In the beginning, there was Neil Megson. There is no shred left of Neil Megson anymore. Genesis P-Orridge, his artistic creation, has taken over his body like a pod person. But now, 30 years later, Genesis sometimes misses Neil. He wonders about the dematerialization of identity. He wonders what it would be like to change back. He thinks it might be something like a time machine—that Neil is still somewhere back in 1965. Or maybe he killed Neil, and if Neil had it all do to over again, he wouldn't choose to create his eventual interloper. Maybe he still would.
In 1976, Genesis P-Orridge was being flogged as the most evil man in Britain, repeatedly. Tabloids shrieked about his disgusting demonic cult—the Temple of Psychick Youth (TOPY)—and their obscene demonic orgies.
Painful But Fabulous, the newly minted book on P-Orridge and his extreme performance art of the '60s and '70s, loves to reprint the tabs. “This Vile Man Corrupts Kids,” screams one. “Cage This Evil Monster,” demands another. “Show Shocks Even a Stripper,” says yet a third—which helpfully sent said stripper to go and be shocked for their readers.
It's tough to square all that with the gentle handshake and the soft-spoken, ladylike voice that emanates from a mouth filled with gold teeth like Jaws in Moonraker.
Genesis P-Orridge and the other members of Throbbing Gristle invented industrial music. Genesis P-Orridge invented the Modern Primitive. You, with your infected eyebrow ring: Genesis P-Orridge gave you that. And he doesn't so much want the credit as he wants you to be even slightly curious about your history. Forget Throbbing Gristle, he says; the Marilyn Manson acolytes today are lucky if they remember the ancient history of Ministry and Skinny Puppy.
But it was COUM (bizarre performances predating Throbbing Gristle) and Throbbing Gristle that would lay the groundwork for the horrid truck-backing-up/screeching-pterodactyl industrial music you can hear today at South County clubs. And it was Genesis and friends who were giving themselves enemas on the streets of London in trance-like performances that involved cutting, scarring, blood and semen back when Ron Athey, current king of the LA torture scene, was in short pants. I remember Santa Ana performance artist Squelch rolling in barbed wire and shooting up at the Santora's Smallest Art Gallery in California in 1995. How charmingly innocuous it was compared to the death stunts of Genesis and partners. The most dangerous thing we had in Southern California was Chris Burden having himself shot.
Nowadays, Damien Hirst can still get a rise out of London (and even New York—see the “Sensation” whoop-de-doo; I myself opined in these pages that he should be punched in the throat) with his animal butcherings and glass cages of flies feasting on dead flesh, but that's about what it takes these days. But Gilbert and George's statues of poo are considered whimsical by the London art scene. I don't like Damien Hirst, and I probably wouldn't have liked COUM. I know I don't care for Throbbing Gristle. But Genesis: Have I mentioned how very gentle and ladylike he is?
The uproar over 1976's “Prostitution” show, which featured photos of Throbbing Gristle's Cosey Fanni Tutti doing, as the papers said, “porny” stuff, came a full decade before Jesse Helms' fight to the death with Karen Finley and our own Tim Miller over NEA funding of “obscenity.” It predated both Mapplethorpe's whips up the butt and Serrano's Piss Christ. While COUM happenings included licking up vomit, having sex, and mutilating themselves and—somehow—maggots, they were paralleling the Viennese Actionists, who would eat, vomit and eat the vomit in a meta display that ended only with exhaustion. “Prostitution” celebrated the work of COUM—and it did so on the British taxpayers' dime. Holy hoopla!
Since then, Genesis has worked on erasing boundaries of gender (when I met him, I was unsure whether to refer to him as him or her, and judging by the sentences delicately constructed to omit personal pronouns, so were others at the party). He looks like a chick, with a hairless, heavily made-up face and a bob. At one point, he got implants. He has two grown daughters.
He has already erased his own identity—but though Neil Megson is dead, Genesis is not. No one was surprised when self-enematizer GG Allin finally bit it. But Genesis made it through alive and is an artist of a certain age now. Such excess is no longer necessary. Now he can relax and put out a very fine book and talk about the same things that obsess the rest of us: mass media and reality TV. That he discusses them intelligently and in terms of humanity's soul—instead of who among Joe Millionaire's whiners to root for—is a slim distinction. But it's a much more peaceful life.
Painful But Fabulous: The Lives N Art of Genesis P-Orridge by Genesis P-Orridge, Douglas Rushkoff and Carl Abrahamson; Soft Skull Shortwave. Paperback, 200 pages, $20.