Continued from “Living Reincarnation”
For creation of later art objects, ORLAN has saved large trash bags filled with the bloody gauze, bandages, used rubber gloves, scrubs and masks from her surgical performance, some of which have molded in the plastic bags. She says she will display them if she can find a way to make them a bit less repulsive. Fat removed from her face is also set aside in jars for later sale. As a gift to the performer Madonna, ORLAN creates a piece of jewelry using fat from her cheek. Madonna replies that it looks like caviar and she will cherish it.
“Omnipresence,” the title of her piece, reflects the live broadcast of her surgery and their instant connection to ORLAN, as the performance was shown live in dozens of places around the globe.
ORLAN provides her readers with a list of definitions in her Manifest of Carnal Art. “Carnal Art is self-portraiture in the classical sense, but realized through the possibility of technology. It swings between defiguration and refiguration. Its inscription in the flesh is a function of our age. The body has become a “modified ready-made”, no longer seen as the ideal it once represented; the body is not anymore this ideal ready-made it was satisfying to sign.” (ORLAN)
Through her Carnal Art series, she makes herself a permanent art object. In the past, she made herself temporary art objects through performance pieces and photography. With her surgical performances, she no longer blends in when not in costume – her own skin is her costume, suggesting we all wear costumes and hers is just clearer and noticeable.
Many of her works directly deal with her own body. Besides her nine surgical performances, she has worn a dress printed with a life-size image of her naked body for her performance “Dressed in One’s Own Nudity” (1976-1977), she has sold life size paper cut outs of a variety of her body parts in “Selling Oneself on the Market” (1976-1977), she has removed Madonna-like draped clothing for “Incidental Striptease” (1974-1975), as well as hundreds of photographs, sculptures, installations, and other works of art depicting her face – or her body, with her face obstructed.
ORLAN challenges the absurdity of “conventional” and “traditional” beauty by changing herself into a living reenactment of art history. By choosing her new features from different time periods in the historical canon of beauty, she shows the ever changing fashion of the ideal created by the male gaze, and continued pursuit of these standards by each group of contemporary women. She takes the ideal to the extreme to show not only the ridiculousness of the natural conclusion of this type of thinking, but also to remove all doubt from people’s minds as to her goal in these surgeries; no one will say she is making herself more beautiful under the guise of Feminism and art.
She also expresses the violence done to the body, especially to women’s bodies. She raises her point by reinforcing the objectification women suffer at the eyes of male dominated society. She goes to extreme lengths – she places herself not as a victim of violence toward women for the sake of beauty, but uses her consciousness of the act as a criticism of the act itself. Rather than subjected to it, she subjects it to herself and takes on the process for her own ends.
Dr. Cramer believes there are many layers of reasons for ORLAN’s performance – reasons which may go back to her childhood or relationships or countless other reasons. She interviewed ORLAN extensively before the surgery to make sure she was not doing this to hurt herself “or for other deranged reasons, because then we could have a psychological disaster.” According to the New York Times, Dr. Cramer is waiving her fee, which would be $12,000 – $15,000 (Fox).
While some women claim that plastic surgery empowers them by allowing them to have further control over their own bodies, they often are still conforming to male dominated ideals on beauty and promised fertility. Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times reporter and author of “Beauty Junkies” (Doubleday, 2006) calls these latest appeals “the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” That ignores the work of feminists from Susan Faludi to Susan Bordo, who have argued for years against the global beauty industry and its misogynistic practices. Yet the cosmetic-surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty industry has done for years: It’s co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed “consumer feminism.” Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are selling elective surgery as self-determination. (Cognard-Black)
The only way that plastic surgery empowers women is by empowering them to better fit into the ideal already set for them. By twisting the aim of modification from improvement to an art form of self-sculpture, she engages in violence at the hand of the viewer – through the male gaze – and, even more disturbing, the self-violence and mutilation so many other women take upon themselves. When asked by The Irish Critic what her political/ ideological aim is, ORLAN replies that she does not want to tell people what they should do or should not do. “From the very start, my work questioned the social and religious pressures to which the body is subjected. …I try to pinpoint and question, but I can’t know if the message was understood or not” (The Irish Critic).
ORLAN calls herself a feminist, neo-feminist, post-feminist, and alter-feminist. While critiquing the common uses of plastic surgery and the patriarchal social ideal of beauty, she also objectifies herself to the viewer. She says that women have the means to change themselves and make their bodies say anything they want. “And for a woman, her body doesn’t belong to her for long so she has to preserve it and make it say what she wants without any peer pressure or the obligations of dominant ideologies. You can look like a Barbie doll or a big star or you can try to create your own inner portrait.”
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons states that purpose of plastic surgery is to improve appearance and self-esteem. It is “a personal choice and should be done for yourself, not to fulfill someone else’s desires or to try to fit an ideal image.” The portrait she creates, while not following contemporary standards of beauty, still follows various historical ideals only now possible to achieve through surgical means. Yes, she does go beyond beauty to make her point clear, but the violence she does to herself and the alterations she makes to her body may still be a form of giving in to objectification in the guise of authority rather than questioning objectification. By forwarding the notion of women “taking control” of their bodies, ORLAN and many other Feminists also reinforce the falsehood that men are primarily mind, while women are body, and thus easily objectified.
She raises more questions. If the true inner portrait of other women happens to look like a Barbie doll, how can other women know she is not just conforming to male dominated ideals? Could this not cause more harm than good to women? If the body is obsolete, the a mount of pain, objectification, and trauma ORLAN goes through is superfluous. She claims she is not seeking suffering, but physical transformation. But when the body is obsolete, the transformation of the body is also obsolete. She is engaging in a thought provoking question, but does not align her reality with her question – but it is the only way to ask such questions. While placing the control of her own body in her hands, she places it in another’s hands – the surgeons. Her surgeon, Dr. Cramer, is a long time Feminist, but she is rarity in a very male dominated field. ORLAN takes control of the situation by directing Dr. Cramer – she reads from scripts, chats by videophone, and announces when she is finished. Other women do not have this luxury and may be hurting their cause by so frequently placing themselves under the knives of men, even if in the future this is often just to release their inner portrait. If a man must be relied upon to make a woman become herself, who is she really? She is what her surgeon makes her. ORLAN questions, but she has not answered.