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  • Saint OrlanRitual as Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism
  • Alyda Faber (bio)

Saint Orlan, as the French performance artist named herself in 1971, has created a series of widely publicized surgical performances called The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. Her practice of self-directed violence creates a spectacle that violates the viewer and establishes her body as "a site of public debate" (Orlan 1998:319). By violence I mean acts that threaten the body as a sensorium of pain and injury, both physical and psychic. My interpretion of Orlan's project as violence does not entail moralizing against violence, that is, considering violence within an ethical framework of clear distinctions of good and evil. Orlan's work challenges such categorical distinctions. The artist's use of cosmetic surgery as a medium for artistic expression amplifies the social pressures on women to conform to narrowly defined patriarchal standards of beauty. In fact, her work exposes the violence of these beauty standards insofar as her "reincarnation" project embodies these practices to excess.

Since 1990, Orlan has had nine cosmetic surgeries; each has been videotaped and directed as a performance (see Augsburg 1998; Davis 1997; Rose 1993). Each surgery has a theme, which Orlan develops by reading from philosophical, literary, or psychoanalytic texts as she is operated on, and all participants in the surgery-performances are dressed in costumes created by famous fashion designers Paco Rabamme, Franck Sorbier, Miyaké, and Lan Vu. Orlan often holds iconic props, such as a devil's pitchfork, and some surgeries are accompanied by dancers. Her first four surgeries involved liposuction: reduction and reshaping of her ankles, knees, hips, buttocks, waist, and neck. Orlan considers the seventh surgery, titled Omniprésence (1993), the most significant. This surgery was broadcast live to 15 art galleries in several different countries, and viewers could ask Orlan questions during the operation. A postperformance gallery installation of Omniprésence featured 41 images contrasting a computer-generated image of Orlan (a composite of selected features from classical paintings of Diana, Mona Lisa, Psyche, Venus, and Europa) with daily photos of Orlan as she recovered from surgery, her face bandaged, swollen, discolored, and scarred. Also in the aftermath of each performance, Orlan makes relics of her body tissue, enclosing inside the reliquaries [End Page 85] pieces of scalp with hair attached, clumps of fat, and bloody bits of gauze, which she sells for as much as 10,000 francs (U.S.$1,400).

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Orlan on the operating table in Opération Opéra (1991). (From ORLAN, Carnal Art [2001]. Stephan Oriach, director)

Surgeries seven, eight, and nine mark a radicalization of Orlan's surgical projects: the formation of a "mutant body" (Orlan 1999). To this end, Orlan had an implant inserted at each temple, creating two bumps on her head (Omniprésence, 1993), and the largest breast implants possible for her anatomy. Orlan anticipated a tenth and final surgery to take place in Japan, to construct an immense nose that would begin in the middle of her forehead, in the style of a pre-Columbian Mayan mask. The Reincarnation project was intended to terminate with Orlan's request to an advertising agency to give her a new name, and her subsequent application for a legal name change. In 1997 she revised her original plans for concluding the project and began a collaborative work with Pierre Zovilé of Montréal, entitled Self-Hybridations (see Ayers 1999; Zovilé 1998). Together they create digital images that combine Orlan's features with features that reflect beauty standards from other cultures and eras, including skull deformations, scarification, and squints. In an interview with Robert Ayers, in which she discusses her Self-Hybridation project, Orlan says that she plans to augment her virtual reconstruction work with two further surgeries: "one which is quite involved and the other [which] is lighter, more poetic, but I'd like these to be the apotheosis of all my operations." Orlan does not disclose the nature of the first surgery except to say that it is an unprecedented procedure intended to intensify her faculties. The second surgery will simply be "opening up and closing the body" while Orlan observes...


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pp. 85-92
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