Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Analysis of The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan

                                               [ Before ]                                                                                                            [ After ]

An Analysis of The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan
by Sabrina Beram

Thumbing through my roommate’s stack of magazines on a bathroom break from researching the French performance artist Orlan, it became apparent to me that there are two primary images available to women. The first, originating from the Virgin Mary, is that of the innocent and powerless female in need of a man’s protection as well as his sperm to fulfill her function; an image which has the effect of giving men purpose. This role, characterized by chastity and vulnerability, is inhabited Renée Zellweger on the current issue of Elle Magazine. Zellweger is shrouded in golden light, wearing barely-there makeup to achieve the impression of modesty. Over her naked shoulder, she peers up at an intimidating - presumably masculine - power, her hand obstructing her slightly parted lips as a metaphor for her lack of voice and identity. The second instantly recognizable image through which women are portrayed in the media recalls Eve, the temptress in the Garden of Eden. This role is taken up by Katy Perry on the cover of the July 2009 issue of Marc Echo’s Complex Magazine. Perry, clad in a black leather bathing suit with her legs spread and her lips stained a blood red, stands as a symbol for the stereotypical whore. This incarnation of the female is a scapegoat; she can be blamed for men falling short of realizing their full potential due to her exploitation of sexual power for the purpose of manipulating and distracting them.

At face value (pun intended), Orlan’s performance series The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, during which she undergoes plastic surgery to transform her facial features into those of feminine beauties portrayed in Western classical painting, can be interpreted as an adoption of this historically-ingrained propulsion to construct one’s female image according to socially acceptable tropes meant to serve the men who construct the feminine image through both traditional modes of communication, such as painting and sculpting, as well as through modern media, including film and print publications. This knee-jerk interpretation of Orlan’s work as reinforcing the male hierarchy surfaces in several reviews of her gallery exhibits which went to print when she debuted her controversial series, but longer academic musings informed by Orlan’s earlier pieces and her evolution as an artist argue that her surgeries are effective feminist statements. Before I critique the problematic nature of the laymen’s criticism of Orlan’s work as anti-feminist, I will explore Orlan’s standing as a feminist in the art world through the lens of an informed author, Cerise Joelle Myers, who argues that Orlan’s work enables her to reclaim the male gaze and the way it has positioned women on the levels of objecthood, femininity, beauty, and identity.

In her thesis, “Orlan: Reclaiming the Gaze,” Meyers explores how Orlan disrupted the male gaze in a unique manner by becoming both the female artist constructing the female image, which was the focal point of her surgery performances, as well as the active female object. Given that “[a]s late as 1893, “lady” students were not admitted to the life drawing at the Royal Academy in London” and it was considered “all right for a…woman to reveal herself naked-as-object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of …a fellow woman,” it is a safe assumption that even ‘radical’ representations of women in art were staged from a male perspective and so pandered to the male gaze (Nochlin 160). Orlan, conversely, took control of the process of constructing female image in her work as a female herself. For her first surgery, Orlan collaborated with the famous designer Paco Rabanne who created flashy costumes worn both by actors and medical staff. She directed actors who pantomimed earlier surgeries (there were nine in total) in the background during subsequent surgical performances and decorated the operating room with “accoutrements, including crucifixes and plastic fruit and flowers [and] photo blowups of preceding Orlan performances” (Rose 85). Finally, she supplied blueprints in the form of computer-generated images for each feature to be reconstructed on her face, which she gave to the surgeons as specific instructions. Orlan explicitly laid out the details both for the environment in which the production was to take place and for the redesign of her physical attributes through surgical procedure to exert her control as a woman artist with a unique vision and voice.

Regarding the dominance of the male gaze in Western art, Rosalind Krauss stated, “Western art has been grounded on the figure of the woman standing for beauty, for nature, for truth, for eros, in short, the woman is a series of cultural abstractions pronounced through the medium of her mute body” (Krauss). Myers picks up on this notion of ‘muteness’ pointing out that even seemingly empowered women represented in traditional art, such as Manet’s painting of the prostitute Olympia - who defied the typical idealized representation of women which had been present in Renaissance painting until that point- still “remain silent representations on a canvas, unable to speak for themselves” (Myers 5). Typically, female nudes lay reclining, positioned passively, inviting active male viewers to imbue them with meaning. In her essay, “Is the Gaze Male?” Ann Kaplan speaks to this point, stating that “males do not simply look; their gaze carries with it the power of action and possession that is lacking in the female gaze. Women receive and return a gaze, but cannot act on it” (121).

In stark contrast to this presentation of body language codified to empower men viewers, Orlan, although she is in surgery which warrants a reclining position, sits up in defiance during her seventh surgery and makes a concerted effort to always stare directly into the camera, confronting the viewer, as seen in her photograph titled A Mouth for Grapes. In this picture, Oran is surrounded by fake grapes, a symbol of artificial nature that can be likened to facial reconstruction. It is important to note that in 2004, 83% of subjects of cosmetic surgical patients were women (American Society of Plastic Surgeons 1), but in the same year, 88% of the plastic surgeons were men (American Medical Association 2004), so the blood streaming down her face can be assumed to be a result of needles being shoved though her lips by a male surgeon. Orlan staged this photograph to call attention to the male gaze omnipresent in Western art and emphasize the pain and dissonance that results from the unattainable standard of beauty expected of women by men.

Unlike the silent representations on the canvas, Orlan literally talked back to her audience while taking questions from viewers who watched over the live feed from New York being beamed into galleries and museums worldwide for her seventh performance, Omnipresence. Meyers comments that in doing so, Orlan “reclaims the female body from its passive status in Western art history, actively turning hers, as the art object itself, into a ‘site of public debate’” (22). Orlan’s insistence on local, rather than general anesthesia so that she could become an active participant in combination with her “[simultaneous embrace] of the object status of her own body” enables her to reject popular portrayals of women as “not fully human, with all the unpredictability, power, and therefore ‘danger’ of a real person, but rather an object constructed for viewing and consumption” (Myers 21). In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Orlan explained, “[A]s a female artist, the main material…I had…was my body, which I had to reappropriate because I had been dispossessed of it, in a way, by dominant ideology. Because I was a woman, dominant ideology prevented me from living my personal life and my artistic life the way I wanted to live them” (190). The objectification of women in media achieved through fetishism, which “turns the represented figure into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star),” has translated into the reality of how material women such as Orlan are perceived (Kaplan 121). Orlan crossed back over the “the thin film which separates the real world from the imaginary and she herself became the artistic object,” so that she could redefine the woman as an object on her own terms (Guinot 204).

Once positioned from the vantage point of the object, Orlan could then begin to break down popular assumptions about femininity and beauty that had been established. Meyers astutely summarizes the process by which these assumptions had formed in the collective consciousness and sums up the effect in her statement, “men, powerful bearers of the male gaze, set beauty standards for the female body. Even though they themselves possess human bodies, it is only the body of the woman that these men hold to rigorous standards. A woman’s body becomes the primary site of her femininity, and as such, must necessarily be beautiful” (24). Orlan addresses this double standard by opening her body and revealing that both men and women look the same on the inside; both genders are human. The abject reaction, or desire to look away, elicited from both men and women exposed to the interior of Orlan’s body can be seen as an indication of a fear of a lack of identity which motivates the acceptance of societally constructed rules defining femininity and its axiomatic counterpart, beauty.

The guidelines as to what constitutes “beauty” were communicated through the classical paintings of male hero-artists. Meyers reminds us that, “although science may define beauty as a combination of features that advertise the bearer’s fertility, beauty in Western art has traditionally been used as an indicator of the female bearer’s character…beauty was considered a representation of the bearer’s moral and spiritual condition, and a necessary attribute for the virtuous woman” (25-26). As such, beauty defined in classical painting was not based on the actual appearance of the sitter. Rather, in portraits, a female’s material being was infused with physical characteristics associated with women described in respected literary works (Myers 26). The virtues “translated above all as chastity, but also included qualities of obedience, modesty, and silence that would ensure sexual innocence before marriage” (Woods-Marsden 64). To communicate this, the sitter was usually posed “passively in profile,” a position which Orlan defies (Meyers 27).

Myers emphasizes that even in portraiture that sought to reflect what men demanded a woman be spiritually, “it was inconceivable not to make [the woman sitter physically] beautiful” (Myers 27). Although Orlan appropriated the chin, nose, eyes, lips, and forehead of historical beauties from Western paintings created by men, Myers insists that Orlan is “using beauty ideals to reveal and challenge the way women ‘[submit] their autonomy to the preferences of men.” (Myers 28). That Orlan is actively choosing the components of the image she wishes to create for herself helps her to “reclaim beauty” because she is designing her own vision of beauty. The artist claims to choose the females from which she appropriates features not based on their superficial prettiness, but based on the feminist meaning she inscribes on those particular representations of women:

Diana was chosen because she is insubordinate to gods and men; because she is active, even aggressive, because she leads a group. Mona Lisa…chosen because she is not beautiful according to present standards of beauty…Psyche because she is the antipode of Diana, invoking all that is fragile and vulnerable in us. Venus for embodying carnal beauty, just as Pysche embodies the beauty of the soul. Europa because she is swept away by adventure and looks to the horizon. (Orlan, Intervention, 319-20)

Based on this, Meyers states that “Olran’s use of the medium of plastic surgery for a cause other than its traditional one of “beautifying” things brings to the forefront questions about who defines what beauty is and who controls how that is manifested in the bodies of women. By revolting against received notions of what is beautiful (and therefore fuckable), Orlan…reclaims beauty as a woman’s autonomous decision concerning how she wishes to look” (Myers 28). It is true that during the surgery, Orlan appears grotesque and her body is not meant to flatter her viewers. It is also a valid possibility that to, say, some sadomasochists, the image of Orlan stained with blood could be viewed as beautiful, thereby “revolting against…notions of what is beautiful.” However, it is my opinion that Meyer’s assertions stand on shaky ground, since there is an obvious contradiction in the fact that Orlan selects facial features designed by the dominant male painters who promoted false standards of femininity in order to reject the objectification of women. This gives power to New York Times journalist Roberta Smith’s claim that Orlan’s work “represents…a big step for feminism- in the backward direction,” which I will discuss shortly.

Finally, Meyers argues that Orlan reclaims the notion of identity. By cutting into her face, which Meyers deems “the site of identity,” Orlan debases the “assumed relationship between image and truth” (Meyers 29-30). This assumed relationship is evidenced in our society’s acceptance of the ‘copy without the original.’ Image culture creates idealized pictorial representations of real world objects, but these images are manipulated to the point that they become distant from the original objects as which they pose. Taking the proverb ‘seeing is believing’ to heart, consumers of these images accept them as realistic representations, and project the “truths” these images present onto expectations for the real world. For this reason, the limited Madonna versus whore imagery available to women portrayed on popular magazine covers become the paradigms through which men view civilian women on the street.

By peeling back the layers of skin and all of the socially-charged connotations her feminine face holds, Orlan pushes her viewers to look beyond the surface. Meyers observes that Orlan’s “body no longer becomes the site of fixed identity, but the site of her own experience, with an outer shell that may be modified to fit it’s contents” (29). This draws attention to the fact that masks seen in the media do not represent any unwavering interior truth about the nature of female identity, but, rather, that each female forms- and constantly revises- her individual identity based on her unique experiences. When, in a matter of seconds, Orlan’s face transforms into “a mass of indecipherable, unknowable, unpossessable interior body stuff,” she calls into question “the trustworthiness of a face to truthfully represent the personality, character, or essence of its bearer,” since “her made-visible viscera is no different from that under the skin of each viewer; she becomes everyone and no one” (Meyers 30). Through this process of breaking down into her pure material core, Orlan sheds the conceptual identity which has been projected onto her by others and renders herself a blank slate; Orlan’s body is finally an eligible platform on top of which she can craft her own uninhibited identity. In her consideration of Orlan’s performance, Meyers concludes, “Orlan reclaims identity not only by refusing to accept the external image as a fixed and accurate signifier, as does the dominant male gaze, but by changing her own external image to better reflect what she feels inside…[she returns identity] to the individual, the woman, to whom it belongs and who can alone answer questions about her own self (32).

Although academic writings, such as Meyer’s deconstruct the complexity of Orlan’s attempt to reclaim femininity, reviews of the artist which dominated the American press when her surgical series surfaced criticized The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan for playing into the cult of feminine beauty and youth and reduced Orlan’s piece to a self-masterbatory attempt at international fame. In her 1993 New York Times Review for “Omnipresence,” exhibited at Sandra Gerig Gallery, Roberta Smith wrote, “Nothing Orlan does is very interesting to look at or think about. It's sensationalist, and also too close to real life, not the least in its mindless acceptance of socially imposed ideals of beauty. The distance between undergoing surgery in hopes of looking like Vanna White and submitting to it to resemble a high-art, highbrow ideal like "Mona Lisa" is ultimately only a matter of taste, the underlying element of self-loathing and self-destructive perfectionism remaining the same” (C31). This comment suggests that Orlan’s appropriation of features representative of outdated standards of beauty still reinforces the modern pressures on women to live up to supermodel images. The opinion that the features chosen by Orlan were not far enough from the contemporary images of beauty is echoed in Keith Steward’s Artforum critique, in which he declared, “socially [Orlan’s] work is not that much more extreme than … what Cindy Crawford wannabes must put themselves through. Conversely, a truly radical idea would be more along the lines of emulating a figure from a Bosch painting, or replacing your eyebrows with fingers (like windshield wipers).”

Since the entire point of Orlan’s transformation is to upset ideals of beauty and build her own identity, why would she go through the trouble of presenting her body as bloody, pulpy, revolting, raw, and without identity only to layer back onto it classical beauty ideals that have stood the test of time insofar as they still circulate, serving as prototypes for the feminine image as constructed exclusively by male painters? Perhaps Orlan indulges is popular beauty myths more than she lead on. It would certainly appear so judging from this excerpt from a 2007 interview in which Orlan’s husband Raphael Cuir translated for The Australian: “Asked if we can photograph her, Orlan knots her bump-adorned forehead into a frown and folds her arms across the chest. She is not happy to be photographed without a hair stylist, a make-up artist and proper lighting, says Cuir. "And control over the photograph they use," Orlan whispers in French to him.” The control over the image of beauty that she presents and the fact that Orlan chooses to articulate an image that is far from being considered representative of the average natural women in combination with her utilization of plastic surgery, which is “employed almost exclusively to “help” women attain ideals of physical perfection” compromises Orlan’s intention (Meyers 27).

The kitchy theatricality supplementing Orlan’s surgical demonstration can also be viewed as a distraction from the seriousness of her point. Aspects of said theatricality can be seen in the environment which was transformed from a “surgical theatre into a sort of theatre of the burlesque,” the outfits consisting of Orlan’s “designer gowns” along with the “bright green or black medical robes and tall cylindrical hats with a slightly Renaissance air” worn by actors and medical staff, and the performance in which Orlan was described as “[hamming] it up for the camera” with “several people [around her] talking and gesticulating at once [giving Omnipresence’s opening sequence] all the charm of a Marx Brothers movie without the jokes” (Steward , Smith C31). Considering the topic, this excessiveness can be construed as tasteless and necessary only to inflate the ego of the artiste. A similar obstructive overindulgence is seen in the duration of The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. Roberta Smith speaks to this when she writes, “But even before one gets to the prolonged feminist argument that could be made against it, there is simply the esthetic amorphousness and genuine amateurism of the work, in terms of both the process and the results. While Chris Burden reduced the agony of his various performances to single shocking instants that years later still have the power to make a searing impression on the mind, Orlan's travail goes on and on, becoming a tedious blur of needless suffering laced with a narcissistic stoicism and a desperate need for attention.” This accusation that Orlan was more interested in the limelight than social critique is supported by the fact that she had liposuction on her thighs and put the resulting fat deposits in reliquaries which were placed on exhibit. How does the body sculpting of her naturally plump fourty-three year old body play into her supposed goal of rejecting unrealistic beauty ideals meant to satisfy men? This beautification and the placement of parts of her body into reliquaries, which are historically known as tributes to god, are strong evidence of Orlan’s prioritization of her celebrity status above her artistic merit.

A common criticism of Orlan’s work is that it is not art. Because plastic surgery is a pseudo commonplace activity in the twenty first century, the presentation of the filmed process can be seen as falling into the category of documentary-for-shock effect as opposed to thoughtful art. In “Is it art? Orlan and the Transgressive Act,” Barara Rose reflects on this question concluding, “After considerable reflection I do believe that Orlan is a genuine artist, dead serious in her intent and fully aware of the risks and consequences of her elaborately calculated actions. In the end, the two essential criteria for distinguishing art from nonart, intentionality and transformation are present in all her efforts” (Rose 87). A quote from Danielle Knafo’s book In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art is evidence that Orlan was undeniably self-conscious of the cerebral statement she intended to make through her surgeries:

Art that interests me has much in common with - belongs to - resistance. It must challenge our preconceptions, disrupt our thoughts; it is outside the norms, outside the law, against bourgeois order; it is not there to cradle us, to reinforce our comfort, to serve up again what we already know. It must take risks; at the risk of not being immediately accepted or acceptable. It is deviant, and in itself a social project. Art can, art must change the world, it is its only justification. (157)

Still, that consumers of Orlan’s work are required to research her intentions and/or past works, which were expressions of her undoubtedly feminist goals, can be seen as a shortcoming of her surgery performances. The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan does not stand on its own and easily warrants misinterpretation as a vacuous acceptance of male standards of beauty, which her series can come to stand for since “because of the interactive nature of temporary communication systems, whatever is said about an art work becomes attached to it as additional meaning (Rose 125).

I find the theatricality of Orlan’s sets as well as her insistence on preserving the performance through the construction of reliquaries crass and believe they undermine her goal. I cannot fully defend how her adoption of feminine features already established to be regarded as beautiful by men, least of which to those who painted them, further her intention to reject standards imposed upon female bodies through the male gaze. Her collaging of beautiful woman’s faces comes off as an adoption of the troublesome practices of male painters, such as Agnolo Firenzuola who “pieced together a feminine beauty (including golden hair, a high forehead, and slightly rosy ears) taken from many separate girls and idealized into one perfect woman” (26). This promotes the construction of feminine identity not in accordance with acceptance of one’s core organic self but as a result of striving after extrinsic characteristics which have been pre-approved as beautiful.

Regardless of these criticisms, I still see great value in Orlan’s work. Her daring surgical methods do encourage conversation concerning how the images of femininity available to women originated, and she successfully demonstrates the “futility of establishing a fixed and concrete relationship between signifier and signified, of the image “standing for” anything” (Myers 30). With the ever-increasing incorporation of technology into our lives, I think that Orlan’s decomposition of human representation and identity through technological innovation will come to be viewed as ahead of her time. Identity theft has been named the fastest growing crime by the FBI, and, as we put more of our personal information online, internet crime is an increasingly live threat to our cognitive identities. Criminals hijack identity victims’ power over their representation in the virtual realm just as the men generating media seized control from women over the creation of their feminine identity. Meanwhile, acceptance of bionic implants, signified by Oscar Pistorius’s use of bionic legs to run in the Olympics, foreshadows a redefinition of the “human” body. As time unfolds, our expectations of beauty and our concept of the ‘feminine’ are sure to be impacted by related cyborgian impulses.


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