Over the last few years a French artist who has adopted the sobriquet 'Orlan' has been undergoing plastic surgery in the name of art. Her seventh such performance recently occured in an operating room in midtown Manhattan. It was transmitted live, via satellite, into a downtown New York gallery, a room at the Pompidou Centre, and various other venues in France, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia. It subsequently appeared on Eye to Eye with Connie Chung on prime time American television, and has received extensive coverage in the European and American press. Because of the obvious brutality of the event, one is tempted to ignore Orlan's sensationalised self-mutilations; but that would be to deny the determining role the French Ministry of Culture (one of her primary funding sources) and commercial galleries play in determining what, after all, is 'art'. Because of its participation within the fine art structure, Orlan's project joins the artistic dialogue whether we like it or not.
The involvement of the American and international media is also relevant here because without them, there would be no need to dicuss Orlan within an art context, even though she has been making (other) art since the 70s. But artistic and gallery self-promotion are an obvious aim of the Reincarnation of Orlan and if the media weren't so encouraging, this central motivating factor would disappear, and so might bodily mutilations. Were the art parameters not in place, one might adequately view the project from a directly sociological perspective and reflect, quite simply, on how sad it is that a woman whose mouth has already, visibly been damaged by a doctor's knife would persist in repeatedly submitting her body to pain and distortion. But the self hatred that goads Orlan into medical barbarism is only further encouraged by the media's eager willingness to exploit this self loathing into a sensation. Usually, large city dailies spare little room for discussion of art, and television networks routinely deign to cover art only when it can be done with contempt and mockery. Still, The New York Times found over 30 column inches to devote to Orlan. The European featured her on a recent cover, and the Oh-wow-look-at-this-insanity-they-call-art television coverage is still piling up.
The facial recomposition Orlan is seeking is taken from art historical images of Venus, Psyvhe and Mona Lisa. A tape of the last operation which documents the scalpel incisions, the peeling of the skin, the flow of blood, and an insertion of cheek implants, was on view at the Sanda Gering Gallery after it appeared, in real time, during the operation itself. The artist also produces and sells multi-media objects that include pieces of her flesh.
In a recent essay for Art in America, the American critic Barbara Rose attempted to situate Orlan's project within the post-60s tradition of body art. But Rose strategically avoided mentioning Orlan within the context of the 70s feminist art movement and its practitioners' attempts to reclaim the female body from its objectified and debased position within the Western pictorial tradition. Rather than mention HannahWilke, Suzanne Lacy, Rebecca Horn, Eleanor Anin, Joan Jonas, Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Julia Heyward, Barbara Smith, Martha Wilson and other early performance artists who deployed their (female) bodies as artworks, Rose chose to situate Orlan alongside the bodily gestures of Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci that involved 'conceivable or actual danger and pain.'
The conceptual differences between Orlan's surgery and the actions of those (male) artists are crucial. Of all of them, only Chris Burden engaged in any action that was 'permanent.' And to compare Dennis Oppenheim's 'sunburn' performance to Orlan's series of invasive surgeries lacks quantitative and qualitative proportion. Burden's bodily harms, and those of Orlan's are revealing precisely because of their difference: in the early 70s, Burden had a friend shoot his arm; in another well-known performance, he had his palms nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen. Neither of these actions collude with actions considered normative in society: the same cannot be said for a woman undergoing facial surgery in an attempt to look like an idea of beauty. Similarly, Burden's acts were anarchic in the sense that he did not submit to any institutional authority - he did not, for instance, have a policeman or soldier shoot him. Orlan's performance, however, delivers her body to one of the most authoritative institutions in modern society - the medical establishment. Or perhaps prostitution is the most apt metaphor: first Orlan gives her body over to authority, then she sells it.
Because of its collusion with the traditional cultural hatred meted out against the female body, and its stated goal of an achieved 'idealised' female form drawn from the conventional canon of art historical representations, Orlan's Reincarnation if it means anything, shows that misogyny is so engrained in our social ideology that we don't call violence in its name barbarism - we call it art.