Orlan – Artist Research

‘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.


Trip to Abstract Expressionism exhibit at the Royal Academy

With the After Modernism constellation group we visited the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The vist was incredibly informative in putting into context the research and analysis we’ve done on many of the works featured in the exhibition.


One particular work that was interesting to see again was Jackson Pollock’s Mural which I’d seen before in the Guggenheim in Venice, it was interesting to see the work in a different context with a different group of people. It’s a piec of work I particularly like, I prefer Pollocks more gestural work to his drip paintings, the shapes and the movement of the colour seem to have more of a quality to them.

Heavy Metal

This project was a sculptural project inspired by architectural space and utilising a variety of metal work tools and processes. We began by looking at various spaces, utilising the building and studio space at my disposal I created a series of abstracted charcoal and pastel drawings exploring the connections between lines and creating a sense of structural space.


As my ideas around Inside/Outside had begun to circulate around body and gender I began thinking of the ways the body and architecture could interact, I began to look at the columns around the building and studios and drawing parallels between columns as phallic symbols of structure and power.


When it came to creating my piece my final design focused on creating something abstracted, I imagined my piece as a maquette of a much larger installation similar to the work of Richard Serra where each component is large enough to dwarf an adult human walking around and exploring the piece. The back piece leans in balancing on the sharp folding pointing one and while it’s secured and attached I intend it to create a similar physical feeling of imbalance and danger in viewers. After thinking about columns as phallic symbols I used a different sculptural processes and made a plaster cast of a penis using alginate and plaster of Paris and incorporated that amongst the abstract metal forms, I chose to cast the penis flaccid as a sort of tongue in cheek comment on reversing the power/structure element I described before.

Me & You

My second material project focused on Portraiture and self Portraiture in time-based media developing skills in both film and photography. During the first part of the project I worked in collaboration with a partner to create a photographic portrait of them; I was partnered with Libbie and we spent some time looking at the work of Anna Mendiata and a variety of artists featured in The Artist’s Body book that played with performance and presence/absence. These themes went on to inform the work we eventually produced. On an experimental photoshoot we collected images of each other looking through objects, we captured reflections and impressions of each other; images that indirectly featured the subject or somehow obscured it.

We we separated to refine our final images for presentation I came up with three photographic outcomes. The one featured at the top of this post was the first; I used photoshop on my iPad Pro to frame the image in a circle to emphasise the sense of looking through the metal tube we found and subtly seeing a segment of Libbie’s face at the end, I wanted to play with space and perspective but after that I still felt the image was incomplete. When thinking about the fact this project was time-based I remembered some of the time based drawings we did during our induction week, I had one where I had to draw a skeleton blindfolded under the specific instruction of a partner. I had the idea to overlay the marks from that drawing with the image I’d edited, I felt the two components had a nice parallel in terms of being both about the distortion of the human form and made in collaboration with another. The two other experimental images are below.

The second I over-layed some light refractions I’d photographed on a wall a few weeks prior onto a photo of Libbie’s reflection in a bucket of water mixed with black ink and the third is a black and whit edit of a photo where I captured the impression of Libbie’s finger print on a window in the studio before it disappeared a second later.

The second part of the project was self-Portraiture for this I thought back to the first session of this project where we were asked to quickly draw somewhere where we felt most relaxed with ourselves, I chose the bath in my flat. I began thinking about why I’d selected that and concluded it was a place where I was completely alone and at ease with my body. In order to capture that in film I set up a camera and filmed myself taking a bath capturing the way the water moved over my body. I then uploaded the film to premier pro and edited the colours to create a blue/green blur of colour and light.


I accompanied my film with a conceptual piece. I began thinking of the way a self-portrait is a way of offering the self up for consumption, after reading Marsha Meskimmon whose analysis of Joan Semmel’s ‘Me Without Mirrors’ informed the angle and perspective I shot the film from, presenting a first person perspective down the body as an alternative to the patriarchal standard of the lounging female nude in art. After creating a film which aimed to present the female body in a way that hindered it being seen as an object for consumption I decided to accompany it with a conceptual piece that humourously re-offered my body for consumption on my own terms. For this after taking a bath I filled an ordinary water bottle with my bath water which will contain skin cells and pieces of my DNA, and while I did t actually intend for it to be drank putting it in a water bottle served as a sort of conceptual invitation to ‘consume’ a part of me.

Shaped Painting

My first material practice project involved creating a painting on a small shaped board using priming and under-painting techniques for a professional finish. My final piece was cut using a bandsaw in the shape of the female reproductive organs and painted with tigers and a single blue female form following the basic layout of the uterus and ovaries. Under-painting allowed me to add depth and structure, give defined edges and a more rounded feel, I used layers in order to round the bodies of the animals and figure.



My initial design was more complex but focused on encompassing a sense of ferocity and female power and struggle.  I wanted to create something with a fantastical, symbolic narrative. I was inspired in part by the work of Mequitta Ahuja which I saw not too long ago for the first time in the Champagne Life exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.


Pictured above, her painting ‘Stick Stack’ shows strong powerful mythic women in fantastic settings built up in layers and layers of print and paint. Her works are part self-portraiture and part mythological, the ferocity and strength of them is really striking. I was oddly drawn to her choice of the colour blue in representing the female figure. In my work I felt the same blue perfectly resonated in the deep red of the uterus in which my figure was place. Red, I feel is symbolic when depicting femininity, the colour of menstruation it’s been used excessively in art tied to womanhood and female identity so definitely had a place in this experimental work.



My final piece put into practice a variety of new skills that gave my painting a more professional and polished feel and I was fairly proud of the result, I certainly feel these new techniques are something to practice and refine further and there’s definitely space to build on these initial concepts when thinking about working towards my Inside/Outside brief.