At the New Museum last night, senior curator Laura Hoptman introduced Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to a crowd in the museum’s theater by listing P-Orridge’s myriad accomplishments. She was a founder of British performance-art group COUM Transmissions, which evolved into the legendary industrial band Throbbing Gristle, Hoptman explained, and she has served as an unrelenting provocateur for almost four decades. But P-Orridge, sporting a black shirt emblazoned with the word “Womanizer” in white block letters, was having none of it. “I didn’t do anything!” she protested to Hoptman. “Nothing!”
This was more than false modesty. As P-Orridge’s career has progressed, she has increasingly refused to distinguish between her art and her life, undergoing surgical operations with her second wife, Lady Jaye Breyer, in pursuit of what the two termed pandrogyny, a genderless state. Breyer died in 2007, but P-Orridge has forged on. In order to match Breyer’s appearance, P-Orridge has undergone additional operations and had cosmetic tattoos added to her face to match Breyer’s eyebrows and beauty marks. She has announced that she and Breyer have become a single physical being. (P-Orridge refers to herself in the plural. For clarity, I am using singular feminine pronouns, as Hoptman did.)
But back to the occasion of the chat: Hoptman’s latest New Museum show, “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,” has just opened, and P-Orridge happens to have been an old friend and admirer of Gysin. The crowd had gathered to hear P-Orridge talk about her late friend and, as the invitation promised, discuss “other matters.” She did not disappoint, providing a freewheeling series of anecdotes about Gysin, her life, and the art scene that once surrounded their mutual friend Williams S. Burroughs in downtown New York.
Here are some of the highlights from the talk:
•At public school in the U.K., a teacher nicknamed “Bob Brush” by the students — “As in toilet brush, for his mustache,” P-Orridge explained — told Porridge, “You obviously live in a completely different cultural universe than me,” and recommended she read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That experience led P-Orridge to the books of Burroughs (stolen from porn shops in London), and then Burroughs himself. Eventually, he met Gysin, who was a friend of Burroughs.
•P-Orridge attended a military school, she revealed, listing off to the audience a variety of the weaponry that was usually on hand: mortars, rifles, machine guns, artillery, and so forth. P-Orridge explained that she was trained as a first-class sniper while in school. “They taught me to kill at one mile!” she said, a glimmer in her eye. “Also, we began to start smoking hash at that time.”
•Many rare Gysin films exist today only because of P-Orridge. Burroughs apparently phoned P-Orridge frantically one day, telling him to call Gysin, who explained that a numbers of films kept in storage were going to be thrown in the garbage since the person paying the rent had died. P-Orridge explained that she cashed her welfare check, hopped in a taxi, and picked up the large, 35 mm reels just as workmen were carrying them to a Dumpster.
•“I realized that real lives were a lot more interesting than aesthetics,” P-Orridge said, describing what she learned early in her career by falling into the world of Burroughs and Gysin. Asked by Hoptman to describe pandrogyny, the state that P-Orridge is working to attain, the artist succinctly outlined her beliefs. Humans have transformed their world, she noted, but they have not changed themselves. They must rethink who they are as physical and spiritual things since they are currently out of touch with the world they have created, which has led to the tremendous destruction and violence that occurs today. (I’m describing this with considerably less eloquence than P-Orridge offered.) “We have to destroy all binary systems,” she said.
•Also, we have to colonize space. This would be easier if we could hibernate, like bears, P-Orridge noted. If we were cold-blooded, she continued, we wouldn’t even have to heat spaceships carrying space explorers. And, since there would be no gravity, we could even get rid of our legs. “Once you let go of the human body as a sacred thing, anything is possible,” she said.
•Describing a visit to Hoptman’s Gysin exhibition upstairs, P-Orridge mentioned standing in front of one of the artist’s works, which was blue work and features a psychic cross. “He was going to give that to me, but we couldn’t take it because it was too precious,” she told Hoptman. “We regret that.”