Art and the Body Obsolete – essay

This paper describes and discusses the work of French performance artist Orlan and considers whether her claim to render the body obsolete has the desired effect on her audience. To illustrate this I have included a written observational response to seeing her live on stage at Nottingham Trent University. Orlan has received much media attention due to her controversial use of plastic surgery to her body. These interventions were not for acceptable cosmetic purposes, but to question the western ideal of beauty. The majority of corporeal art celebrates or investigates subjectivity, whereas Orlan attempts to deny that subjectivity and, amongst others, claims that the body is becoming obsolete.

Many artists have responded to the transformation of the body by technology. They have moved through various stages, from direct representation through  to more conceptual responses. Artist Jana Sterbak created performances  whereby structures that alluded to traditional clothing were employed, to restrict and control physical movement. In her work Remote Control, a cage like that of a crinoline dress, suspended the performer above the ground, rendering her incapable of independent movement. The cage was remotely controlled by herself or the viewer.

Stelarc: Stomach Probe

Yaesu Center, Tokyo, 1973 (photo: M. Kitagawa)

In the work of Stelarc and Mona Hartoum, one encounters a slightly different technology applied to the body. Both employed medical imaging equipment to film the insides of their bodies. The resultant images were, not surprisingly, markedly similar. Stelarc continued by developing performances in which he added prosthetics to his body, using electronic impulses to stimulate his muscles. What this work reveals is that the boundary of the body can be penetrated and altered. Cartesian duality, that of the mind/body split, was rendered insignificant by this transgression. Stelarc went even further, he declared the body on the way to becoming obsolete: ‘We try to design our instruments so that our body can use them, can adequately toggle or press or manipulate them. I think now we have come to the point where we possibly have to think of redesigning our body to match the capabilities of its machines’. (Stelarc 1999)website-no page ref

Orlan aligns herself with Stelarc:

‘Like the Australian artist, Stelarc, I think that the body is obsolete. It is no longer adequate for the current situation. We mutate at the rate of cockroaches, but we are cockroaches whose memories are in computers, who pilot planes and drive cars that we have conceived, although our bodies are not designed for these speeds. We are on the threshold of a world for which we are neither mentally or physically ready’ .(Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES)page 91

Stelarc: Third Hand

Yokohama/Tokyo/Nagoya 1980 (photo: T. Ike)

Unlike the other artists referred to, Orlan made permanent alterations to her physical appearance. She not  only documented these processes of medical invasion but suffered them in front of the viewer’s gaze. With a background in performance art, she transformed the theatre of surgery to a theatre of drama, using luscious baroque imagery. She made a private place, that of the operating theatre, into a public display of indulgence and carnival. She calls these interventions her transformation into ‘St. Orlan’. Her work constantly challenges binary oppositions, those of inside/outside, black/white , woman as Madonna/whore and male/female. She coined the phrase ‘female to female transsexual’, as a playful labelling for her alterations – she is a woman taking on the identity of another woman. What is most shocking are the images she produces from these processes. Photographs used by plastic surgeons for advertising purposes invariably show the before-and-after states, but the surgery and the healing are kept hidden. Orlan’s work reveals all the stages, including the process.

Performances by Orlan are well-documented but to fully appreciate the impact on the viewer her images and videos must be seen. The following is an extract from a personal account, written as a response to seeing Orlan in performance.

“ She sat to the side of the stage alongside her translator and told the audience about her work as slides were projected behind her. The slides showed manipulated pictures of Orlan, whereby her features were distorted in the manner of pre-Colombian beauties. They are fascinating images in sharp, bright colours of bizarrely modelled faces, extended foreheads, extended nose bridges and scarred skin. At one point, Orlan stood in front of the projected images and explained how the pre-Colombians had a different concept of ‘beauty’ to the west and amused the audience with her stories of what we might consider barbaric behaviour in their endeavour to achieve the ideal. Robert Ayres, the host and translator, managed to convey her humour to the audience, as she proceeded to swing her hip and tell of how in parts of Brittany women with a deformed hip are favoured, because they make excellent child-bearers. She performed, she swirled her body and made us laugh, then she sat down.

The rest of the ‘conference’ proceeded at an entirely different pace. While Orlan explained that she would show her videos and gave a history of her performance work, the slides continued to project behind her. As her voice echoed in my head I turned my attention to the film and the audience, noting the content of the images, their theatrical construction and the responses of the viewers. I also wrote notes of my own physical changes, when tension began to build and where it subsided.

The viewer was slowly led into the situation, the first images giving a general introduction to the ‘theatre’, showing the glamorous costumes and baroque iconography. My ribs began to contract as I watched a needle penetrate the skin around the lips, stabbing deeply, filmed very closely. The audience became restless, the struggle started. Then, an emotional break. In the film, Orlan applied lipstick voluptuously, we were temporarily reprieved from the horror. The surgeon, using a marker pen, traced the areas for incision. The tension began to build again. My vision became a little foggy, the auditorium filled with groans. People covered their eyes, lowering their heads , looking nervously up at the screen. Although I felt increasingly nauseous, I also experienced a sense of amusement, in the manner that Orlan (on the stage, not on screen) continued to read texts, occasionally glancing over her shoulder at the screen to see where the film had got to.

The needle continued to move more deeply into the skin. Someone rushed out from the room. As the tension rose, suddenly the surgery stopped being screened and an image of Orlan’s normal face was shown, zooming in and out of the frame. This was followed by a sequence of filming made by rotating the camera quite rapidly around the inside of the operating theatre. Those who had not been made dizzy by the surgery were certainly dizzy by then.

So the films continued, slowly building up to crescendos of discomfort, then dissipating it with humour or distraction. My physical response varied from tight ribs to a tense neck, to clouded vision. Occasionally my stomach audibly churned, my hands became increasingly clammy. These were physical manifestations, not solely emotional. When the film became unbearable, which it often did, I looked around at the other faces and watched how they were responding. Some people sat with glazed eyes, pain clearly experienced, but unable to look away. Others could not look, their bodies would not allow them to see. More people left the room as time went by. Orlan continued to read and Ayres continued to translate. I felt like I was on a roller-coaster, surrounded by gasps and groans, all suppressed, all evidently trying -not- to react, but finding it impossible not to.

Eventually, the intervention video ended and the audience exhaled as one and relaxed. People looked emotionally drained, exhausted. The next video showed the reporters in the newsrooms that had relayed the films worldwide live via satellite connections. Their expressions changed rapidly as the relay proceeded. Having started with casual, amused smirks, they soon appeared to be extremely uncomfortable, perspiring and writhing in their seats, looking notably upset. (Black 1999)

The careful choreography of this performance was structured so as to situate the viewer in the place of the subject. The use of medical technology transformed Orlan into ‘other’ and the spectator experienced that displacement. “People covered their eyes, lowering their heads , looking nervously up at the screen.”

In Desire by Design – Body, Territories and New Technologies, Alexa Wright entitled a chapter ‘Partial Bodies’ (Wright 1999). She discusses how technology is altering our concept of the corporeal, with a particular concern with medical technologies. Although Wright doesn’t actually refer to Orlan, her comments on the status of the body during surgical operation are extremely relevant:

In surgery the flow and disorder inherent in the state of transition are restrained by the sterile field and, as the patient wakes, only the closure at the surface of the body is visible: the controlled environment of the hospital provides a shield against the abject fear engendered by the chaotic nature of an accidental wound. To see beyond the acceptable surface of the skin into the body is almost always undesirable; suggesting that detachment from, and objectification of, the body is not quite as advanced as we would like to imagine.(Wright 1994 PAGE REFERENCES)page 23 

It is this ‘seeing beyond the acceptable surface of the body’ that Orlan confronts us with. And it is painful to look at. As Orlan herself declares: ‘Few images force us to close our eyes: death, suffering, the opening of the body, certain aspects of pornography (for certain people), or for others, birth.’ (Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES).page 83

She goes on to explain this discomfort: ‘Here the eyes become black holes into which the image is absorbed willingly or by force. These images plunge in and strike directly where it hurts, without passing through the habitual filters, as if the eyes no longer had any connection with the brain’. (Orlan 1996 PAGE REFERENCES) page 83

Holes, gaping bleeding holes, crying out for attention, we feel them and cringe. The viewer is placed in the position of the receiver. We identify with Orlan and feel her pain. She is anaesthetised, but we as an audience are not.” When the film became unbearable, which it often did, I looked around at the other faces and watched how they were responding. Some people sat with glazed eyes, pain clearly experienced, but unable to look away.”

In Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, Barbara Creed writes of the ‘monstrous feminine’, the threatening effect  caused by the sight of the exposed female body (Creed 1990). When looking at an image of Orlan’s lip being injected, it is difficult not to identify it with that of an engorged labia. Creed describes the sight of a surgical incision as being comparable to the ‘gaping black hole’ of the female genitals

Strategies of identification are temporarily broken, as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror, the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured, the place where pleasure in looking is transformed into pain and the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires. Confronted by the sight of the monstrous, the viewing subject is put into crisis – boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate and collapse. (Creed 1990 PAGE REFERENCES)page 137

Orlan’s display of the flesh being broken also threatens these boundaries and serves to enhance our awareness of our corporeal presence, our vulnerability as humans. It forces us to engage emotionally, demands that both our bodies and minds work in unison. Although we are presented with the corporeal as mere flesh, treated as a plastic medium, we cannot separate from it.  Just as Stelarc, who declares the body obsolete, depends on his own flesh as the host to his prosthetics, so Orlan relies on her physicality to host her surgery. Rather than rejecting the aesthetics of the body, they are magnifying its essentiality.

In Telling Flesh: the Substance of the Corporeal, Vicky Kirby (1997) proposes that the human subject is already digitised and decentred, that its hybrid state is changing our perception of the corporeal. To quote Kirby:

In the closing years of the millennium the self-evidence of the corporeal can no longer be assumed. Human tissue incorporates a complex weave of dacron, silicon, and metal; edible chemistries of a hybrid derivation routinely join the rhythms of biological dialogue; pig, human, baboon, and tomato are blended in strange recipes; electronic circuitry’s measure out the delicate pulse and possibility of life”.(Kirby 1997 PAGE REFERENCES) page 129

The body as we know it is ‘up for grabs’.  With surgery and drugs increasing our power to manipulate and alter our bodies by choice, our notion of ‘self’ has come under threat. Subjectivity has become unstable and we appear to be merely a sum of our parts.  Not only can surgery literally reconstruct the body  but chemical changes can also reconstruct the mind – altering our behaviour and perceptions.

It is evident that the work of Orlan exposes this flux to her audiences and challenges the concept of the fixed self. In doing so the viewer suffers on her behalf and becomes increasingly aware of his/her own physical presence. In doing so, the body is experienced as being far from obsolete. (The audience) “……..appeared  to be extremely uncomfortable, writhing in their seats, looking notably upset.

List of References

Creed Barbara, 1990, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn, Verso

Kirby Vicki, 1997, Telling Flesh – the Substance of the Corporeal, Routledge, London

Open University (website), 1999, Digital Planet ‘Script for Cybersouls’, producer Cameron Balbirnie, 

Wilson, Onfray, Stone, Francois & Adams, 1996, Orlan,Black Dog Publishing Limited, UK page 91

Wright Alexa, 1999, Desire by Design – Body, Territories and New Technologies, Partial Bodies, I.B. Taurus London/New York, page 23









Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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