For now, the glowing orange portholes carved out of the walls at the Rubin Museum are only sparsely occupied with curious objects: a panda bear figurine clutching a heart-shaped thing, a crinkled-up clip-on ID card. As part of the namesake installation at Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s freshly opened show, “Try to Altar Everything,” these tiny viewing cubbies, resembling Japanese micro-hotelrooms for ants, serve as temporary homes for individual “offerings,” which the artist started accepting on Friday.
It’s a way for people to engage directly with what P-Orridge described as the “shamanic space,” and to soak up the experiences of others. (Ahem, objects are to be two-by-three inches and under, please.) These seemingly random offerings serve to demonstrate that everyday items, and therefore any experience, no matter how banal, can be made sacred.
Throughout the exhibition, P-Orridge will filter through the offerings, selecting items that s/he deems “particularly potent or interesting” to be included in the cubby spaces, and will tweak their arrangement according to the various vibes the offerings are imbued with. (Be sure to read the list of restricted items– some, like angel dust or explosives, are to be expected, but others– see: candles– are sort of left-field.) Which means that visitors who see “Altar” now will likely meander their way through a completely different array of items than the one they might decide to return later.
But one thing about this installation will remain constant– behind those orange windows (orange maybe to invoke the Svadhisthana chakra, represented by the color orange, whose balance is associated with creativity and a healthy sex life?) sit items that we’re asked to simply trust have real meaning.
Even after being open for just three days, moving over each detail at the show was a time-consuming process that compelled me to enter something like syrupy meditation. In the absence of an explanation for the visitors’ offerings, I found that I was glaring even harder than I might normally have, hoping to glean a story from these random things.
Of course, there’s plenty else to look at, too– P-Orridge has included a number of multi-media collage works, photographs, sculptures, and even sacred objects of h/er own that are varied and, for the most part, stunning. The show does coagulate into one sticky, satisfying mass– an amalgamation of beliefs and practices that are just as obscure as they are consistent– but only if you take the time to comb over the finer details and really consider what P-Orridge is saying.
It also helps to have some background on the artist. A great deal of the 6th floor at the Rubin (at the center hangs an enormous replica of the three-barred psychic cross) is dedicated to exploring what is probably P-Orridge’s most extreme art piece to date: the Pandrogyne– an effort between Genesis and h/er late wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, to resemble one another as closely as possible and break with the physical self, by way of plastic surgery and forever becoming “we.”
The pair wrote in 2003, in a passage included in the Psychick Bible, that they were hurdling toward an “unconditional integration of two sources,” a fusion that would bring about “a source of magical or divine creativity.” The effort became an intense realization of the “cut-up”– in its most literal sense, a form of collage, but also a way of supposedly rearranging the universal tableau through magic– something P-Orridge has been a dedicated practitioner of for decades.
Where everything comes together at “Altar” is when there’s at least a basic understanding of the cut-up and pandrogyny. At a certain point, a story emerges from the freaky, explicit, and sometimes dark images that are spread across the works: P-Orridge’s own golden teeth and glistening red mouth, bruised post-op faces, almost indistinguishable entanglements of limbs, crotch, and hair.
Even the more convoluted images become part of a clear trajectory when you can decipher the symbols. For instance, angular creations like the pair of hybridized dominatrix shoes pierced with animal bones, rusty weaponry, and sharp tools (Shoe Horn #9 and #8), but also the handmade Nepalese rug taken from P-Orridge’s apartment depicting a Hindu interpretation of the pandrogyne.
Which isn’t to say P-Orridge hasn’t provided guideposts along the way. Because s/he has. And the winding path is paved not simply by h/er willingness to bare all (P-Orridge shows absolutely everything, warts and all, and even includes h/er own body parts– hair, teeth, anatomical photographs), but also by way of surprisingly matter-of-fact explanations alongside each piece. By breaking down the symbols, P-Orridge is willing to risk explaining away the mystique. And yet, there are still many layers beneath what visitors can read about in the descriptions.
P-Androgny Sigil, a collage piece dated 1995-2001, is marked as the first work demonstrating Jaye and Genesis’s “desire for union.” It depicts two interlocking circles– “Christian sacred geometry,” according to the artist statement, and Polaroids of Genesis and Lady Jaye in compromising poses, decked out in lingerie or nothing at all. They’re imbued with a sort of profanity achieved by harsh flash, but are nevertheless arranged in beautiful, snowflake-like patterns. Blossoming out of the piece like thorny weeds are P-Orridge’s dreadlocks. “Cutting h/er hair signaled a phase of transformation,” the adjacent placard reads.
That’s a lot of information about this sculptural collage work, but even so, the piece still raises so many lingering questions about the beginnings, ends, and means of the pandrogyne project– the super-secret private stuff, coded in hints and partial answers scattered throughout the show.
As much as “Try to Altar Everything” presents layers and layers of puzzles and the opportunity to uncover hidden, interlocking meanings, there’s still plenty of fun to be had from just simply looking at the stuff, which radiates with a dungeon-dwelling, voodoo-magic, question-everything sort of energy.
But for the hardcore P-Orridge fans, decoding is most definitely the rewarding way of engaging with “Altar.” While Genesis’ own objects and stories and art pieces pulsate with an always weird and sometimes spooky magic, for lack of a better word (I can’t say “aura,” that’s far too hippie for this scene), there are plenty of symbols indicating what P-Orridge acknowledges is an important source for h/er creative process and life philosophy: Nepal, a unique culture that is at home halfway around the earth from here. For those of us who haven’t been, we just have to trust that P-Orridge’s pieces of Nepal are meaningful and accurate, but above all that they represent more than just attractive accessories.
Everything here finds its way back to the idea of the sacred. At the center of one room sits a red leather chair taken straight from P-Orridge’s 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 to me in an interview in February. It might sound like yoga talk, but truly there’s some very special energy captured in that high-backed, almost bird-like, blood-red chair. It seems to pull everything else in the room inexorably toward it. And while the chair definitely breaks that two-by-three inches rule, as the most powerful object in the room, it deserves to cross some boundaries.
Why is this the case? How can this possibly be? It’s a little something that P-Orridge likes to call “cosmosis,” or the transfer of energy from one human to another via an object. Knowing that the chair must hold for P-Orridge an incredibly strong association with h/er late wife, and the loss of h/er spiritual and creative partner, it’s almost painful to try and feel what s/he must feel when s/he looks at it. Or worse, guessing what runs through h/er head when P-Orridge sits in that chair. You probably have misty eyes now, no?
But the chair is also a reminder of the vast distance between the visitors’ offerings and P-Orridge’s own objects and work. As much as I stared at many of the orange-glowing objects– could an ID badge have belonged to someone who died? would that somehow make the object more powerful? why are my imaginings so morbid? am I going to die?– none of them throbbed with quite as much intensity as everything else at “Altar.” What are the stories behind these objects? I wish I knew.
But as P-Orridge said before, s/he wasn’t expecting that people would understand everything immediately, in fact it was a better sign if they didn’t. Lucky for me, and anyone else hoping to see the exhibition’s progress, there are plenty of great excuses to go back including several screenings of The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, artist talks from P-Orridge’s colleagues and contemporaries like Damien Echols and Kembra Pfahler, and a performance of P-Orridge’s ongoing video and sound project, Thee Majesty.
As the portholes fill up, it’s inevitable more stories will pour in but still, as the artist insisted, it’s up to the individual to surrender to that swirling cosmosis.
“Try to Altar Everything” is on view at the Rubin Museum, March 11 through August 1