‘We are an eccentric English person,” says the artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, greeting me at his apartment, where he’s touching up collages. “You’re okay with that?” I nod. “Good,” he purrs, his voice dropping an octave. “Then we’re going to do just fine.”
I’m here to discuss the curatorial interest in his work as of late—his opening at the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, the films about his life, the Tate’s acquisition of his archives. But what I see, when he sits down on his bed, is that his potbelly props up his C-cup breasts. As we speak, his thick fingers brush away strands of his platinum bob from bloated lips slicked pink with gloss. He looks like a funhouse version of Courtney Love. More accurately, he has refashioned himself to look uncannily like his late wife, the woman with whom he has come to share an identity, a profile, even beauty marks.
P-Orridge (he pronounces the initial letter, as in pee-orridge) started out as a relatively conventional fringe provocateur, if there is such a thing. Born under the name Neil Megson, P-Orridge became an icon of the London avant-garde in 1976, when his art collective, COUM Transmissions, staged a retrospective called “Prostitution” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. “Prostitution” aimed to inflame: pornographic photos, sculptures made of used tampons, transvestite security guards. (A Tory member of Parliament seethed to the Daily Mail, “These people are the wreckers of civilisation.”) What followed reads like a Beat almanac of acid-laced Dada aesthetics. He befriended William S. Burroughs (Burroughs campaigned on his behalf for Arts Council grants; P-Orridge co-opted Burroughs’s literary “cut-up” technique for his collages). He birthed the hard-charging genre of industrial-rock music, spearheading the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. He collaborated with fringe heroes like Timothy Leary and Derek Jarman, championing the tattoo-and-piercing-indulgent “modern primitive” movement.
But that was all before 1993, when he met Jacqueline Breyer. Known to friends as Lady Jaye, she was a tall, Twiggy-esque blonde who had dabbled in dominatrix work, and she shared his interest in body modification. P-Orridge fell hard for her, as he tends to do (he can “swallow a lot of you,” a friend notes). He bought a brownstone that had belonged to Breyer’s grandmother, and they moved in. Breyer was equally enthralled, referring to P-Orridge—an occultist with thirteen penis piercings—as Bunny. “We fell in love the minute we saw each other, and as we became more and more obsessively in love, we had that whole feeling of ‘I wish I could eat you up. I wish I could just take you, and I become you and you become me,’ ” he says.
So as a tenth-anniversary present to each other, they began to do just that. They called the project “Pandrogeny.” On Valentine’s Day 2003, the two received matching sets of breast implants from Dr. Daniel Baker, a well-known Upper East Side cosmetic surgeon. Eye and nose jobs followed, and in subsequent years the two would receive, altogether, $200,000 worth of cheek and chin implants, lip plumping, liposuction, a tattooed beauty mark, and hormone therapy. They dressed in identical outfits. Each mimicked the other’s mannerisms.
And then in 2007, after returning from a tour with Psychic TV’s spinoff, PTV3, they lost half of their unified whole: Breyer died at 38, of stomach cancer. She’d been about to get a set of gold teeth, to match his.
“We were getting there, weren’t we?” Sitting in their apartment nearly two years later, P-Orridge refers to himself in the plural: “we,” “us,” “our.” Not on occasion, or when he remembers, but resolutely: in conversation, in e-mail exchanges. (I’m sticking with “he” and “him” here, for clarity’s sake.) He believes that his wife still exists within him. The project, P-Orridge says, has little to do with sex or vanity, and more to do with behavioral science—testing the boundaries of identity, redirecting the way “other people encode their expectations and their needs on you.” It’s like his collage work in that “we’ve always been interested in falling out of the frame.”
Breyer’s death has been heartbreaking for all of the obvious reasons, but especially because it has coincided with the greatest acclaim of P-Orridge’s career. A retrospective of his collages, “30 Years of Being Cut Up,” opens September 9 at Invisible- Exports. He’s the subject of two upcoming documentaries. Next March, he’ll lecture at MoMA. And in November, the Tate acquired 40 years’ worth of his art, writing, correspondence, and video and audio. For P-Orridge, the moment is bittersweet: As his life’s work is being celebrated, the project of his life has fallen apart. As his friend Katy Paycheck, a former Christie’s specialist, told him, “To me, performance art is the same as painting. There’s no difference at all. So you’re in the middle of a painting that you’ll never finish … and it’s just this twilight for the rest of your life.”
He tries to be matter-of-fact. “We have to go with what we have,” he says. “This is what she always wanted.” But he concedes it hasn’t been easy. “You have to have a lot more faith that what you’re doing is valid and that the person you trusted so deeply is still there,” says P-Orridge, his eyes watery. “It’s very hard. The bottom line is that we know she would continue. She wouldn’t stop because it was complicated.”
And, in fact, he hasn’t stopped. He’s scheduled his next surgery with Baker (he won’t reveal the details). He’s still making music with PTV3; they released an album called Mr. Alien Brain vs. The Skinwalkers last October. He’s creating new collages. A younger generation is embracing him, and he’s not one to disappoint. “Gen is a true living legend,” says the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, who appeared on PTV3’s album Hell is Invisible … Heaven is Her/e. “I was over the moon when he asked me to play,” says Zinner. “Every sound we made felt pure and mischievous.”
The afternoon is growing late, and P-Orridge asks if I want to help walk his dog, Big Boy. He stands up to grab the leash, but then pauses, wanting to clarify his perspective. “I know it sounds weird,” he says gently. “We could have bought a house or something like that. But we’re artists. Artists do art. It’s not rational.”