said to Artforum in a 2015 interview. “It’s absurd.” He/r work has been featured in exhibitions worldwide, including a 2013 survey at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In 2009, Tate Britain acquired P-Orridge’s archives.

Having incorporated influences from Surrealism and Fluxus to the Beats and chaos magic, P-Orridge and COUM member Cosey Fanni Tutti began questioning gender norms in performances around 1973, though the collective felt limited by the constraints imposed by the Arts Council and the authorities (Tutti would later allege that P-Orridge was abusive, allegations s/he denied). P-Orridge’s experiments with gender culminated in the late ’90s with the Pandrogeny Project, for which s/he undertook surgical modification to resemble he/r wife, Lady Jaye Breyer, who died in 2007 from stomach cancer. P-Orridge continued the project after Jaye’s death, referring to he/rself as a pandrogyne and adopting a plural pronoun. “The iconographer’s last and greatest act of self-inscription,” wrote FT, “is the recognition of a body whose capacities are now unknown, not because they exceed us but because they diminish.”