Orlan – The French Performance Artist Who Used Plastic Surgery to Challenge Beauty Standards

We’ve heard countless stories of women who go through procedure after procedure in an attempt to improve their looks, but when I first read about Orlan, a French performance artist, I was shocked. She has also undergone several surgical alterations to her face, but for a different reason – to challenge the standards of beauty that society has set for women. She makes use of plastic surgery as a part of her art, to transform her face and body in such a way that it questions traditional perceptions of beauty.

Orlan has done things to herself as bizarre as reshaping her face to resemble Zimbabwe’s Ndebele giraffe women. The whole purpose of her art, she says, is ‘to shock’. “The whole point is to be against the idea of social pressure put on a woman’s body,” Orlan is reported to have said. Her present day career is inspired from an incident that occurred in her life, way back in 1978. She was preparing to speak at a symposium one day, when she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery. “I almost died because I had an ectopic pregnancy,” she said. “They had to operate to save my life and remove what they told me was a non-viable fetus.” What was most unusual about this incident was the way Orlan chose to handle it. In what can only be called the beginnings of reality television, she took a camera crew along with her to film the operation as it happened. She also insisted that she remain conscious throughout the procedure. “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

Photo: ArtsComments

It was that one film she made 34 years ago, that inspired her to do what she does today. “For many years, I had appropriated baroque imagery in my work, especially in relation to Catholic art. So when I lay open on the operating table, the parallels between the operating theatre and Catholic mass were not wasted on me.” But more importantly, the double role of what was going on struck her – she was both the observer and the observed. This was a revolutionary moment for her, being a feminist artist and troubled by the role women had to play in art. So Orlan decided to go under the knife again, and again, out of a belief that surgically changing her body could translate to a powerful work of art. She went through 9 plastic surgeries in a span of just 5 years – from 1990 to 1995. One operation changed her chin to imitate that of Botticelli’s Venus, another changed her forehead to look like the protruding brow of the Mona Lisa, and yet another altered her mouth to look just like Francois Boucher’s Europa. Beauty was the last thing on her mind during these surgeries. “My goal was to be different, strong; to sculpt my own body to reinvent the self. It’s all about being different and creating a clash with society because of that. I tried to use surgery not to better myself or become a younger version of myself but to work on the concept of image and surgery the other way around. I was the first artist to do it,” she said with pride.

Photos: Drawing Lines on the Face, 7th Surgery-Performance, titled “Omnipresence,” New York, November 21, 1993; The Kiss of the Artist on Tracing Paper, 4th Surgery-Performance titled “The Successful Operation,” Paris, December 8, 1990; Close-up and a Look to the Camera, 5th Surgery-Performance titled “Operation-Opera,” Paris, July 6, 1991  

Orlan was born Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, a name that she dropped at the age of 15. Her entire career is best described as a series of rebirths and triumphs of will over technology. Beginning with black-and-white nude poses, she has a rich 40-year-old history of ‘shocking’ artistry under her belt. Before she underwent her first surgery, she had shocked audiences by wearing a nude body suit in front of the Grand Palais in Paris, inviting people to pay coins for kisses. The coins went into a slot at the top of the body suit, dropping all the way into a cup, a ‘sex draw’ at the very bottom. Orlan’s performances during surgery are perhaps the highlight of her work, especially when she dressed as a Madonna figure during one surgery, holding up a large black cross in one hand and a white one in the other, while doctors and nurses dressed in costumes worked on her skin. She’s also made attempts to emulate the Persian Mangbetu women, whose heads are wrapped in complex braids, an Olmech monarch whose nose is artificially elongated in a death ritual, and Ndebele giraffe women, who wear dozens of tight neck rings to elongate their necks. In 1993, she underwent surgery on her brow, installing two little implants on either side of her forehead. She sometimes decorated her ‘devil horns’ with glitter eyeliner to accentuate their presence.


Although Orlan has stopped subjecting herself to plastic surgeries these days, she keeps herself busy with sculptures, installations, photographic works and performances. Critics have called her mad and her work has been described as masochistic and disturbing. But for all that she’s done to herself, Orlan looks like a pretty normal person to me. At least, more normal than most.

Source: The Guardian

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