• Georgia Holmes

Blood and Glitter: ORLAN’s Operating Theatre

TW: nudity; descriptions of surgery

ORLAN is not interested in ‘looking good’.

But she is, evidently, interested in her looks. Bedecked in bold colours and stand-offish prints, with her signature silicone bumps jutting disconcertingly from her temples, this diminutive, distinctly-coiffed French powerhouse is instantly recognisable.

Since bursting onto the scene in the 1960s, ORLAN has been relentlessly tearing apart both the artistic canon and the patriarchal beauty standards which undergird it. From the more traditional mediums of sculpture and painting (her satirical masterpiece L’Origine de la Guerre [1989] is a personal favourite, though warrants a precautionary NSFW), she has whirled through the realms of performance art, photography, and video work, before settling more recently into a fascinating hybrid take on bodies and technology, looking towards new worlds of cyber-biotics.

An orange poster with a white humanoid body, the text reads, Orlan, Strip Tease, des cellules jusqu'a l'os
ORLAN, Strip Tease. Credit: Editions Scala

But it is her most famous and arguably most divisive work which I want to explore here: La Réincarnation de Sainte ORLAN ou Images nouvelles images [The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN or Images New Images] (1990-1993). For this controversial series, ORLAN underwent nine cosmetic surgeries, seeking to sculpt her features into those of the most beautiful figures from art history: taking on the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, for example, or the protruding brow of Da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa.

The ninth and, to date, final operation saw the insertion of her now infamous implants: bulging lumps crafted from the sort of silicone more commonly used to carve soaring cheekbones into the picture-perfect faces of the Hollywood elite. These peculiar protrusions give her face an uncanny, almost alien aspect, and even sparked a legal snarl with Lady Gaga in 2016 after she was spotted sporting a similar look in her ‘Born This Way’ video.

The series is one of this controversial artist’s most polarising works. Several of the operations were streamed live into galleries worldwide, where the graphic results sharply divided audiences, with reported walkouts–and even faintings–amongst the assembled crowds. To be sure, the videos make for difficult viewing, and discretion is advised to any intrepid reader who seeks them out – this writer confesses to feeling a bit sick just thinking about them. In these short films, ORLAN spares no grisly detail as the camera zooms inquisitively into the very moments of incision.

If the strong-stomached onlooker can surmount the gore, though, the gruesome process of the surgery becomes almost glamourised before the lens of the camera. The operating theatre is draped with sequinned curtains, and both medical team and patient are bedecked in haute couture. Lounging coquettishly across the operating table, gazing coyly into the lens even as the surgeons manipulate her flesh, ORLAN appears more performer than patient, as though she is centre stage at the wrong kind of theatre.

Orlan, with statement black and yellow glasses stands in the foreground, only her face is framed. In the background is an elaborately framed painting of a naked man lying on his back with an erection.
I told you it was NSFW... (ORLAN: L'origine de la guerre 1989)

By projecting the work into gallery spaces, ORLAN insists upon a performative dimension which many would instinctively dispute: can cosmetic surgery be an artwork? ORLAN thinks it can. She dubs the surgeries ‘operation performances’, declaring that ‘the operating theatre becomes my art studio’. Not only is the operation process posed as a work of art, but so is the artist herself: she is both canvas and creator. In her work, ‘the body itself [is] an artistic medium’.

ORLAN remains conscious throughout every procedure, trusting in the power of her anaesthetists. She has commented that ‘pain is old fashioned’, refusing the toe-curling experience of more “traditional” performance art, which investigates the performative power of pain. (Readers are, at this point, invited to investigate artists such as Chris Burden and Pyotr Pavlensky, but the writer would advise against doing so mid-snack). ORLAN highlights sensuality and a curious, creative approach to the body, rather than a punishing one.

Rather than being just some masochistic experiment, then, this piece is in fact a biting critique of the treatment of women. It responds to a history which has posed women as (quite literally) two dimensional: as passive, pearly muses of the all-powerful artist. Recumbent on the operating table, ORLAN calls upon the long history of the female nude: a species of pallid, drooping women crafted by (historically male) artists for the consumption of the (traditionally male) viewer. By focusing on the gory process of surgery, ORLAN rejects the beauty ideals which underpin this passive presentation of women, dissecting (if you will) a long history of objectification, whereby women are valued principally by their ability to lie still and look pretty.

A portrait of Orlan, wearing her signature black bold glasses, with implants on either side of her forehead like small horns, half-black half-white hair and a bright yellow jacket.

And lie still and look pretty ORLAN categorically does not. For one thing, no onlooker could describe the surgical process as ‘pretty’. It is bloody and unforgiving, the total opposite of the smooth skin we are used to seeing lining the gallery walls. For another, she is not still, she remains active throughout the whole process, making art even as the surgeon makes his incisions. In this way, she draws a direct comparison between the work of the surgeon on her flesh and the marks of her brush on the canvas. Both are artists, both are making art. Not only, therefore, is the act of surgery equated with the art of painting, but ORLAN positions herself on an equal footing with the surgeon, insisting on a tightly bound relationship between their works of art.

Scrutinising the common threads between portraiture and plastic surgery, ORLAN prompts the viewer to consider their similarities: is it merely coincidence that plastic surgeons are commonly referred to as artists? Standing over the prone patient to sculpt the patriarchal ideal of beauty, these two disciplines have their roots in precisely the same cultural tropes. In this series ORLAN traces these parallels, following the skewed power dynamics of portraiture right up to the contemporary upward trend in cosmetic surgeries, noting that ‘plastic surgery is one of the areas in which a man’s power can most powerfully be assisted on women’s bodies’.

In meeting the gaze of the spectator rather than lying back and accepting it, ORLAN grapples with the politics of looking, insisting upon an equality between looker and looked at. Where viewers once sought pleasure in looking (as per Laura Mulvey’s seminal ‘Visual Pleasure’), they are instead confronted with a voyeuristic intimacy in extremis. Imperiously meeting their once penetrating gaze, ORLAN refuses any sense of submission. Remaining conscious and in control, she represents the precise contrary to the passive muse of art history. Just as ORLAN controls the surgical process itself, she controls the gaze of the viewer. She is the machinator of the whole grisly process.

At once artist and artwork, performer and piece, ORLAN’s conscious, active role in this surgical series makes clear that she is not just creator but controller. Her visceral, hybrid practice asserts a radically different approach to the artistic and surgical procedures which have traditionally been agents of objectification. She tackles the thorny nexus which exists between the aesthetic perfection promised by surgery and the capito-patriarchal framework which established such beauty standards. Radically rejecting the aesthetic ideals of the Western system, ORLAN throws off the objectifying gaze; in breaking down the historical power of the viewer, ORLAN seizes power for the looked-at. She is not just visible, but visionary. Not just artist, but agent.


Georgia Holmes is a contemporary art student. She likes big paintings, small dogs, and long walks on the beach.