Saint-Orlan Reincarnated: The Artist’s Body as a “Medium of Transformation”

07 Jun

WARNING: Some images documenting plastic surgery may be disturbing and, well, freakishly gross. I tried my best not to include images that were too gory, but just a heads-up.

Orlan is a French artist whose most famous pieces of performance art take place in a “theater of operation” and involve her undergoing physical transformation through plastic surgery. She creates an artistic performance out of a medical procedure, providing sanitized decorations, actors, costuming, reading, and choreography that takes place within the walls of a medical facility as she undergoes a physical process orchestrated by doctors, in the operating room, on the stage of the surgical table.

These performances, a project entitled “The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” began in 1990 when she decided to alter her face through a series of carefully planned and documented surgical interventions based on her deconstruction of mythological images of women familiar to her in her expansive knowledge of art history and esthetics. With “cold, Cartesian logic” she mapped out the transformations she meant to have performed upon her face—and thus through and by her—feature by feature based on female prototypes coming from Renaissance and post-Renaissance works of art (each surgery was focused on a particular part or aspect) Rose. The surgeries were intended to give the artist (and see image below):


(To see photographs of the transformation at different stage, visit

Orlan remained awake (thanks to the use of local anesthetic) for every single surgery, allowing her, as Rose suggests, to “play the role of detached observer as well as patient” (Rose). As a performance artist, creation of a spectacle (using herself) is at the essence of and is the basis for the art she produces. Because of this and due to her influences of Duchamp, Orlan considers her own body as a “readymade” object with the potential to be used as a “medium of transformation” (Rose). She has even sold vials of her own liquefied flesh and blood (taken out during her “body-sculpting”) to fund her expensive project.

How does her conflation of a medical practice and an artistic process relate to the medicalization of ugliness and beauty, as Haiken describes? If indeed, “beauty is a commodity whose worth may be quantified,” why is it so disturbing to see Orlan undergo these surgeries as an artistic process, the flesh of her person the medium of political statement (Haiken 8)?

Through these many “deliberate acts of alienation,” Orlan aims to complicate the social construct of identity (internal and external) by bringing together fragmented parts of imagined and mythological beauty onto and through her own flesh, and through performance/physical transformation “recreating the self.” In an interview with The Guardian she defends what many have called her narcissism:

Listen, be it narcissistic or exhibitionist, this doesn’t really matter. To be a singer, or an actor, you have to be very exhibitionistic—but no one will say that Michael Jackson is too exhibitionist. On the contrary, people will say he is extraordinary. But in the world of plastic arts, you will be judged harshly. The question is once you have a starting point, what does it produce? Is it interesting, intelligent? Does it say something about our society or not? So, there you have it, narcissism is important as long as one doesn’t get lost in one’s reflection!

This mention of Jackson made me think about our Haiken reading again– made me wonder what’s so different about this artist, and that singer? Is it his gender, his race, his silence about the surgical processes that yielded such a profound transformation? What would critics and scholars say about Orlan and her reasons for getting surgery if she was not white (like the images of ideal women, so recognizable to most of us, she seeks to embody)? What differentiates her Body art from body practices and body modification?

More recently, Orlan has produced digital images she calls “self-hybridizations” in which her face is merged with images of pre-Columbian, African, or Native American masks, as non-Western facial representations. How might we compare these images to the Weems images reclaiming the subjectivity of the colonizer’s “scientific profile” (Hobson 118)? What kind of artistic medium does the white, female body provide that other bodies might not?

—- —- —- —- —-

Barbara Rose, “Orlan and the Transgressive Act.” Art in America 81.2 (1993), 83-125. Web.

“French artist Orlan: ‘Narcissism is important’.” The Guardian. YouTube. Web.

Elizabeth Haiken, “The Michael Jackson Factor: Race, Ethnicity, and Cosmetic Surgery.” Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (1997). 175-200.

Janell Hobson. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Print.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


One response to “Saint-Orlan Reincarnated: The Artist’s Body as a “Medium of Transformation”

  1. harveymr

    June 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Here is another performance artist, Janine Antoni, who focuses a lot on beauty in some of her pieces. In one piece, she moves around and eats bites of chocolate and lard. Sometimes, she spits it out and sometimes she molds them into shapes such as lipsticks. “So for me it’s about that conflict, that love/hate relationship we have with our physical appearance, and the problem I have with looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Is that who I am?”
    Here is a link:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: