H/er Transformative Art: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge at the Rubin
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Try to Altar Everything at the Rubin Museum
March 11 to August 1, 2016
150 West 17th Street (at 7th Avenue)
New York, 212 620 5000
If one were interested in having a transformative experience through visual means, one may very well find oneself at the Rubin Museum, which houses several pieces of Himalayan art created for that exact purpose. Writing about the Rubin’s collection in the book Worlds of Transformation (1999), Robert F. Thurman states that “we can engage this extraordinary art as a vehicle of enlightenment. […] We can reach out of the planet and allow sacred and aesthetic objects such as these to lift us up into their exquisite, transcendental yet sensual visionary, transformative realms.” And it is nothing short of providence that an exhibition by renegade artist, occultist, and pandrogynous icon Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, “Try to Altar Everything,” finds itself in this context. (Breyer P-Orridge identifies as a third gender and is typically referred to as “h/er” or “s/he.”) H/er work in this show includes new pieces made in Nepal for this show, earlier work courtesy of Invisible Exports, site-specific installation made by participating visitors and staff under the guidance of Breyer P-Orridge, as well as a series of live performances.
Since the early 1970s, Breyer P-Orridge has been exercising h/er polymath powers in the fields of experimental music, performance, poetry, magic, documentary, body modification, and more. S/he’s best known for h/er music-and-performance projects, such as COUM Transmissions, Psychic TV, and Throbbing Gristle. Being interested in so many forms of art and expression, and working in a non-linear, multivalent manner opens up a breadth and depth of possibility in h/er investigations. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse once said, “One-dimensional man is the product of one-dimensional society,” and he’s right. Breyer P-Orridge’s multi-dimensional person, just like h/er work, has always revolved around collaboration, synthesis, and multichannel appropriation, making rich and complex work. H/er interpersonal and layered method of operating is a rebellion against one-dimensionality.
The title of this show is also twofold, playing on the homonyms “alter” (to change, transform) and “altar” (a pedestal for religious objects or ceremonies). In order to demonstrate a method of questioning the way we perceive ordinary, everyday things and transfigure them through religious sacrifice, Breyer P-Orridge invited the public to bring small objects to the museum in exchange for a Psychic Cross pendant (the logo of Breyer P-Orridge’s Psychic TV group). S/he ordains the objects as devotional relics, installing them in windowed containers. The donations vary greatly: hotel keys, pins, photographs, ribbons, toys, spoons, etc. The top floor of the museum dedicated solely to this show, and throughout the room many of the small objects, in metal-and-Plexiglas canisters, are conglomerated onto separate panels, serving as partitions for the other works in the show, while creating a sense of unity throughout the entire space. Every element in this project can be seen as a microcosm that contains the entirety of the installation as a whole. The groupings of these objects seem to be serving as a formal way to accent the idea that few can be many, the mundane can be holy, male can be female; and further still, that these divides can be disintegrated altogether, as Breyer P-Orridge has done personally.
One of the most moving pieces in the show, Touching of the Hands (2016), is a detailed bronze casting of Breyer P-Orridge’s right hand and arm in a clasping gesture, which the viewer is encouraged to touch. The intimacy transposed through the arm is accomplished through the gentle, inviting gesture and the ability to physically engage with the sculpture. The label explains, “The title refers to a remark made by artist and mystic Brion Gysin to Breyer P-Orridge that true wisdom can only be passed on by the ‘touching of the hands.’ […] S/he intends that the bronze will wear down over time through visitors’ touch.” Some viewers reported “getting the chills” interacting with this piece, perhaps reminded of moments of prayer or meditation where another’s touch seemed to generate a profound excitation, or even conjure a supernatural entity.
One of the earlier works in this exhibition, Blood Bunny (1997–2007), is a life-sized wooden sculpture of a rabbit, covered dried blood let from Breyer P-Orridge and h/er late partner, Lady Jaye, who died in 2007. On its head is laid a ponytail lock of Lady Jaye’s hair, bound with a scrunchie, possibly taken post-mortem. Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye nicknamed one another “bunny,” and the totem serves as a symbol for the third gender literally embodied in their surgical transformation into near mirror images of one another. In making the sculpture, they ceremoniously injected themselves with the dissociative anesthetic drug ketamine in order to aid in the suspension of their physical awareness and unify in sanguineous sanctification. This act, to a certain degree absurd, sustains the paradoxical nature of Breyer P-Orridge’s work. Of course the artists cannot expel their spirits and synthesize into a third entity, such as a bunny. But at the same time they can. Is this not the undying question of art? Is something “art” because one ordains it as such, or is there a factual criteria we can hold it to?
The intensity Breyer P-Orridge brings to many media (sculpture, installation, sound, poetry, etc.) in one exhibition is a remarkable display of an ever-probing mind. S/he is abundantly generous in sharing h/er process and discoveries and for that, we may thank h/er for showing us how to yoke belief to practice and alter our perception of everything.