Genesis P-Orridge

Venus Mound (from Tampax Romana)

1976

Not on display
Artist
Genesis P-Orridge born 1950
Medium
Wood, Perspex, plaster, wire, tampons and human blood
Dimensions
Object: 305 x 305 x 135 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Transferred from Tate Archive 2012
Reference
T13863

Summary

Venus Mound (from Tampax Romana) 1976 presents a half-figure, painted plaster statuette of a woman whose head, arms and breasts have been mutilated. From the stumps of her arms two wires extend upwards, from which hang two used tampons. The statuette sits in a box with a white interior and black exterior. This boxed work is one of four that make up the Tampax Romana series. The other three are It’s That Time of the Month (from Tampax Romana) 1975 (Tate T13864), Larvae (from Tampax Romana) 1975 (Tate T13865) and Living Womb (from Tampax Romana) 1976 (Tate T13866). Each work in the series contains a tableau of objects in which used tampons are placed in different, punning arrangements. They are displayed in the same large boxes and inscribed with the title and date and signed by the artist. All four were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in 1976. Accessioned into Tate Archive in 2008, they were transferred into the main collection in 2012.

This use of found materials to create assemblages that combine wordplay with arresting images owes much to Genesis P-Orridge’s knowledge of the Fluxus movement that had informed his earlier development as an artist at the end of the 1960s. In 1973 he had taken part in the touring manifestation Fluxshoe that had reintroduced Britain to Fluxus. In an interview in 2002 P-Orridge described how the Tampax Romana works were ‘Fluxus sort of sculptures that I made at the last minute because there was space left in the wall … I just thought they were throwaway jokes.’ (Genesis P-Orridge, ‘Annihilating Reality’, in Metzger 2002, p.151.) This use of humour had been an essential aspect of Fluxus – something that one of the founding members of the movement George Maciunas defined as ‘the fusion of Spike Jones, Vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp’ (George Maciunas, ‘Fluxus’, Tulane Drama Review, vol.10, no.2, Winter 1965, p.100a) – and remained so for P-Orridge in his work.

The Tampax Romana works were included in the exhibition event Prostitution at the ICA in October 1976. The series was made by P-Orridge using the artist’s collaborator Cosey Fanni Tutti’s used tampons. Fanni Tutti and P-Orridge, along with Peter Christopherson, made up the performance group COUM Transmissions, although the Prostitution exhibition publicly marked their mutation into the noise band Throbbing Gristle (which included P-Orridge, Fanni Tutti and Christopherson as well as Chris Carter). Prostitution was ironically billed as COUM’s retrospective and included a range of photographs documenting COUM actions and performances alongside objects and performance relics left over from these events. The theme of transformation and time-passing in the Tampax Romana series, as well as the invocation of fertility and reproduction in the use of tampons, relate both to the retrospective and the transformation of the group into a noise band. The exhibition opening coincided with the official unveiling of Throbbing Gristle (its actual debut had been at the AIR Gallery, London on 6 July 1976), playing on the same bill as the punk band Chelsea performing under the pseudonym LSD. Instead of the wine and quiet chatter that ordinarily typifies such exhibition openings, there was beer, transvestite security guards, a striptease dancer and an obscene comedian. The press release declared that ‘For us the party on the opening night is the key to our stance, the most important performance’. (Quoted in Ford 1999, p.6.19.)

The exhibition generated a media uproar that led to questions in Parliament about the use of public funding for the arts. The Tory MP Nicholas Fairburn attended the opening and described what he experienced as ‘a sickening outrage. Sadistic. Obscene. Evil … Public money is being wasted here to destroy the morality of our society. These people are the wreckers of civilisation.’ (Quoted in Daily Mail, 19 October 1976, cited in Ford 1999, p.6.22.) This debate built on the negative reaction in the popular press to the previous exhibition at the ICA of Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document 1973–9 (see Tate T03925), as well as the furore over the Tate Gallery’s purchase of Carl Andre’s ‘brick’ work Equivalent VIII 1966 (Tate T01534) that had broken out some months earlier. The vitriol within the press against Prostitution was fuelled in the main both by Fanni Tutti’s magazine actions (the presentation of pornography within an art gallery and away from the context of top-shelf pornographic magazines was deemed wholly unacceptable) and by the display of used tampons, both among the presentation of performance props and in the series of Tampax Romana works. This reaction was a key aim for Prostitution as an exercise in shock and media critique, so much so that the press reaction was displayed in the gallery, forming a major part of the exhibition.

Tampons had become an important aspect of the visual iconography COUM had been developing in their recent performances, and this was reflected by P-Orridge’s Tampax Romana sculptures. For instance, the centrepiece of the installation and performance Jusquà la balle crystal, presented as part of the Paris Biennale at the Musée d’Art Moderne in October 1975, was a transparent Perspex box filled with maggots and tampons; during the performance P-Orridge wielded two sticks, one of which had twenty-eight used and unused tampons suspended from it (this was also exhibited in Prostitution). As the critic Simon Ford observed, tampons were used ‘to invoke the rich magickal symbolism of menstruation and secondly to demystify an often repressed but significant part of woman’s experience’ (Ford 1999, p.5.21). Fanni Tutti explained that ‘via our performances we used to work out our own inhibitions, and this was one of them. It was quite a taboo to show or even admit that any woman used tampax or even went to the toilet.’ (Quoted in Ford 1999, p.5.21.) P-Orridge explained the identification of this taboo in his description of Venus Mound to the critic Jon Savage in the late 1980s: ‘A Venus de Milo that we’d found somewhere on a rubbish tip, a small plaster cast, like … art. The arms were broken off even more than normal, and the bits of wire were exposed. So I hung one used tampax on each arm. So, here is the beautiful woman of art, but she still has periods.’ (Jon Savage, ‘Interview with Genesis P-Orridge’, in Tate St Ives 2009, p.155.) Throbbing Gristle’s first album, The Best of Throbbing Gristle Volume 2 (first released on cassette in 1976), was originally to have been titled Dry Blood Tampax.

Further reading
Simon Ford, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, London 1999.
Genesis P-Orridge, ‘Annihilating Reality’, in Richard Metzger (ed.), Disinformation: The Interviews, New York 2002, pp.150–4.
Jon Savage, ‘Interview with Genesis P-Orridge’, previously unpublished extract in The Dark Monarch, Magic and Modernity in British Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2009, pp.154–6.

Andrew Wilson
March 2012

Online caption

Genesis P-Orridge is an artist, musician and poet who explores gender and sexuality. They founded confrontational performance art collective COUM Transmissions in Hull in 1969. COUM developed into influential industrial music band Throbbing Gristle. P-Orridge said this moved the art out of the gallery onto the street: ‘to test it out in the real world… a little mini-Dada movement, eh?’ P-Orridge self-identifies as ‘third gender’. This work was first exhibited at the controversial exhibition Prostitution at the ICA in London in 1976.

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