Thursday, March 25, 2010

Extreme Living

The very first video screened in The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2 at MoMA this past Monday evening not only prompted a handful of people who had just arrived in the packed room to get up and leave, but it had virtually everyone else who remained squirming in their seats. Bambino, who can't get enough of the extreme violence of Animal Planet and comes from a culture in which slaughtering your food is a daily routine, had his hands over his eyes. I forced myself to watch, but kept hoping that it would mercifully end before my reflexes took over and my hands flew up to my face as well.

What caused all the discomfort was a film from the mid 1970s by COUM Transmission, one of the early collectives/permutations of an ongoing life project by the artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (who for reasons explained here refers to "themselves" in the plural). In the video, there was nudity, the insertion of objects into orifices, pornographic images, extreme cutting and poking and anesthesia-free sewing of a limb (by the owner of that limb), and (perhaps the most unsettling) the ingestion of a liquid from a milk bottle that I really, really, really hoped was indeed milk. At the conclusion of the video, Genesis said, in their cool, dry, British accent, "So. How did we get here?"

The next hour or so, we were treated to the story of how an economics major dropped out of university and became one of the world's most consistently controversial and exhilarating artists. I've attended several events at MoMA's Mondern Mondays, but have never heard the kind of extended, profound applause that greeted Genesis at the end of their presentation. I'll admit that it shifted my view on the potential of viewing one's life as inseparable from one's art.

Mention Genesis today and many people will think of the ground-breaking industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or how, with his late wife Lady Jaye, he started an ongoing experiment in body modification aimed at creating one “pandrogynous” being. But from the late 1960's to the mid 1970's Genesis was involved in some of the most notorious performances ever presented by any artists anywhere. Originally part of the strict collective Exploding Galaxy (which systematically asked [forced] members to never do anything the same way twice), Genesis went on to organize (with Cosey Fanni Tutti, who worked as "a secretary, stripper, and pornographic and erotic model" and others) COUM Transmissions, whose work morphed from theatrical treaties on "the other" into live (and very extreme) explorations of the hypocrisy of British attitudes on "sex, taboos, and the paranormal." The height (or depth, depending on how conservative you are) of COUM's notoriety came in the form of a 1976 exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). The exhibition was titled "Prostitution"
The show featured a stripper, used Tampax in glass, and transvestite guards. Prostitutes, punks, people in costumes, and general curiosities were hired to mingle with the gallery audience.

The show caused debate in Parliament about the public funding of such events. In the House of Commons, Scottish Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn demanded an explanation from Arts Minister Harold Lever and proclaimed P-Orridge and Tutti as "wreckers of civilisation". Fleet Street [London's newspaper district] was not slow to pick up the story. The reviews were cut up, framed and put on display for the remainder of the exhibition. This was also reported in newspapers, so cut-ups about the cut-ups were also put on display.
During the presentation Monday, Genesis seemed to revel in the headlines the exhibition prompted, but the work has come with some very serious consequences including being jailed, being forced to leave England, and on a few occassions being hospitalized. Today, Genesis seems much more calm (well, as calm as anyone who's had repeated plastic surgery to look identical to their partner can look I guess), but there remains that same urgency of purpose in how they feel about taking life by the horns. Genesis noted that the art world of the early 1970s felt very much as it does today...there's a desperation in the air and a willingness to speak truth to power again.

We saw Genesis' excellent exhibition of collage-based work this past September at the LES's Invisible-Exports. Bambino and I walked from piece to piece in that show, our jaws dropping again and again, as we saw the date of a work with a motif or idea that had clearly preceded something other artists have since incorporated into their own later work. In Monday's presentation, Genesis showed photos of a COUM performance from the Paris Biennial (about 1974 or so I think...can't remember)...anyway, it far preceded the work it clearly influenced. As part of their three-day performance, they had set up a large vitrine in which mayfly larvae squirmed around, matured, and eventually took flight (looking like a plastic box of flying black dots) to then die and form a disgusting blanket of bodies. Sound familiar?

Life is all there is, in my opinion. This world, these boundaries, these possibilities...they comprise everything you or I will ever be exposed to or have the chance to experience. To waste any of it is the most serious mistake anyone can make. A younger artist asked Genesis during the presentation's Q&A what they thought about people doing similar extreme work today. Genesis replied that it's up to them, but if they are compelled to do extreme work they shouldn't repeat any previous ideas or performances...they should do something different.

A quote on Genesis' official website reads:
Art and life really are the same and both can only be about a spiritual journey, a path towards a re-union with a supreme creator, with god, with the divine; and this is true no matter how unlikely, strange or unorthodox one's particular life path might appear to ones self or others at any given moment.
As we've discussed here before, I'm not entirely convinced about that sentiment, but I am convinced that Genesis believes and lives it every day. And I'm beginning to question whether I'm right. It was an extraordinary evening. Thanks to Ben and Risa again!

[Update: although some of COUM's performance included real violence and cutting into the artist's flesh, I have since learned that in the first video discussed above the limb was actually latex.]

Labels: art legacy, artists lifestyle


Blogger kalm james said...

I think it could be argued that much of this kind of work has its beginnings with the Marquis de Sade and his challenge to "God". If I remember correctly, in "The Rebel", Camus traces a legacy from Sade through Marx to what was contemporary Existentialism. But where do we draw the line? Should public health care foot the bill for this?

3/25/2010 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How did you manage to not include abortion, guns, and gay marriage in your question, James? :-P

3/25/2010 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Brent said...

The only thing worse I could think of is to go to the trouble of being extreme and shocking and then be derivative. After all "saying f*ck to granny" only works to shock the first time, and the second time just makes her angry.

BUT ...

I think Genesis P-Orridge, god bless 'im, feels he is doing some sort of Tantric-like ritual as art. If he feels closer to the divine as a result, I suppose he succeeded, but the "liberating" effect of breaking taboos works mostly on the performer and very little on the observers.

3/25/2010 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

You gotta give me something to come back with in the rebut.

Seriously, P. Orridge has under gone extensive (can't even call it "cosmetic") medical procedures in pursuit of his "project". Does the desire of an artist to transcend gender outweigh the needs of a minority child with cancer? Is this an appropriate expenditure of societies ever shrinking resources?

And I'm all for arming the unborn gay couples who want to get married.

3/25/2010 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

I absolutely agree with every word they (Genesis) say. Life and art are the same. They are about a spiritual journey, you may call it god or something different, but it's about questioning the deeper meaning, not in a philosophical or religious sense, but as an experience. The meaning of life to us, the meaning of beauty, of ugliness, of love, of hate, of obsession, the meaning of old age and youth, health and disease, pain and joy, etc... also guns, abortion, gay marriage... All of that. And also, and maybe mainly the challenging of any meaning at all, of god's existence. What is life (or death) to us? That's what artists deal with, each in their own way. I don't think this has started at any certain point in time. We can see it already in cave drawings, when man first reflected on their actions and life through art.

I also agree that work that is repeated has less power and meaning than work that is completely original, but creating something completely original like they did in the 50's, 60's and 70's is very difficult to do. I wonder about the comment that today feels like in the beginning 70's, time will tell.

3/25/2010 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sick of the derivative MFA bullshit being produced by budding careerists. Genesis is the real deal. Fuck the dealers and grad school artists and millionaires who propagate this anemic "art scene". Yes, I know you cynical bastards will laugh at my rant but fuck it- long live art!

3/25/2010 01:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Rant-on! You young anonymous, whoever you are!!

3/25/2010 03:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I guess I'm on the outside of this approach. Art=life?

I think that art lets us get outside of our lives so that we can then better consider our life (or aspects of it) After-wards we can then re-appropriate our lives and possibly give them a meaning and direction much more richer then before the art experience.

Art is a suspension of reality, where in we can gain an insight from a different perspective, and thus we have the possibility of applying that insight if we wish to our lives. Art is outside of life, but we root its insights within our own lives.

The concept that it isn't about what needs to be said, but is about what needs to be heard (Sila?) I think aptly places art rightfully as always being of value to society and individuals. Regardless if its all been done before, the audience is always generational and the newly born of the future will still have need to hear the wisdom's of art.
Not so much: has it yet been done already, but more so, has it been heard by you yet? I do concur that there is a Japanese artist that preceded Duchamp by centuries and actually stands taller then he artistically, but who of this era knows that artists name? I'd rather Duchamp's insights then none at all.

3/25/2010 04:00:00 PM  
OpenID dennishelsel said...

I like any artist that can blur/fuse the distinction between art and life. Too many people walk around with their eyes closed or they are too focused upon the ditractions saturating our lives. The most vital art may not be the most accesible or enjoyable, but its effects will linger on and resonate within the mind. Afterall, art is precious nothing if it doesn't live within the mind of the viewer.

3/25/2010 08:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be picky, but in the real world, no one has ever created anything out of nothing, so why go around writing artists off for being derivative?
We are all derivative. Existence is derivative. Art is derivative, the obviousness of which is purely a matter of how obscure and how unique your particular set of sources are.
Can we please come up with a better way to differentiate between good art and bad art than throwing out that tired term moved beyond worshiping at the alter of originality?

3/26/2010 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Gam, Anonymous 10:15: I agree with you, even if it was already done before, there is still a point in making it heard again. And: Existence and art are all derivatives.

But what I mean with originality, is not for the sake of being original, but for the sake of saying something genuine, honest, not trying to just copy anybody else, because that is simply boring, and I guess that is what makes bad art. It's really difficult to do though, we all tend to copy and be influenced, that is probably why there are so few real great ones. I'm not dismissing influence, and again, it's not originality for the sake of it, because that is also sort of copying: that guy was original, so let me think of another original idea to top that one. But that's not genuine, that's trying original for the sake of it. If you take your life or your art (of both if you consider them one and the same) and *experience* it in a zen-like, genuine way, the art that comes out of you will be it. That's sort of what I mean. You don't have to be a zen monk to do it, I doubt Genesis was ;-) just be real. I think Genesis was or were or is or are him (or them) self all the way. (as confused as it sounds lol!)

3/26/2010 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I post too fast- a clause of my last sentence got deleted and reads a bit garbled, but probably, it is better to just delete the last 8 words and leave it at that.

Some highly derivative art is good art-- Manet's Olympia, Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., Jeff Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) all come easily to mind, and I'm not even going to to there with people like Koons and Cindy Sherman whose work has even been cited for copyright infringement.

Maybe instead of worrying about originality and influences a better gauge is simply the integrity of the metaphor or idea, and the skill or artistry at communicating the above. Yea, honesty helps with that a lot, it can take you places you never even thought to go.

-Anonymous 10:15

3/26/2010 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Mead McLean said...

Another interesting MoMA connection:

Peter Christopherson was also in Coum Transmissions. Once they gave that up, they started TG then, with John Balance, the Temple of Psychic Youth and its corresponding band, Psychic TV (which is still around, minus Peter and John).

Peter became dissatisfied with Genesis during the Temple days because Genesis wanted to be a cult leader, but Peter and John wanted to be anti-cult leaders by deprogramming cult followers and setting them back into the world.

Peter & John left to form the band Coil. Coil's claim to fame in the early 80's (1983-4) is that their single, Panic/Tainted Love, was the first record with the profits donated to AIDS charities. The video for their cover of Tainted Love was the first music video to be purchased by MoMA.

Since then, John died in a tragic accident at home, and Peter has formed two new bands and has returned to do the occasional performance with Throbbing Gristle.

3/27/2010 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Genesis is wild. He's tried everything with his body (and ingestion) but trepanation (as he mentioned himself in another meeting I attended).

I'm glad that he's finally getting some recognition from the museums. I mean, TG started in a museal context, but then he was in the marge for a long while.

Cedric C

3/28/2010 09:12:00 AM  

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