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Orlan

(b. 1947)


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(1947– )

French artist, born in St Étienne. The name is a pseudonym which sounds like a brand of beauty product. By the artist's own account she adopted it when, under psychoanalysis, she became aware that her signature had come to resemble ‘mort’, (death). Taking out the two middle letters she added ‘lan’ to make it sound like ‘or-lent’ (slow gold). She studied painting and sculpture but she concluded that ‘Painting is a refusal to fully assume one's own exhibitionism; it is to wear a mask.’ She started to use the body in photographic works in 1964. Her performance of 1977 Le Baiser de l'artiste, in which she wore a kind of placard on which she offered kisses to the public for sale, incited controversy. She stood alongside a life-size photograph of herself as ‘St Orlan’, dressed like a Baroque saint. Such work was very much part of the French feminist movement's demand for women's right to control their own bodies, especially in the areas of contraception and abortion. The choice of Baroque imagery was influenced by the general unpopularity of the style in France, where the great sculptor and architect Gian lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), whose ecstatic image of St Theresa was a source for Orlan, had conspicuously failed to achieve the success which he had had in Rome. Orlan has said: ‘My work is in the area of pleasure and sensuality. I do not believe in pain as a form of redemption and purification.’ This separates her from some other female body artists including Gina Pane and Marina Abramović, even in her most extreme works in which she undergoes plastic surgery. The Reincarnation of St Orlan was a series of surgical procedures carried out between 1990 and 1993, during which her face was remodelled according to standards of beauty set by Old Master paintings. Implants were added to her forehead, which she subsequently emphasized with silver make-up. The operations were broadcast live and conducted under local anaesthetic so that the artist could participate, reading appropriate theoretical texts. When the critic Barbara Rose wished to publish an article on her in Art in America, the editor insisted on seeing videotapes of the surgery in order to verify the authenticity of the events. The project is hardly an attack on plastic surgery as such; indeed, Orlan has encouraged the view that what she calls ‘Carnal Art’ is, in some way, a celebration of the power to transform the body and negate pain. Nonetheless it is also a critique of imposed images of beauty, which has been taken further in the ‘self-hybridization’ series of 1997 onwards. Here Orlan's features are transformed, not by surgery, but by digital technology, to represent different standards of beauty.

Further Reading

L. Heygi et al., Orlan: Le Recit (2007)

Subjects: Art.


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