New York

Orlan

Penine Hart Gallery

Is Orlan a Dr. Benway groupie? Since 1990, the French artist has undergone elective plastic surgery six times (and will go under the knife again in New York) in an attempt to make herself look like a computer-generated “ideal,” pieced together not from spare body parts but from art-historical references—the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the eyes of a School of Fontainebleau Diana, the nose of Gerome’s Psyche, the lips of Boucher’s Europa, and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus.

Orlan’s point is not simply, however, literally to become a work of art. As is evident in the more or less documentary works that comprise this exhibition—video, photographs heavy with religious iconography, and mock reliquaries containing the fatty by-products of various liposuctions—each operation is treated as a performance piece in its own right. Orlan allows herself to be given local anesthesia only, and thus is able, from the operating table, to direct the transformation of the surgical theater into a sort of théâtre burlesque. During any given session, she wears flashy designer gowns (as do the medical personnel), reads aloud from texts (heady things like books by French philosopher Michel Serres), and hams it up for the cameras with props ranging from bunches of grapes to a devil’s skull and pitchfork. Meanwhile, as Orlan’s flunkies romp through the background with placards depicting her previous performances, a state-certified surgeon might, say, drain fat from her thighs with grotesque thrusting movements, and then inject it by means of syringes into select locations on her face—above her eyelids, below her cheekbones, and into her upper lip.

If there’s any blasphemy in Orlan’s art, ultimately it seems to lie more in this utter violation of operating-room protocol than in the artist’s willingness to undergo plastic surgery or to flaunt something often publicly denied. (How many people like to admit they’ve had rhinoplasty?) On the one hand, you can’t help but wonder where she found a surgeon willing to wear a spangly black-and-silver getup during an operation. On the other hand, though Orlan’s means are radical, the idea underlying her “performances” is damn near conventional: her frequent proclamations about the deceptiveness of the flesh have the ring of good Catholic contemptus corpbris. Artistically, her precedents lie not only in esthetic prototypes but in automutilative performance artists like Chris Burden, Stelarc, and Gina Pane; socially, her work is not that much more extreme than the experiments punks and “modern primitives” perform on themselves, to say nothing of what Cindy Crawford wannabes must put themselves through. Conversely, a truly radical idea would be more along the lines of emulating a figure from a Bosch painting, or replacing your eyebrows with fingers (like windshield wipers). But perhaps it’s the fact that Orlan doesn’t go quite so far that led a psychiatrist to declare, in a French psychoanalytical periodical that devoted an entire issue to her, that she isn’t crazy, but that she ought to be protected from both the ethics and esthetics of the Dr. Frankenstein without whom her performances could be no more than simulacra.

Keith Seward