PRINT February 2020



COUM Transmissions poster (detail), 1973. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti.

IN 2017, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Since then, P-Orridge has slowly transformed h/er Instagram (@pandrogyne) into an astonishing living museum of h/er many incarnations. The posts are sporadic, but when they flow across my feed, they are immediately recognizable—alien, astonishing, yet clearly linked. Sometimes it’s a blurry, sepia-toned Polaroid of two androgynous youths dressed in period clothes from a period that never existed. Sometimes it’s a straightforward and evidently recent pic of friends hanging out. Sometimes it’s a shelfie packed with books and photos and amulets. Sometimes it’s a close-up of a hand with a hospital wristband and an IV needle stuck to it with bloodstained tape.

The feed is brutally honest. If you cut open On Kawara’s series “I Am Still Alive,” 1969–2000, with a surgical knife, you would find the viscera of P-Orridge’s Instagram. The images do not mystify; they report, preserve, and remember. They don’t need me or my opinions. Only as I scroll through and shock myself again and again do I realize that I need them. I need the images to justify the immensity of their own task: the unfolding of an entire life’s meaning in and through self-reflection. You don’t understand, these images tell me, but you are fortunate to be able to observe

Breyer P-Orridge, You Are My Other Half (detail), 2003, ink-jet print, 17 × 11".

A TRUE ICON’S MODE of expression is iconography. Always, from the very beginning, and for however long it takes the world to catch up.

In an era rife with viciously affective images, few creators have been as consistently iconographic as P-Orridge. From h/er earliest public works, everything about h/er seemed to have been born of sheer will. In 1969, P-Orridge cofounded the art project COUM Transmissions, whose performances incorporated vomit, urine, and other excretions. Out of COUM came Throbbing Gristle, a cornerstone of industrial music; in 1981, as Throbbing Gristle fell apart, P-Orridge formed Psychic TV, moving toward the burgeoning acid-house scene. In 1995, s/he began the Pandrogeny Project, changing h/erself into a physical mirror of h/er partner, Lady Jaye. The project continues despite Jaye’s untimely passing in 2007; the two often appear together in the stream of Gen’s photographic museum.

It’s hard to count how many Tumblr subcultures take P-Orridge as a foundational figure. An artist’s Nachlass will always attract obsessives and completists, but with archives and ephemera now relentlessly farmed for curatorial juice, and underground culture an increasingly valuable investment property, P-Orridge has seized the means of icon production to curate h/er own archive in a way I’ve never seen before.

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge Instagram post, April 14, 2019.

Like every icon, P-Orridge re-centers causality on h/erself, acting as if under h/er own power alone, undetermined by external forces. An icon is not a constructed facade, a conveniently trademarked self, like Warhol with his wigs or Dalí with his moustache and his ocelot, Babou. The icon miraculates. It doesn’t simply express facts and objects; it expresses causes and effects. It expresses a capacity of the body: I didn’t know a human could bend like Grace Jones on the cover of Island Life. I didn’t know anyone could look so good in such a weird dress. I didn’t know a person could die and be reborn for the salvation of all mankind. It doesn’t matter whether the icon has a team of stylists or is captured in a moment of candid vulnerability: All the icon’s effects seem to emerge from itself.

From h/er earliest public works, everything about h/er seemed to have been born of sheer will.

Every image has effects, but the effect of the icon is always the production of more icons. An image gives you an idea for a Halloween costume or a photo shoot; an icon makes you start a band. The Christian cross doesn’t just produce new crosses; it also reproduces along with itself the effects of the cross.

“NOTHING I’VE WRITTEN here is for the well and intact, and had it been, I never would have written it,” writes Anne Boyer toward the end of her beautiful, resolutely unelegiac The Undying (2019). “Everyone who is not sick now has been sick once or will be sick soon.”

P-Orridge has spent a lifetime shattering assumptions about what we can be and what our bodies can do. For such an icon, what is left but to attest beyond a mere mortal’s ability to do so? The iconographer’s last and greatest act of self-inscription is the recognition of a body whose capacities are now unknown, not because they exceed us but because they diminish. 

FT is a writer and teacher currently based in New York. More of their work is available on Patreon.