Museums are stuffed with love stories of one kind or another. Of gods and goddesses felled by mortals; of artists obsessed with their beautiful subjects; all captured on canvas, etched in marble, or inked on paper: The history of art has always been in part a
history of love. Currently at the Rubin
Museum of Art is a singular story written across the work of artist/musician/writer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Titled “Try to Altar Everything,” the exhibition is a
moving tribute to Lady Jaye, Breyer
P-Orridge’s late wife, with whom s/he
rewrote not only the well-worn narratives of love, but also of the self.
When P-Orridge met Jacqueline Breyer in 1993, the artist had already lived many lives: as a bullied British schoolboy born Neil Andrew Megson, who changed his name to embrace a future of his own making; as a husband and father; as a founding member of the performance art collective COUM Transmissions and of pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle, experimental band Psychic TV, and the occult forum Thee Temple ov
Psychick Youth (TOPY). But the night
s/he laid eyes on Breyer, a lithe blonde nurse known as Lady Jaye, they began an affair that transformed their lives as well as their bodies. As the artist described in the 2011 documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye: “You fall madly in love with somebody hopefully at least once in your life. And there’s this moment where you just want to consume each other…just be one fabulous moment of being in love, and not be individuals anymore. That sort of feeling, we had that so strongly that we felt we wanted to pursue that. Not just talk about it, but live it.”
If for some the body is a temple,
P-Orridge (a nod to the cereal s/he’d eaten while a broke student) and Lady Jaye shared the belief that the body is an imposition, a limitation — a “flesh suitcase,” as Lady Jaye liked to call it. In the name of unconditional love, they decided their union should produce a third being: one that existed between the male and the
female. They modified their bodies and faces to look like each other, getting breast implants in tandem, dressing alike, becoming mirror images. They wrote themselves a new story, too, casting themselves as originary figures in a phase of human (r)evolution they called Pandrogeny (for Positive Androgyny), one that did away with gender binaries in favor of a more fully realized selfhood. Their concept for the ideal Pandrogyne was based on the figures of Shiva and Parvati, the divine lovers central to Hinduism. From their plastic surgeries to their borrowed cosmology, their life and art practices were conducted in the spirit of the cut-ups of writer William Burroughs: The world provides the material; it’s up to the artist to decide its order and meaning.
On view are collages, sculptures,
installations, and photographs by Breyer P-Orridge, all presented as semi-sacred objects, suspended somewhere between religious relic and artwork, all of which speak clearly to the lovers’ impassioned belief in Pandrogeny. Medicine Chest (2005), a small mirror-backed cabinet lined with photographs of Breyer
P-Orridge’s face, doubles as an altar to the self, reflected and refracted across surface and space. Alchemical Wedding (1997–2012) is a sculptural metaphor for the union of Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye: three glass vessels hung in a line on a steel rod, one holding Lady Jaye’s hair, nails, and skin, another holding Breyer
P-Orridge’s, and a third containing a
tangle of the two.
The show doesn’t only memorialize their love; Breyer P-Orridge also seeks to build a community around their ideas. Displayed inside small round canisters set into the walls of the exhibition space are offerings that Breyer P-Orridge encourages visitors to bring in exchange for a wearable psychic cross, the emblem s/he designed on behalf of TOPY and Psychic TV. (A larger neon version hangs from
the museum’s skylight, presiding over the exhibition.) Most of these offerings are found, not fabricated: a prayer card, a tube of lipstick, a key, a spool of red thread, a prescription bottle of lorazepam, paste jewelry, tiny plastic toys, and a plaster mold of teeth, to name a few. To Breyer
P-Orridge, everything is sacred, but the eye may disagree. Viewed alongside, say, the gruesome and bewitching Blood Bunny (1997–2007), a fetish animal rubbed with the blood of both lovers and topped with Lady Jaye’s ponytail, the public
contributions appear trite, even if well intended. (Breyer P-Orridge even separates out those objects that seem more interesting than others, placing them in a cabinet all their own for contemplation.) That said, how could we possibly know the
personal cosmogonies into which these trinkets fit? Perhaps, as the exhibition
suggests, we must take their value on faith.
The self has always been a fluid, even slippery, concept, prone to deflation and inflation depending on the fluctuation of economies both personal and political. In this moment in time, we are witness to a vast spectrum of the self. There are those who are oppressed, rendered personae non gratae, exterminated, and exiled by forces private and public. Then there is the rampant exaltation of the self, with
entire industries dedicated to its promotion and pleasure. If not convincing as
religious figures, Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye are certainly beautiful, inspiring ones. Undoubtedly, one of the artist’s greatest works is h/erself, a masterpiece poignantly forged in the most ephemeral of all materials: the flesh. In 2007, Lady Jaye passed away — or “dropped her body,” as Breyer P-Orridge says. To this day, the artist doesn’t use the first-person singular, preferring to speak of h/erself
as “we.” Understand this not just as an
eccentric tic, but rather as a mark of lasting empathy, of a self conceived as inclusive of the one whom s/he loves. Breyer
P-Orridge recalls Lady Jaye once telling
h/er, “I just want to be remembered as one of the great love affairs of all time.” With this exhibition, so they shall.
‘Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Try to Altar Everything’
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street
Through August 1