Co-founder of the pioneering British industrial rock band Throbbing Gristle, acquaintance of bad-boy writer William S. Burroughs, pilgrim in the esoteric realm of Tibetan Buddhism, author, provocateur, philosopher, shaman -- Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has quite the resume.
But the artist's most challenging and groundbreaking endeavor is the Pandrogyne Project, which, in its most elemental sense, co-joined two individuals through the physical and behavioral self-transformation of each.
The ongoing project is the creation of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and h/er late wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge (1969-2007). (Pronouns used in this review are those preferred by the artist.) It is also the framework for an exceptional exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum, "Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: S/HE Is HER/E."
Born Neil Megson in England in 1950, the artist looks like a proper, if impish, British school boy in a photograph incorporated into "Demon Child," one of a number of Polaroid pieces that show a connection to Andy Warhol's working methods. S/he attended a conservative boys boarding school and was raised Anglican but managed to pursue Fluxus and Dadaist interests as a teen.
In 1969, Genesis P-Orridge founded art collective COUM Transmissions, which carried out guerrilla street performances and later moved into art venues as performance art became an established medium of expression. Their rawness prompted a British parliamentarian to declare the collective "wreckers of civilization," and the group retreated from public to private space so as to not have its expression intimidated.
The sting remains as evidenced in such exhibition works as the 2009 "English Breakfast," which presents the Queen Mother literally with egg on her face in a collage work that recalls the paintings of Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo. "The British Government," comprising photographs, the Union Jack and taxidermied mice, is Joseph Cornell with menace.
The collective was about testing limits, said Nicholas Chambers, museum and exhibition curator. "Limits of what the human body could endure and limits of what was acceptable in social behavior. Do we get to the edge here? Here? It's about pushing the envelope."
That's a characteristic of the Pandrogyne Project also, but to surprisingly futuristic goals.
This is Genesis Breyer P-Orridge's first museum exhibition, comprising more than 100 works selected from a four-decade career. The art reflects a searching intelligence, from early "Sigils" -- collages infused with archetypal symbols meant as guides to focusing energy in the manner of mandalas -- to the three vials of "Alchymical Wedding" that hold both artists' body residue, such as hair and nails. The central vial, harboring a mix, could provide the means to clone their Pandrogyne self, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge pointed out.
Mr. Chambers wisely chose to use the Pandrogyne Project as the show's framework, giving manageable form to an extensive oeuvre while focusing on the most contemporary expression. He found antecedent to the project's more pronounced recent exploration, and deconstruction, of the body as early as the 1970s in photographs of a handsome Genesis P-Orridge as performance artist. The word pandrogyne appears in one of the artist's notebooks from the 1980s, Mr. Chambers said, but the concept was not articulated formally until 2003 in an essay, "Breaking Sex."
Despite that title, Pandrogyne is not so much concerned with notions of sexuality or gender but rather of oneness.
"The source of tension, the root of most human problems, is our binary world -- the either or, you or me, black or white, Christian or Muslim," Genesis Breyer P-Orridge said when in Pittsburgh for the exhibition opening.
The Pandrogyne concept is "never either/or but both/and. It's not exclusive. It's extraordinarily inclusive," Mr. Chambers explained.
It's also quite romantic, in the uber-love shared by the Breyer P-Orridges that drove the desire to eliminate distinctions and become one. In their encompassing devotion to and idealization of love, they follow in the tradition of the great British Romantic poets. The transcendent component of the joining suggests spirituality.
"I always thought art was a spiritual journey," Genesis Breyer P-Orridge said.
Beyond that fusion are other possibilities that may be achieved once humankind frees itself from the presumed confines of its DNA. "Once you let go of the notion that the body has to look a certain way," doors are opened to a new "evolutionary trajectory," Genesis Breyer P-Orridge said.
In pursuit of the Pandrogyne state, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge initiated a number of measures, some of which were physical, such as receiving breast implants or hormone therapy. "Sometimes they were not as invasive, such as changing a hairstyle," Mr. Chambers said. "Sometimes they were just altering their behavior."
With the untimely death of Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is "the embodiment of the Pandrogyne Project," Mr. Chambers said.
While Genesis Breyer P-Orridge acknowledged occasional loneliness, s/he still feels connected to Lady Jaye and said they continue to work together. Their experience of Buddhism led them to "the conclusion that there is reincarnation," the artist said. "She is in another dimension. We do feel her presence," s/he said using the plural that has become second-nature.
The unconventional nature of the Pandrogyne Project, and of its artworks including the central sentient one, is admittedly a challenge that the viewer has to make peace with. But as with other contemporary artists who work in extreme modes, the earnest intent is dialogue, not sensationalism. Consider Orlan (implications of body modification through cosmetic surgery) and Stelarc (exploration of body-Internet compatibility), both of whom Genesis Breyer P-Orridge knows.
It's a discussion for which s/he has done the difficult groundwork. The opportunity to listen and to consider is ours.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge will perform with the group Psychic TV/PTV 3 at 8 p.m. Aug. 16 at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side ($25; $20 students and members). S/he will give a talk at 2 p.m. Aug. 17 at The Warhol (free with museum admission).
The exhibition continues through Sept. 15 at 117 Sandusky St., North Side. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 10 p.m. Friday. Admission is $20; students and others ages 3-18, $10; 5-10 p.m. Friday, half-price. Also continuing through Sept. 15 are "Caldwell Linker: All Through the Night" and "Nick Bubash: The Patron Saint of White Guys That Went Tribal and Other Works."
Related Voices Gallery Talks are "Queer and Brown in Steeltown with Raquel Rodrigez and Ayanah Moor," 2 p.m. Aug. 24, and "Troubling the Line: An Excerpt -- Poetry Reading and Conversation With Jenny Johnson and Ari Banias," 2 p.m. Aug. 31 (free with museum admission).
For information or Psychic TV tickets, call 412-237-8300 or visit www.warhol.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published August 7, 2013 4:00 AM