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Orlan

Supervert's review of an exhibit featuring the plastic-surgery works of artist Orlan. Originally published in Artforum Magazine (October 1993).

Exhibit at the Penine Hart Gallery, New York

Is she the art world's Bride of Frankenstein? Since 1990, Orlan has undergone plastic surgery six times (and will go under the knife again this fall in New York) in an attempt to make herself look like a computer-generated ideal pieced together not from spare body parts but from art historical references: the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the eyes of a School of Fontainebleau Diana, the nose of Gerome's Psyche, the lips of Boucher's Europa, and the chin of Botticelli's Venus. The point, however, is not simply for Orlan literally to become a work of art. As is evident in the more or less documentary works that comprise this exhibition (video, photographs heavy in religious iconography, and mock reliquaries containing the fatty byproducts of various liposuctions), each operation is treated as a performance piece in its own right. Orlan only allows herself to be given local anesthetics and thus is able, from the operating table, to direct the transformation of the surgical theater into a sort of théâtre burlesque. During any given session, she wears flashy designer gowns (as do medical personnel!), reads aloud from texts (heady things like French philosopher Michel Serres), and hams it up for the cameras with props ranging from bunches of grapes to a skull and trident. Meanwhile, as Orlan's flunkies romp through the background with placards depicting her previous performances, a state-certified surgeon, say, drains fat from her thighs with grotesque thrusting movements and then injects it into select locations of her face (above her eyelids, below her cheekbones, and into her upper lip) by means of syringes.

If there's any blasphemy in Orlan's art, ultimately it seems to lie more in this utter violation of operating room protocol than in the artist's willingness to undergo plastic surgery or to flaunt something often publicly denied (how many people like to admit that they've had rhinoplasty?). On the one hand, you can't help but wonder where she found a surgeon willing to wear a spangly black and silver getup during an operation. On the other hand, though Orlan's means are radical, the idea underlying her performances is damn near conventional: her frequent proclamations about the deceptiveness and obsolescence of the flesh have the ring of good Catholic contemptus corporis; artistically, she has distinct predecessors not only in her aesthetic prototypes but in automutilative performance artists like Chris Burden, Stelarc, and Gina Pane; socially, her work is not that much more extreme than the experiments punks and modern primitives perform on themselves, to say nothing of what wannabe Cindy Crawfords 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). But perhaps it's the fact that Orlan doesn't go quite so far that led a psychiatrist to declare, in a French psychoanalytical periodical that devoted an entire issue to the artist, that she isn't crazy, but that she ought to be protected from both the ethics and aesthetics of her surgeon — the Dr. Frankenstein without whom her performances could be no more than simulacra.