French performance artist ORLAN has gone under the knife nine times for art. Her seventh surgery, a 1993 piece entitled “Omnipresence,” performed in New York was broadcast live to her studio in New York (the Sandra Gering gallery) and many others. All were connected to ORLAN’s operating room by videophone and to each other’s screens.
Before the surgery begins, she reads from a script, in French, “Man treats this skin so cheaply, though it means so much to him. He sheds it at the slightest bidding, for he wants to shed his skin. The only thing he possesses. ‘I only have my skin.’ It is too much since having and being do not coincide.”
She seats herself on the operating table and answers questions asked her through videophone while a woman draws on her face – under her eyes, then outlining her cheekbones, then around the implants as she holds them to ORLAN’s face. “It’s about renaissance and reconstruction,” she says. A skull rests nearby, with blue implants (normally used for enhancing cheekbones) attached to show how her facial structure will change – on the cheekbones, along the ridge of the nose, along the outer edge of the brow bone, and on the underside of the chin. The first question comes from the New York gallery: “what will the body be in the future?” ORLAN replies, “the body is now obsolete, totally obsolete.”
Only local anesthesia is used throughout the surgery so that she may continue to answer questions even as the surgeon begins to cut around her left ear, then dives beneath the skin. The camera moves in on the gruesome detail. She speaks earnestly about her work while her flesh curls away from her face and hangs limply, like a mask. One interviewer likens her to Van Gogh when he cut off his own ear. She denies this vehemently, “cutting your ear off in a moment of madness or despair isn’t like me.” Instead, she has carefully planned her performance. “I have made it my art, not painting,” she says, as the space between her left ear and cheek remains gaping and bloody. “I believe that, with today’s technology we can reduce the distance between what one has and what one is.”
She says that while many people expect her to make her body younger and more beautiful, she is instead taking it so far they will have no doubts about this issue. “My work is a critique on plastic surgery and on cosmetic surgery as it is usually used. “ Her facial implants are not arbitrary, but the nose of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Psyche, the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the lips of François Boucher’s Europa, the eyes of a sixteenth-century image of Diana, and the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. She only goes silent when a chunk of flesh is cut away from the underside of her chin.
The audience sees, again and again, the incision, the tools squirming beneath the skin, the fight between the flesh and the surgeon as the implants are shoved and prodded until they lie satisfactorily beneath the skin, the stuffing of gauze, and the sewing of the skin. ORLAN explains, her face swollen, stitched, and bloody, that a person puts on new clothes and discards the old. Likewise, the soul accepts new material bodies. It is a living reincarnation.
Before the end of the planned surgery, however, ORLAN, in much discomfort, decides to finish the insertion of the implants in ten days’ time. She complains of being hungry, thirsty, anxious, and of suffering. Her head is then wrapped in white gauze and taped across her forehead and under her chin. When, two days later, her bandages are removed and she gets her first look of her puffy face, eyes nearly swollen shut, ORLAN says, “I really like it. It totally changes me. It’s really different.”