Genesis Breyer P-Orridge obituary: Provocateur who pushed the limits of gender and self
The British musician, writer and visual artist achieved cult notoriety in Throbbing Gristle
Genesis P-Orridge in 2018. When, as a teenager, she discovered the surrealist drawings of Max Ernst, it gave her a taste of the liberation she would pursue for five decades. Photograph: Gioncarlo Valentine/The New York Times
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Born: February 22nd, 1950
Died: March 14th, 2020
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the provocative British musician, writer and visual artist who pushed the limits of gender and the self, often using her own skin as her medium, has dropped her body. At least, that is how she might have described the transition. Even in death, she would not have wanted to be held to drab social norms.
Genesis’ daughters , Genesse and Caresse P-Orridge, announced her death in a statement shared on Facebook by the artist’s manager, Ryan Martin. They said Genesis died at her home in New York from leukaemia. She was 70.
Genesis led the influential British rock bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, dabbled as a dominatrix in New York, ran a soup kitchen in Kathmandu, hid out from Scotland Yard, organised a cultlike fan club that asked initiates to send in their bodily fluids, and undertook a long-running surgical project to merge identities with her wife, Jacqueline Mary Breyer, in a single nongendered being they called a “pandrogyne”.
It was a full life. “We’ve not squandered it,” Genesis said last year, using the plural pronoun to convey that she spoke for this dual identity. “We’ve utilised it to the maximum we could.”
She was born Neil Andrew Megson on February 22nd, 1950, in Manchester, England, the second of two children of Ronald and Muriel Megson, who both worked briefly as actors.
Sickly as an adolescent, she had what she described as a tortured passage through England’s elite public school system, never comfortable with her body and gender. When, as a teenager, she discovered the surrealist drawings of Max Ernst, which mashed together heads of one species with bodies of another, it gave her an early taste of the liberation she would pursue for the next five decades.
“I’d grown up thinking that the world was what I saw, and then I realised it wasn’t – it could be anything at all,” she told the New York Times in 2018.
It was the dawn of the psychedelic 1960s, and she saw that she could create herself in a new form, as an alter ego she called Genesis P-Orridge, who became a canvas for a wide range of experiments: artistic, pharmaceutical, surgical and spiritual.
After art school she formed a confrontational performance group called Coum Transmissions, which shocked the British art world with a 1976 exhibition called Prostitution at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. It included pornography, strippers and used tampons, and led one member of Parliament to call the group “wreckers of civilisation”.
The core members of Coum morphed into Throbbing Gristle, an often abrasive experimental band that coined the term “industrial music” to describe its repetitive, amelodic soundscapes.
As with Coum, performances might involve nudity, self-mutilation, dead animals and Holocaust imagery; the band’s best-known single, Zyklon B Zombie, referred to the poison gas used in Nazi death camps. (At the time, Genesis lived with the band’s guitarist, Cosey Fanni Tutti, who later described her as domineering and abusive, an accusation Genesis denied.)
Thus began a career that moved from street theatre and small rock clubs to established art galleries and museums.
Tim Mohr, who was helping Genesis write her autobiography, described her as “a Zelig-like character” who “connects to the Beats, was friends with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, then in the midst of the hippies with Timothy Leary.
“But she didn’t see herself squarely in any of those groups,” Mohr said in an interview. “Basically she was obsessed with not repeating things. So big changes were not daunting. She accepts that changes will cause periods of difficulty.”
Genesis kept evolving. After achieving cult notoriety in Throbbing Gristle, she found a broader rock audience in the 1980s with the occultist psychedelic band Psychic TV. The group’s followers formed a cultlike network called Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, with members instructed to wear paramilitary uniforms and explore realms of magic and the occult. But in 1991, with the band and the fan club becoming too draining, Genesis relocated to Kathmandu with her first wife, Paula, and their daughters, Genesse and Caresse.
In her absence, the authorities raided Genesis’ home in Brighton, England, and confiscated materials that were splashed on the news as evidence of a supposed satanic cult. Though no charges were filed, the family went into voluntary exile, ultimately landing in California and the orbit of Leary, the LSD pioneer, who became a friend and influence.
There, as Genesis’ first marriage unwound, she found another unlikely identity, as a single father of two girls, attending PTA meetings in a silver miniskirt and thigh-high boots. “They were good meetings,” she said.
On a trip to New York, she met Jacqueline Breyer, a dominatrix and nurse. Their love was so consuming that they wanted to fuse into a single entity, freed from the binary divisions of gender. After Genesis was severely injured in a fire in the California home of music mogul Rick Rubin in April 1995, the couple moved to New York for her recovery.
They shared clothes and make-up. After Genesis won a lawsuit for the injuries sustained in the fire, they had money and time to push their “pandrogyne” project further. They got matching breast implants. Lady Jaye, as she was known, got a chin implant and had surgery on her nose.
“We’d go to our plastic surgeon and say, what else can we do now to look more alike?” Genesis said.
Then, in 2007, Lady Jaye died of an acute heart arrhythmia. Her death left Genesis alone, one half of an art project that no longer had a second half.
All along, Genesis was writing, painting, creating collages and sculptures that explored gender and sexuality. Once declared a destroyer of civilisation, she found her work embraced by the fine art world, including the Tate Britain in London and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.
Her quest, she felt, remained the same: to pull things apart and put them back together, questioning why they were a certain way. Holding it all together was her most inspired creation, the changing canvas that was herself.