The artist born Neil Andrew Megson, 69, has made a life out of public incitement. The gender-fluid renegade, who since the mid-1970s as a member of the pioneering British industrial band Throbbing Gristle has been known as Genesis P-Orridge, has cut through culture’s obsession with propriety one slice at a time.
As a sonic experimenter who first earned attention as founder of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, P-Orridge submitted that pure noise could be as expressive as a musical instrument. As a body manipulator, their many piercings and tattoos propelled the so-called modern primitive movement of the 1980s into the mainstream.
As a longtime critic of gender norms, P-Orridge, who requests to be identified using gender-neutral pronouns, began undergoing gender reassignment surgery in the mid-’00s. Their plural pronoun preference also reflects a desire to include into conversations the voice of their longtime creative and romantic partner Jacqueline “Lady Jaye” Breyer, who in 2007 collapsed and died in her partner’s arms, the result of an undiagnosed heart condition.
P-Orridge’s most recent visual art shows, Pandrogeny I and II, will open on consecutive nights at Tom of Finland Foundation (Wednesday) and Lethal Amounts gallery (Thursday). The shows spotlight P-Orridge’s art objects and their documentation of bodily transformations — part of what the artist calls “an exploration of evolution and the human condition and its need to evolve and de-evolve through signs of gender neutrality and gender dysphoria seen in modern Homo sapiens.”
Two years ago, P-Orridge was diagnosed with leukemia. They were planning to attend the L.A. openings, but the cancer has recently advanced to Stage IV, and doctors advised them not to travel. P-Orridge spoke to The Times from their home in the Lower East Side of New York.
How are you feeling today?
Not so great. My right lung has stopped inhaling for some reason, and my heart started to miss a beat every 23 seconds, so I’m on oxygen all the time. I used to be asthmatic when I was a baby, so feeling like I’m drowning and can’t breathe is the worst emotional feeling for me.
If somebody could have said, “Which is the worst way to have an illness?” I would have said not being able to breathe. Thank you very much, whoever’s in charge of giving that blessing.
How did you approach creating the Pandrogeny shows that are opening in Los Angeles?
You know what sprung to my mind as you asked that? Evidence. To me, art has always been about evidence. Evidence of the lives of the people who are inspired by that divine spark that is so rare, especially in the contemporary art world. [Laughter]
You have been a key contributor to the current conversation about gender and body image. Does it surprise you how much the tone has shifted since a younger generation has started questioning gender definitions?
It’s really exciting for me. We were looking through old notebooks for a French academic who was doing a PhD about some of my work. And I didn’t remember this, but in 1986 there were about three pages of really detailed notes about androgyny. And one of the sentences was in capitals and it said, “ANDROGYNY IS INEVITABLE.”
So it’s been a long time churning and bouncing around until it became inevitable. And we just thought, “Well, if it’s inevitable, it’s the job of the artist to illustrate the inevitable within the culture.” So, yes, it’s surprising how long it’s taken to watch that gestate in the outside, larger culture. But it was there a long time.
Your commitment to body modification was first made known in the RE/Search book, “Modern Primitives.” In it, you posed nude to showcase your many body piercings. Did you have any hesitation about revealing that side of yourself to the public?
No, not at all. It seemed like a really important statement of ownership of oneself. As we absolutely 100% believe, women should choose what they do with their own bodies. So should every human being.
It’s my skin. It’s my body. And if I want to change it, that’s my right. It’s just raw material. It’s not sacred. It doesn’t belong to a deity. It doesn’t belong to the government or any cabal of power brokers. It’s mine. The malleability of the body is one of the gifts that we receive, and as technology changes and improves there are more and more choices.
How has your relationship with your body changed since you were diagnosed with cancer?
Not much, really. We’ve always been aware that the body breaks down. Grant Morrison, who wrote “The Invisibles,” once said to me something that I thought was a great explanation. He said that living in space-time continuum in an apparent human body is a bit like wearing a diving suit. In order to experience time and space and sensations and physicality, you wear this body, but it breaks down because it’s such a brutal environment.
And that’s why we can’t keep alive longer than a certain amount of time, so far. It’s just really brutal, living in linear time. But it’s a wonderful place to visit.
You sound so optimistic. How do you maintain that state given our current politics, among other things?
How to explain it? First of all, the people who are in control, the worst of the worst who are attacking us with anger, brutality, deception, exploitation, suppression, intimidation — all those things that are tools of control — those people, like myself, are old. They’re at the end of their time, too. And it’s almost like the thrashing of Tyrannosaurus rex. Its tail is crushing and wiping and swiping. It’s hitting people and other creatures and hurting them. But it’s dying.
And all around us are wonderful young people who have realized that definitions are meaningless and that they are individual beings who choose to become self-created. They are our hope. The younger generations, they’re not fooled by this plutocracy and this awful, awful political system that’s regressing into authoritarianism again. They know better.
So the question is, can we as a species survive long enough for that to happen? And that’s an open question, because we have lunatics all over the place right now. Ignorant ones, which is the worst kind of lunatic.
Well, our feeling is, how do you change it? One way is that an individual realizes that they create themselves. They create their own identity. They don’t even have to be the gender that they were expected to be. They can change their name, the way they present themselves. As Lady Jaye used to say, “There’s no reason why you can’t be somebody different every day after you wake up. There’s so many people to be.”
So make yourself into a positive virus. Change the house or the place you live, the people within — the family, or your roommates whatever it might be. And then change your street, then change your town and city, and eventually you change the world.
I’ve followed your fight with cancer via your Instagram account. What have your doctors told you?
It’s more a case of how long I’ll last, I think. I’m going to try and last just as long as I can. As the doctors keep saying — and I love it when they tell me this — they say “You’re complicated.” At which point I burst out laughing and say yes, that’s been told to me before.
Pandrogeny I & II: An Outer Body Exhibition of Genesis and Lady Daye Breyer P-Orridge
Where: Tom of Finland, 1421 Laveta Terrace; Lethal Amounts Gallery, 1226 W 7th St.
When: Through Nov. 24
Info: www.tomoffinlandfoundation.org; lethalamounts.com