By Rachael Armstrong, 2 October 2008

Public Money and Public Profile

I first heard of Orlan by accident in 1991, in a fragment of conversation between a library assistant and a Fine Art student in Aberdeen.

Librarian: "What did you say she does?" Student: "She's a French performance artist who uses plastic surgery to make her own self portrait. A sort of Cindy Sherman, but with flesh rather than costumes."Librarian (aghast) "No, we don't appear to have anything like that here. Are you sure she's an artist ?"

The possibility of a woman, artist or lunatic, contemplating such a radical act of defiance captured my curiosity. If there was no immediate reference to this bizarre work, whatever it might be, it needed clarification. As a doctor, and avid body-watcher I had to find out what this fragment of dialogue was all about.

I tracked Orlan down through obscure references in art journals and eventually wrote to her. I was delighted to discover that she was coming over to London as part of the Institute of Contemporary Art's "Seduced and Abandoned: The body in the Virtual World" weekend. After a formal introduction we found we had much in common. My interest was in the alternative possibilities for the body against the standard anatomical protocols; whereas Orlan needed access to medical technology to advance her own performances.

Our first collaboration involved scanning Orlan's face into the Digital Domain at University College's Department of medical physics, courtesy of Dr. Alf Linnet'. This data was then transformed into a desktop compatible real time format at True-D Software.

Our initial intentions were to produce a `virtual surgical performance' but the funds needed to make this venture possible were prohibitive. In view of the desktop programs which were available to us the production of a multi-media catalogue of performances by the artist seemed to be the best way forward.

In our attempts to collaborate and produce a CD-ROM of Orlan's 'Alternative' anatomy guide we have met with much resistance. Orlan's work is uncomfortable and by its very nature resists incorporation into a mainstream discourse.

The primary problem is Orlan's public profile. She is currently working on her public profile by appearing in live debates at universities and societies across Britain and giving many interviews in the print press and on television.

For my part, I will clarify some of the areas of her work which have been poorly represented. In particular I would like to address her approach regarding the sensitive area of disability and her use of plastic surgery.

Orlan's decision to create a new 'image' against her own 'natural' biology is often read as the worst form of bourgeois vanity. Orlan is able bodied and chooses to be 'disfigured' using the tools of the privileged to create her own aesthetic spectacle. Orlan, having been 'normal' has the choice to become deviant. This choice is not a liberty of those who are born with extraordinary faces or who, as a result of an accident can no longer be passed as 'ordinary'.

The total number of seven operations which Orlan has endured, is excessive. However, media celebrities such as Cliff Richards, Cher or Michael Jackson will have easily approached a similar number of trims and tucks albeit invisible from the public eye to create an illusion of ,natural' metamorphosis. Orlan's features have been changed by the very same surgical techniques but differ in their reference to the 'standard of beauty' that they seek to recreate and in their visibility. Instead of a recipe driven by advertising and media forces, Orlan has expressed her own image as a standard that she designed herself from a computer portrait compiled by morphing Orlan's current appearance and Renaissance beauties from Art History: The Mona Lisa; Boticelli's Venus de Milo; Europa and Psyche.

These transformations are part of a series, initiated in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as "The Martyrdom of St. Orlan", where she declared her body as an offering in pursuit of a new aesthetic self-portrait. The final aesthetic result of her martyrdom represents her inner character in skin and flesh. Those internal characteristics are taken from the characters that the Renaissance templates are seen to represent - Mona Lisa's intelligence; Venus' seduction; Europa's wisdom and Psyche's seduction. In addition to the modification of her existing features Orlan has designed unusual features for herself as an act of self expression. Her "horns", cheek implants in her temples and radical extension of her nose will transcend all our preconceived ideas of female beauty and suggest new possibilities of defining our identity.

After this final operation, which she intends to take place in Japan, she will approach an advertising agency for a new name and change her passport identity.

When this is achieved, there will be no more operations. The creation of a new Orlan-identity will be complete.

Orlan's actions are far reaching and extend beyond the limits of the surgical operating theatre.

Orlan literally 'wears' her art every day. She looks in the mirror and sees that work 'mature' and 'denature' as much in congruence with the 'Laws of nature' as against them. Orlan sees her main enemy as DNA - the internal clock which induces ageing and metamorphosis.

"The body is Obsolete. I fight against God and DNA" (Orlan)

Orlan uses modern surgical techniques and technology to reposition the locus of control over our bodies in an increasingly 'unnatural' world. Surgery is a form of `permanent make-up'. Orlan argues that cosmetics are an acceptable way to increase the individuality of expression of the face - or indeed conceal it - and claims that surgery is a continuation of this practice. Surgical treatments should be embraced in our modern technological world and explored in combinations just in the same way that people experiment with make-up.

ORLAN comments on appearance, how it can be deceptive, skin deep. The interest lies in how character can be expressed through the flesh (physiognomy) and how the body is read as a signifier, or bill board of these traits (semiotics).

Orlan explores these issues through Performance. Since 1990 her performances have been located within the traditional surgical theatre (amongst other venues). However, the interest expressed in Orlan's `performances' was nowhere near as great before she added the techniques of plastic surgery to her repertoire.

Orlan explores her surgical recreations in a positive way. She is very aware of those areas where the limits of surgical intervention cannot help her as well as the areas which are open to her through these techniques. Orlan works with the limitations of her body and with the methods she employs. She hopes that we may learn from her experiences and become empowered as a result of her 'martyrdom' to approach truer internal 'identities'. Orlan considers plastic surgery simply as a tool to create this difference. She rejects claims that this is an unnatural practice. Instead she is convinced that the use of antibiotics to counteract natural disease is no more an 'unnatural' practice than to use surgery to change the skin.

Orlan does not "do" surgery although her appearance suggests otherwise.

There is a porcelain veneer to her skin, arched, doleful eyes and a brightly painted crimson mouth. Initially nothing surprising to her features save for a streak of blue hair over her forehead but on closer inspection, an intense light highlights little veins of lipstick bleeding gently away from her mouth where lip surgery has contracted and scarred at the edges; discreet symmetrical swellings over her temples; forehead that is too high and a tightness to the skin that ends where the jaw meets the neck. Orlan does not look ordinary, average, she stands out from a crowd. Her facial expressions are slightly limited, frozen by hands of fibrous scar tissue healing underneath her skin.

Orlan believes in staying healthy: she takes vitamins every day; half an aspirin to avoid clotting of the blood; does not smoke; drinks very occasionally and regrets not being able to exercise more. Health, for Orlan is a feeling of well-being. It is not simply the absence of disease but is a positive sensation of contentment. Appearance, confidence and health are closely interwoven. Identity is an integral part of our health.

Orlan maintains that we judge each other on our outside appearances. We hypocritically pay lip service to the adage that "beauty is only skin deep". We judge by superficial appearance and ostracise those people who do not conform to the standards given to us by conventional anatomy and media glamour. Orlan knows from first hand experience that to alter your appearance, intentionally or unintentionally, is to be read with a different social gaze.

Orlan simply has to walk into a public cloakroom or down the street before she is challenged or ridiculed for her individuality.

"You are SO very BEAUTIFUL! Madame" remarks one ageing cloakroom attendant with his face half twisted into a smile.

"Hey! Madonna! Bellissima!" jests a group of young men crowding around Orlan outside the Centre Georges Pompidou, jostling to get a glimpse at the infamous "Contra-Belle".

Having been present at these 'trivial' instances of ridicule and rejection I was angered at the intolerance of the tormentors. Orlan remained calm and composed in the face of hostility and simply met the sarcastic outbursts with gracious sagacity.

Orlan's appearance is part of her work. She has made the necessary psychological adjustments and has a remarkably strong sense of her own identity to rebuke remarks of this kind. Orlan has chosen this oeuvre for herself but her experiences are in some way typical for many people who do not have the same choice in the way that they look.

Change from 'normality' is read as mutant or disfigured. Disfigurement is a major issue of discrimination, it is associated with negative human traits like nastiness, cruelty, greed and even criminality. Orlan questions if these reactions to the aesthetic 'deviant' are natural or conditioned by the visual media. All around us the acceptable clean-cut appearance of the fictitious blemish free people are portrayed as society's desirable role models. Society either stares at disfigurement or refuses to look at it at all.

'The importance of appearance is a curiously neglected aspect of human psychology. While the history of fashion is itself a testament to human insecurity, vanity and need, the psychologist has exhibited a greater fascination about what lies behind the visible and perhaps has missed an opportunity..." Professor Anthony Clare.

Robert Altman's current film release "Pret-a-Porter" satirises the skin deep superficiality of the fashion and beauty world. A superficial show of images to dress the empty rich on the fashionably beautiful is highlighted in the final nude show of skins'. The Emperor's New clothes reveal all - as Orlan reads aloud as a ritual in her surgical performances - that the skin is deceiving:

"What can the common monster, tattooed and ambidextrous, hermaphrodite and metis, show to us right now under his skin? Yes, blood and flesh. Science talks of organs, functions, cells and molecules to acknowledge that it is high time that one stopped talking of life quite precisely, points out how the mixture in given place of the body, here and now, of muscles and blood, of skin and hair, of bones, nerves and of the various functions and which hence mixes up that which is analysed by the discerning knowledge. Life plays dice or shuffles the cards. Arlequin ends up by discovering his flesh. Mixed up, the flesh and the mingled blood Arlequin further resemble a proscenium arch so much that one cannot say whit is which.

Already for quite sometime now, mar spectators had left the hall, being tire of the abortive coup de theatre, irritate by this swift turn of the comedy into the tragic, having come there to laugh an disappointed at having had to think. Y( others, specialist scholars no doubt, ha understood of their own benefit that eat portion of their knowledge thus resembles a proscenium arch since each portion functions at the intersection or the conjunction of many other sciences not almost of all of them, sometimes. Thus their academy or encyclopaedia was catching up in form with the comedy of the art."

Extract from: "Theirs- Instrit" by Michel Serres. Ed. Francois Bourin

Manteau d'Arlequin, page 16: Translation Sri Ram.

It is encouraging for Orlan that there is a renewed mainstream interest in 'physical correctness". Orlan's performances are current, she considers her work as providing a new possibility of self-representation, a new possibility for body aesthetics. Her work is a suggestion - not a prescription. Orlan works against superficiality and the comfortable world of physical conventions - she has, maybe, even suggested the sequel to Altman's observations.

Until Orlan's work is included in the contemporary discussions of aesthetics and art criticism, her work and its intention will remain incompletely addressed by art circles and in the public forum. The issue,, of disfigurement are an important part of these discussions. Orlan is looking to free individual appearance, not imprison it Unfortunately, her own portrayal is victim to the authoritative prejudices she challenges, disenfranchising her work in notoriety.

In the popular media, the surgical images proliferate. Operating theatre greens scalpels, skin are flashed around the `Beauty Morph'. The moment we have all been waiting for finally arrives - the blood - and as expected, the public gaze averts its eyes unable to watch the dissection of a cultural mirage of 'the perfection of normality'. The perceived self-inflicted 'butchery' of Orlan is depicted by the media ant art critics to be the reincarnated vanit3 of our time. Our prejudices about how we would like to interpret her work are con. firmed in this media theatre. The image,, are the creation of Orlan but the mes. sage is under the control of the media this woman; this bourgeois cosmetic surgery; this narcissism; this grotesquery; is all for what? To look 'ugly'.

Until the shock-horror tactics and the formulated conclusions designed for us by the media are counteracted by Orlan's voice of dissent, she will remain misinterpreted. Until Orlan is embraced as an artist who makes a positive contribution to the debates around identity and beauty occurs, our efforts to justify 'public money' for a collaboration will continue to be elusive.

We intend to make a CD-ROM using the versatility of a multi-media platform and taking the body as a central metaphor to explore issues of social discrimination and exploitation . Maybe, by the time Orlan's work is embraced by these authorities, the issues of physical prejudice and Beauty Myths' will no longer be a obstacle to the disfigured or to the self expression of the individual in an era where technologies are providing us with more and more tools for the creation and recreation of our identities.