There might be no other artist breathing today who lives their art as deeply and consistently as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The renowned occultist and “wrecker of civilization” has repeatedly taken a spiky club to the larger culture, even to h/er own body, as a means of dismembering ingrained mores. S/he did this first as a founding member of Throbbing Gristle– a band whose embrace of bristling, harsh sounds and antagonistic politics sought to dishevel the status quo, and sparked the inception of industrial music– and subsequently with Psychic TV. With h/er new exhibition, Try to Altar Everything (opening March 11), P-Orridge will transform the Rubin Museum into a participatory “shamanic space,” inspired by h/er travels to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. “We’re developing this bouncing conversation between the mundane and the sacred,” Genesis explained. “Everything can be sacred, and if you start to look for the sacred, you will find it.”
The exhibition is seriously ambitious, involving sculptural work by Genesis, in addition to paintings and installations consisting of objects taken straight from the artist’s own apartment. Genesis is hoping the artwork and the environment itself will convey a spiritual outlook on life that s/he acquired after first visiting Nepal. “When we think of Kathmandu, we think of magical things happening constantly,” s/he explained in an interview last week. Genesis recalled that on h/er first trip, nearly 30 years ago, a series of bizarre and seemingly cosmically attuned events transpired that had an enormous impact on h/er thinking and way of life. “There’s more in this universe, and what appears to be existence, than what we learn from the West,” Genesis said. “You have to reconsider your idea of reality, you just have to.”
If you’re thinking a show like this might be in danger of promoting the usual Western exotic vision of Nepal, consider that Genesis’s fascination with the isolated mountain region doesn’t rely on romantic primitivism, nor is it based on some bourgeois pursuit of “wellness” or one particularly enjoyable yoga retreat. “We want people to know that a shamanic view of reality isn’t just something from anthropology and then it stopped after the Industrial Revolution, and it’s not something that just comes from so-called Third World countries and less developed and less sophisticated cultures– it’s actually an aspect of existence that’s always been happening and always will,” Genesis explained. “And it’s always around us, and in the objects around us– [they] are actually telling us stories all the time and we’ve just not been given the tools or the space or the means to be open to those stories.”
At the same rate, these spiritual concepts are not confined to Tibetan thinking and the non-West. “That energy exists everywhere, all the time, but we’ve lost track of it in our culture,” Genesis pointed out. “It’s buried and there’s so much noise we can’t hear it speaking to us.”
Beyond simply sharing h/er worldview, and hoping people will glean something heady from it all, Genesis is defying the flatness and one-way participation that we’ve come to expect from art shows by calling for visitors to participate. Starting opening night, people are invited to bring objects of their own to contribute to the space. Of course, we’re not talking any old thing you’ve been inspired to exorcise from your apartment after reading a self-help book– this has to be an object imbued with meaning or one that inspires a specific memory. “Items they feel have a non-rational but very significant, emotional, or magical meaning to them,” Genesis explained. “Everybody has those things, it might be your grandmother’s ring– something that gives them a whole hologram of that person.”
For Genesis, the art work in this show transports h/er immediately back to Kathmandu, a place s/he first traveled to back in the early ’90s. At this point, s/he was a notorious figure in the UK. Having held a number of controversial exhibitions that received national attention, s/he was both lionized and demonized as a counterculture icon. Unfortunately for Genesis, this was a time of Satanic panic in Britain, when media outlets, politicians, and organized religious groups fueled moral outrage on an almost chaotic scale. Eventually the artist, the parent of two happy, healthy daughters, became the center of outlandish charges of child sex abuse. By what s/he feels was the grace of cosmic purpose, Genesis was in Nepal at the time, only because for some reason it seemed like it wasn’t the right time to return to England.
“That’s when Scotland Yard raided the house, took everything that we had,” Genesis recalled. “We hadn’t done anything, but it just would have been so much worse if we were there. It would have been so horrible.” (The charges were eventually dismissed, and the evidence submitted by conservative Christian activists was found to be completely false.)
According to Genesis’s retracing, h/er family ended up in Nepal through a chain of serendipitous occurrences, all of which seemed not only like destiny in hindsight, but fatally aligned as they were unfolding. S/he also connects that very first journey to Nepal with h/er eventual move to the United States. “Oh, the first time,” s/he beamed. “That was really when we realized it was my favorite place on the planet.”
During a several-weeks-long vacation, spent riding around Scotland in a camper van with h/er two daughters, Caresse and Genesse, visiting “prehistoric, ancient sites,” Genesis found they were lost in the woods one night. “On the road ahead– it was country lanes, there were no lights– we saw this figure in what looked like a grey robe, hitchhiking,” s/he recalled. Genesis had been told there was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the area, and had a hunch the hitchhiker was a monk. The family drove the hitchhiker to his destination, only to find that he’d suddenly disappeared, but decided to ask the monastery anyway if they could camp on their grounds for the night. “Immediately a nun came running out in her robes and said, ‘Oh! We’re so glad you’re here. Lama Yeshy’s been waiting for you,'” Genesis recounted. And we thought ‘Who the fuck is Lama Yeshy?'”
The family followed the nun in the monastery to find people sitting in a dining room, waiting to eat dinner. “Lama Yeshy, the retreat master as we discovered, sat atop one of these long tables with four empty places for us,” s/he explained. “And we just thought, ‘Well, that’s really weird.’ And it was really weird, but we stayed and did meditation and teachings.”
On their last night at the monastery, Genesis met with Lama Yeshy. “He said: ‘You’re really sort of fed up with what you’re doing and you need a break, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, how did you know?’” He advised Genesis to go to Kathmandu. “‘I really think you should go there, it would help you a lot,’ and so we said, ‘Hmmm. Maybe.’”
It wasn’t until a friend hooked Genesis up with a deal on a hotel that s/he was convinced it was a good idea to go to Nepal with h/er kids. “The moment we get off the plane, for me anyway, it was like somebody had given me LSD,” s/he recalled. “It’s so vibrant and different and exotic, and we felt that classic thing that people say, we felt like we’d come home.”
Throughout the six-month-long trip, Genesis encountered people and situations that were “beyond any rational explanation.” Over and over again, s/he was advised to go to America. “And I said, ‘No I don’t want to go to America, I don’t like America, that’s the last place I want to go,'” Genesis laughed.
Even after s/he found out about the police raid, Genesis somehow felt compelled to donate everything s/he had to a monastery so they could purchase a much-needed power generator. “We went to town to get the bank to give me 5,000 pounds in cash, all the money we had in the world and we gave it to [the monk] and said, ‘Get some electricity,'” s/he remembered. “We had nothing and we said, ‘Well, let’s see what happens now.'”
Rifling through the pile of mail s/he’d stuffed in a bag before taking off for Nepal, Genesis happened on a letter from the United States. S/he opened it to find a note from Michael Horowitz, a close friend and colleague of Timothy Leary’s who has what’s thought to be the largest collection of drug literature in the world. He’s also, hilariously maybe, Winona Ryder’s father. “It said, ‘We were with our daughter at your Psychic TV show in London and it was the most psychedelic thing we’ve seen since the acid tests,'” Genesis explained. “Then it said, ‘If you ever need a refuge, call this number.’ So we called the phone number and Michael Horowitz picked up. We said, ‘We need a refuge.’”
Horowitz told Genesis to come to San Francisco, which h/er family did with the help of Wax Trax Records, who payed for their plane tickets. “And that’s how we ended up in America,” Genesis said.
Did these experiences in Nepal resulted in a powerful shift? “Oh yes, definitely,” Genesis said. “Before this we were anti-existentialist, we thought when you die it’s just oblivion, there’s nothing and the only thing that makes life worthwhile is unconditional love and creation– being creative, that’s it. But that just threw all those nice ideas about existence out the window, and we suddenly thought, we do have to reconsider everything.”
While Nepal was “this really intense confirmation that there is an amazingly non-scientific, non-rational but magical universe going on and that what we think of as reality is illusion,” Genesis has long been familiar with this idea of imbuing objects with psychic energy. In h/er compendium of magical theory Thee Psychick Bible, considered an occult classic, there’s a section on “Sexual Magick,” or how to harness the orgasm as “the breakthrough of energy or power.” As the book explains, such energy can be stored within “magical containers into which the sexual fluids have been poured, where these objects have been consecrated or charged at the moment of orgasm.” Objects that have undergone this process are transformed into “potent batteries of power.” So, basically, you don’t necessarily have to jizz on your grandmother’s ring, but extra points if you do to decide to embark on that journey.
Objects will be accepted by the museum from opening night on, when Genesis will arrange them and subsequently rearrange them in the space. (There are some restrictions: no drugs, food, weapons, human remains, or animals– dead or alive. See the complete list here.)
It’s a pretty powerful picture, and imagining what this might look like I immediately thought of the impromptu shrines that grow in public spaces after people die. “William Burroughs believed that hieroglyphs are really significant as a means of communication because they’re not linear, they’re a glyph, a symbol that gives you a package of information,” Genesis explained. “He believed they bypassed the rational, linear mind, and went straight to the nervous system, so that you could bypass all the filters, the conditioning, all the social obligations that everyone has built up in them from the minute they get born.”
Ideally, the exhibition will become a “sacred space” where people can “confess and express without any guilt, their relationships with memories contained in objects.” Genesis argued that any person who has feelings will be able to identify with this. “Certainly almost everyone,” s/he said. “We’ve met very few people who truly are so cynical that they don’t have a sense of something that is more than the story we’re given.”
However there is the issue of the art-as-object hurdle. How, I wondered, will people understand that Try to Altar Everything isn’t simply about looking at pretty art? “Well, we would hate it if people got it straight away,” Genesis laughed. “That would mean we’ve done something pretty banal or even mundane.” Instead, s/he has reasonable expectations about there being a bit of a learning curve and understands it’s likely that for most people the exhibition will inspire a delayed reaction. But after moving around the space, hopefully people won’t be so anesthetized as to be completely numb to the vibes.
Genesis is betting that people will feel something not only from other visitors’ contributions, but also from h/er own talismans included in the show, possessions that contain deeply personal memories and associations. As part of one installation, Genesis will transport a big red chair from h/er apartment. “It’s the chair Lady Jaye had when we met her, here we’d both sit and cuddle and fall asleep and make love, because we could both fit on it,” s/he explained. There will also be a handmade rug from Kathmandu depicting a Hindu-inspired deity, the pandrogyne– half Genesis, and half h/er late wife, Lady Jaye. “Hopefully people will experience what we call ‘cosmosis,’ which is the spiritual transfer of energy from one single person to another,” s/he explained. “That process of absorbing, knowingly or not, alternative ways of seeing the world and opening one’s self up to a whole other stream of so-called reality. That’s what we’re hoping we’ll happen.”
If you’re still having trouble, Genesis h/erself will be on hand at the gallery one or two days a week, and even when s/he’s not physically present at the Rubin, there will be a way to reach the artist. “There will be a ’60s red telephone that will be a hotline, so people can ring in and ask questions for clarity or discuss what we’re trying to say,” s/he explained. (If you were born after 1990, it’s probably best to google “rotary phone” before going to avoid clogging up the line.)
At its most basic level, which is nevertheless highly ambitious, Genesis is hoping the exhibition will get people to think about their place in the universe. “And realize your own potential and the potential that you might have to add something positive to the world at large,” s/he said. “To change things for the better on a macro and micro level.”
Still, as the exhibition’s name implies, it’s all up to the individual. “Once you begin that process and surrender to it, daily life becomes something quite different than what we’ve inherited and been conditioned into,” Genesis said. “People are dissatisfied with the vacuousness of selfies and the illusion of connection, when in fact the iPhones and the internet and all the other things are disconnecting people of emotional contact. That hunger that is created, that’s going to be the trigger that will bring people to look at the world in a much more total way.”
“Try to Altar Everything” opens Friday March 11 at the Rubin Museum and is on view through Monday August 1.