‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ was a series of performance art pieces by the artist Orlan using cosmetic surgery on her own body to alter and reconstruct her own image appropriating features from allegorical and mythical female figures. The piece featured nine surgical procedures which took place between 1990 and 1993 in line with the artist’s ‘Carnal Art’ manifesto. ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ is “about pleasure and sensuousness, it does not leave any place for suffering”. While each performance was different all are difficult to watch and all follow the artists insistence that they are about pleasure not pain. Orlan’s exploration of the multiplicity of our inner selves through new technologies challenges our views on identity and the the self and push debate into feminist discourse about identity and cosmetic surgery as a whole.
Orlan’s surgeries took place while she was conscious but numbed by local anaesthetic, she retained a position of control over the surgeons and the operating table was dramatically reconstructed as a baroque theatre and the resultant performances were broadcast live in galleries to the viewers that could stomach it. As Carey Lovelace acknowledges in her first hand review of one of these live-streams a number of people left while those who stayed were held in an ‘entranced revulsion’ this inspired relationship between audience and performer is best summarised by transgender cultural theorist Sandy Stone; “It’s a fine edge to walk between holding one’s audience in thrall, or sending them rushing to the exits, or making them puke on their shoes. The trick is holding them in thrall and still having them puke on their shoes” . The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan captivates through disgust; her use of the body artistically completely rejected what viewers had come to expect from even the most groundbreaking of performance art. It reverses the old artistic cliche, while Orlan has local anaesthetic to mask pain it is her audience, not her, that ‘suffers for her art’. Ince talks about the series of performances as “an unsustainable sadomasochistic contract between performer and spectator” which suggests that the relationship between artist and performer is that of an assumed agreement; the audience turns up to watch and the artist provides them something to watch, what happens, then, when the artist provides something that is unwatchable? Here we see the artist playing with that dynamic, Orlan has publicly commented on the fact some viewers walk out of her performances and lectures, an acknowledgement Ince feels demonstrates a sense of accomplishment in discourse and reaction her work provokes.
It is unsurprising to me, with the knowledge that plastic surgery generally in feminist discourse is seen as the epitome of succumbing to patriarchal standards of appearance, that Orlan’s work with surgery as a medium met some feminist critique. Despite the fact Orlan’s Carnal Art Manifesto expressly lays out that carnal art is and must be feminist there was a clear misunderstanding about the objectives of ‘Reincarnation’. A prevailing thought was that because she was appropriating the features of other ‘beauty icons’ her motives behind cosmetic surgery were still within the normal parameters and ideology that governed the practice; she is changing her facial appearance to resemble a series of beautiful women and therefore her work must be about a desire to resemble another image. In actual fact the features of Mona Lisa, Diana, Venus, Europa and Psyche were selected by Orlan on account of the qualities and attributes these mythical women possessed.
Orlan writes in The Carnal Art Manifesto “Carnal Art is not interested in the plastic-surgery result, but in the process of surgery, the spectacle and discourse of the modified body which has become the place of a public debate.” The art therefore is found not in the finished body, but in the act and the discourse generated in response. The performance, then, becomes even more than simply reflecting the inner self outward, the result isn’t important, instead Orlan wants to show us the body in flux. If plastic surgery can be interpreted as a way to close the gap between the internal and external self, Orlan suggests it’s a reality that can never be reached; she shows us an internal self that’s always in motion. Therefore to be critical of Orlan’s work as vainly concerned with cosmetic appearance and sexual passivity is to miss the point.
‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ invites an audience to watch the naked flesh of the female body opened, manipulated and transformed. Orlan’s carnal art, is building on a foundation of feminist performance art that has played with female exhibitionism in the quest for sexual and political freedom. But to what extent can we reduce the art of Orlan, Carole Schneeman, Karen Finley and countless others as complicit to the same tropes that govern conventional voyeuristic depictions of women? In standard sexualisation of the female body we can say it utilises a power dynamic where an exhibitionist act is met by a controlling voyeuristic gaze, however the sadism and aggression of the feminist performances discussed here creates a shift in the power relationship between performer and audience. Instead of the passive exhibitionism and active voyeurism you’d expect to see in say a classical painting of the female nude, ‘Reincarnation’ instead displays an active exhibitionism to a passive audience.