- Orlan - Strange Attractor
The French artist Orlan continues to incite, challenge, threaten, delight and repel those who view her art, encounter her, or who read about the artistry she performs and displays. Two new books on the carnal art of Orlan cast fresh light on her work. In this essay I introduce these two books and dialogue with them on a series of key questions concerning Orlan’s claims regarding feminism, identity, embodiment, gender, beauty, cultural and historical difference, the real and the virtual.
Orlan: Carnal Art (OCA) is a large hardback book, translated from its original publication in French. The majority of the volume contains a full ‘Chronophotology’ compiled by Caroline Cros, Laurent Le Bon and Vivian Rehberg. In addition the book contains an interview with Orlan (by Hans Obrist), two discursive chapters by Julian Zugazagoitia and Eleanor Heartney, and a conversation between Christine Buci-Glucksman and Bernard Blistène. As the first monograph of major scope, providing an overview of Orlan’s works from her early self-photography in 1964 to the most recent works at the date of publication, Self-hybridations, this book is invaluable. It contains full page colour plates of her work accompanied by a brief but informative commentary by the compilers that introduces the reader to the context of the series presented, provides historical details and an indication of surrounding events from the time the work was executed, and some degree of interpretive comment on the possible meanings that might be attributed to the pieces. There are also numerous references to Orlan’s own statements in connection with her work.
On the one hand it might appear to be a book that one does not pick up and read, and yet doing precisely that gives an insight into Orlan the art, Orlan the artist, and the debates that have surrounded her controversial work throughout her career. Through this volume we can appreciate the tremendous scope of Orlan’s work. The compilers make it clear that Orlan’s art, her body-as-art, is not only reflected in her surgery-performances for which she is most well-known, but extends well beyond this. Indeed, they insist, the surgery-performances are better understood through recognition of this context encompassing a much wider portfolio of artistic creativity, all based on Orlan’s body/self as the material of her art.
Jill O’Byran’s book is a major contribution to scholarship on Orlan’s work. O’Bryan focuses on ‘Orlan’s refacing’ through a series of nine surgery-performances between 1990 and 1995 La réincarnation de Sainte Orlan (The reincarnation of Saint Orlan). O’Bryan is concerned to provide an in-depth, scholarly analysis not only of Orlan’s surgery-performances, but also of the philosophical and political dimensions they manifest and the controversial issues they raise. 1 She actively engages with Orlan’s discourse on her own art. She pursues questions of Orlan’s feminist intent, her deconstructive manoeuvres in relation to binary thought as it fashions bodily gestures and imagery of the feminine, and her positioning in relation to the history of western medicine and biology in opening the human body to the gaze. O’Bryan’s book engages with the work of Derrida, Artaud, Irigaray, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Camilla Griggers and artist Cindy Sherman among many others; it also contains numerous figures and colour plates.
The questions (among many) that strike me as of particular pertinence and importance in discussing these two works are firstly, how is Orlan’s body-(of)-art feminist? O’Bryan’s discussion on this question is convincing. I want to extend the implications for feminist thought and praxis of Orlan’s work, however, taking those presented and argued by O’Bryan in the direction of a deeper consideration of ‘seduction’ in the Baudrillardian sense. Secondly, what is the significance of embodiment to the central motifs of Orlan...