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Orlan The Body As Art English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3281 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“I have given my body to Art. After my death it will therefore not be given to science, but to a museum. It will be the centre piece of a video installation.”

When the body becomes the work of art, the aesthetic needs to be defined in terms of its relation to what is considered unaesthetic. Instead of simply letting her body become the art work, ORLAN [2] connects art to science to demonstrate what happens to the body when it becomes the work of art. Hers is a move further from the artists who are interested in an aesthetic visual representation of what lies inside the body. Anja Zimmerman places ORLAN’s action “within the tradition of the medical/surgical/anatomical production of the gaze of the body.” [3] Her work is perceived as the hinge between these traditions in its aesthetic evaluation of the relations of power and the body associated with gaze of the viewer, not just because she choreographs her surgeries but also because the very process of viewing her performance is essential to her work. Her open body represents both the scientific gaze and aesthetic gaze, laid open to the categories of affirmation, criticism and the “spaces in between” [4] that are created by the manipulation of the body. In my paper I shall attempt to look at three aspects of ORLAN’s work. I shall begin by looking at the binary between the ‘inside-outside’ created by ORLAN’s method, then examine her art as belonging to the relic tradition and finally attempt to interrogate the treatment of ORLAN’s art.


Several critics have tried to locate ORLAN in a historical tradition. Sarah Wilson calls her surgical performances “passion play[s] of our times, all the drama, mystery and anxiety generated by surgical procedure followed by surgical procedure, followed by the triumphant resurrection of the unscarred Flesh.” [5] 

According to Zimmerman [6] , ORLAN’s performance can be viewed in the tradition of Poulleau’s anatomy theatre and Thomas’s Eakin’s The Gross Clinic; both prominent figures of Enlightenment art and medicine. Poulleau and Eakins were dedicated to the education of the eye in order to capture symptoms. This demanded that they represent the body being examined, visually. Hence, apart from the corpse being cut open in the anatomy theatre or in Eakin’s engraving, the people gathered around are of primary consideration while demonstrating the anatomy of the body. This is the point of similarity between them and ORLAN’s project, argues Zimmerman. The multiple surgeries greatly involve the participation and the presence of the viewer’s gaze, without which her surgical performances are redundant.

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Jill O’Bryan locates ORLAN’s surgical performances in the tradition of the Modernista Avante- Garde of the Viennese Actionists. [7] Bryan argues that ORLAN is aligned with the feminist work first performed by Valie Export, an artist associated with the Viennese Actionists. “Feminist Actionism seeks to transform the object of male natural history, the material woman, subjugated and enslaved by the male creator into an independent actor and creator, object of her own history. For without the ability to express oneself and without field of action, there can be no human dignity.” Export appropriated cultural signifiers of femininity [8] permanently onto her own body only to subvert them. This is a concept that ORLAN also employs when she states her work to be “a struggle against the innate, the inexorable, the programmed, Nature, DNA… and God!” [9] 

O’Bryan also locates ORLAN at the centre of postmodernism, defined as that “which in the modern puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself…wage [ing] war on totality…” [10] When the surgeries are complete, ORLAN will have the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Jerome’s Psyche, the lips of Francois Boucher’s Europa, the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the eyes of Diana (as depicted in the sixteenth-century French school of Fontainebleu painting); figures from Greek history and art history chosen not for their beauty but for their histories. [11] By doing so she not only subverts the ideals of feminine beauty but also those of religion and science. [12] 

But why plastic surgery? ORLAN says that her work is not against cosmetic surgery but against the standards of beauty and the dominant ideology that impresses itself increasingly on the feminine flesh. In this she transforms herself into an identity which is suspended, mutable, and forever under construction.

By attempting to be the above mentioned self, she uses science to create nature instead of nature creating science. [13] The repeated re-imposition of a new self on the previous self [14] creates the illusion of a binary between the mind and the body. There are, to my mind two ways of looking at this.

To attain pure objectivity, the Cartesian dualism places the mind in a position above nature and the body. [15] For Descartes, “Passions of the Soul” is revealed only when the image of the interior confirms absolutely to the shape of the body. ORLAN’s body is her work of art, and is purely objective. [16] The mind itself is the choreographer governing nature. However, in ORLAN’s case, it is problematic to determine that the image of the interior corresponds fully with the shape of the body, as the purpose of the body is to never attain a fixed image.

On the other hand, Maurice Merleau-Ponty espouses in The Visible and the Invisible that perception and therefore experiences are corporeal, located between the mind and the body. In this unfinished work he emphasizes the flesh and its importance as the fabric that both separates and attaches the inside and the outside, and the subject and the object:

…in general a visible is not a chunk of absolutely hard, indivisible being, offering all naked to a vision which could only be total or null, but is rather a sort of straits between exterior horizons and interior horizons, ever gaping open, something that comes to touch lightly and makes diverse regions of the coloured or visible world resound at the distances, a certain differentiation, and ephemeral modulation of this world…. Between the alleged colours and visible we would find anew the tissue that lines them, sustains them, nourishes them and which for its part is not a thing, but a possibility, a latency, and a flesh of things. [17] 

Defining the flesh as a tissue that exists between the visible world and our experiences of the visible world suggests that the flesh is a connection between the interior and the exterior. It is this that ORLAN addresses in her performances. The opening of the flesh is the opening of the corporeal lining that connects the interior with the exterior. The image of the inside is continually altered; hence, it is illusory and unfixable. ORLAN claims that the skin is a manipulatable causeway between the internal and external body. It forms the divide where binaries collide when examined in terms of the judgments imposed when one selects one binary over the other; for example, sacred over profane, beauty over ugliness, natural over unnatural etc because of what each entails. [18] I shall further look at the concept of the “flesh” in the final section of the paper.


Howard Caygill argues in his essay Reliquary art: Orlan’s Serial Operations that the serial character of ORLAN’s performances stands as a baroque poise between ‘transgressive hybridity’ [19] and the desire to insulate the products of transgression from the effects of time by encasing them in a reliquary. [20] 

The reliquary demands an understanding of art removed from Plato’s aesthetic attributes of the image. [21] The art work (as relic) has to be the repository of sacred matter and not just a visual cloak of eternal truth. For the matter to be rendered sacred it has to be distanced from the perceiver, hence it is vested with dangerous and contradictory properties.

St. ORLAN’s relic can be examined closely through the various steps involved in each of her surgical performances. The operation theatre becomes her atelier, where a series of carefully choreographed steps are performed. I shall use her seventh surgery titled Omnipresence conducted in 1993 in New York to illustrate the idea of the reliquary.

ORLAN is concerned with the finitude and the decay of the human body, and her art both portrays and arrests the decay of the human body at the same time. The female body is projected in a cyclical series so as to suspend the progression of temporality. Hence, art becomes forever incomplete; defined by ‘processuality’, rather than teleology. The body simultaneously becomes the register of the past, the fleeting of the present and the future.

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At this juncture, the use of anaesthesia becomes important. The use of local anaesthetics detaches her body from the experience (of pain) without the loss of consciousness. She becomes a relic in suspended time. Her voice, (as she reads out till the time she can) comes from a strange site of temporal arrest. The voice is the voice of the work of art which speaks from a point of suspension both within and beyond the body.

Caygill points out how the morphed images which are the end products of the surgery are not the ideal objects of mimesis but more like the hybrid coats of the Harlequin “made almost entirely of solid patches and empty spaces”. The empty spaces can also be located between the ever changing ‘ideal’ (the morphed body) and the ‘material’ (the flesh). This space erases the platonic distinction between the timelessness of beauty and the finitude of the flesh while also neutralising the temporal.

The ongoing surgery was broadcasted through a network of sophisticated communication systems. Spectators in several countries watching the performance of the carnal art could ask questions and ORLAN responded to them. ORLAN’s medium of expression then is the media. The distance created between the viewer and her performances enables the viewer to understand and decode the meaning of her performances without reeling under the impact of the violence of the surgery. The viewer is also let in on a glimpse of the completely reincarnated ORLAN body. Further still, the complex web of communication establishes a suspension of time. The real time demarcated by the time kept by the strategically placed clocks on the wall is the time of the surgery. But the audience witnesses it only after the complex web of communication generates the proceedings a little later. The gap between the performance and the reception thus created is the ’empty space’ or the no time, another fundamental characteristic of the relic.

In order to understand her performance completely, the viewers of the act of intervention need to numb themselves to the sight of the surgery. But their ‘anaesthesia’ has to be cultural. ORLAN recommends that they involve themselves in activities that they engage in while watching the news on television. The images flashed in the course of the news broadcast leaves an impression on the audience’s minds because of the understanding of the event associated with it. Similarly, ORLAN’s performances should not be remembered only for the images themselves, but for what lies behind them.

However, one cannot overlook the fact that the whole point behind her performance is for the viewer to experience the pain, for the pain is the most potent communicator. ORLAN’s art is a form of “transgressive pre-discursive communication” created by the spectacle of violence. [22] ORLAN believes that art becomes effective only when it disturbs the viewer. It is the disturbance alone that forces one to question the deviance from the ordinary and the social project of a work of art in contemporary capitalist society. The Kiss of the Artist [23] is meant to make the spectators aware of the social impressions upon the body in the same manner in which culture governs our bodily habits and disciplines. The resistance to expectation makes the consumption of the art work difficult hence impacting the audience in a more effective manner.

After her surgery, ORLAN created a montage of images of herself in the process of recovery along with graphically morphed images projecting the same. She also put up bits of her skin, flesh and tissue for sale. ORLAN states how she hopes to morph herself ‘…until there is no flesh….’ [24] . Caygill critiques ORLAN here stating that the very objective of reliquary art is to permanently defer the moment of vanishing. However, when ORLAN asserts ‘until there is no flesh’ it implies the temporality of the very process of relic-making.


In What Is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari explore the premise of the being of art instead of synthesizing previous positions attributed to the understanding of the same. For them, the work of art is “a being of sensation, nothing else: it exists in itself.” The two issues that arise from this statement are: What is the relationship between sensations and physical bodies and, what is the relation between the art work and the medium through which it is realized? Ronald Bogue attempts to address these questions by addressing the concept of the “house”, which Deleuze and Guattari introduce while discussing the concept of “flesh”. [25] 

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh is that of “a new type of being, a being of porosity, pregnancy, or generality, and he before whom the horizon opens is caught up, included within it. His body and the distances participate in one sane corporeality or visibility in general, which reigns between them and it, and even beyond the horizon, beneath his skin, unto the depths of flesh” [26] The intertwining of the ‘flesh of the body’ [27] and ‘flesh of the world’ [28] then makes possible a communication between the embodied self and the embodied world which is then perceived in the work of art.

Deleuze and Guattari however propose that the “house” rather than the flesh be seen as the intermediary between the inner and the outer worlds. The flesh is too tender they claim, too malleable when engaged in becoming [29] the other. The house is the framework inhabited by the malleable flesh, it frames the world which carves out a chunk of space, but it also has doors and windows which allows communication with the outside world. It is a porous, selective membrane through which the inhabitants and the cosmos interact. They conclude then that “the being of sensation is not the flesh but the compound of non-human forces of the cosmos… The flesh is only the photograph developing solution that disappears in that which it develops: the compound of sensation.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s basic point then, as analysed by Bogue, is that Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh is an aesthetic mediation between the outside and the inside that ties the work of art too closely to the concept of living, whereas the concept of the house emphasizes the non-human dimension of the aesthetic.

For ORLAN, the medium of realization of the art work (her body) is the work of art. The sensations of pain involved in the creation of the work of art is the “flesh” attribute, it is because of the life still present in the physical body. Once her body becomes the “monument”, that is to say when her transformation is complete and she is in fact put in a museum, she becomes the “house”. She or the work of art will then stand in relation with the material bodies and the physical world and will cease to be isolated and self-contained. The artwork as monument then does not so much commemorate as it conserves.

Word Count: 2574 words


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