SAYI 37 / 11 NÝSAN 2005


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Dr. Kubilay Akman

The French performance artist Orlan who was born in the industrial town of St. Étienne, France, has got an extraordinary position in the contemporary art world. She states “art is a dirty job, but someone has to do it” and makes her dirty job with her own body in the most incredible meaning of the word. In her artistic performances she defines as Carnal Art, Orlan transforms her body and her face through surgical operations to criticize the beauty concept of the men-power and the construction of female-subjects in the modern Western societies.

Orlan uses surgical operations to deconstruct “the beauty concept” and recreate it in her personal style while women are using esthetic surgery for rejuvenation and to gain the typology of beauty standardized and accepted generally. The critical target of Carnal Art, with the expression of Barbara Rose, is “the hypocrisy of the way society has traditionally split the female image into Madonna and whore”. (1) Rose believes in that she is a genuine artist , dead serious in her intent about the elaborately calculated performances defined as “the theater of operation”. Two essential criteria to distinguish art from nonart, intentionality and transformation are presented in Carnal Art. Her confrontational works are esthetic actions rather than pathological behavior forces us for reconsideration of the boundary that separates “normality” from madness and art from nonart. (2) The operating room is her studio and her body is not only the medium and material she uses for her work, also is her work itself and a metaphor serves to the resistance against the stereotypes of esthetic authority.

In Orlan the body loses its quality that unchangeable or can be transformed according to the acceptable style. In this context, as Kathy Davis indicates, in her project Orlan’s body is altered surgically in order to experiment with different identities. She transcends the borders related race and gender. Orlan claims: “I am a woman to woman transsexual act”. However, according to Davis these surgical transformations are far from sex exchange operation as they are not permanent. This project can be viewed as a contribution to the postmodern feminist theory on identity and represents the postmodern celebration of identity as fragmented, multiple and fluctuating. This kind of plastic surgery is a way for women to regain the control on their bodies and Orlan’s project could be considered as an example of a feminist utopia, that the island where the utopia built is the body. (3)

After she was operated for an extra-uterine pregnancy under a local anesthetic when she could play both the role of an observer and patient Orlan decided to turning of surgery into performance art. The operation/performances are directed by the artist and involve music, poetry and dance. To finance her expensive costs for the operations she sells the rights of her photos and videos and even the samples of her flesh and blood drained off during the “body sculpting” process. She prefers local anesthesia for the operations to conduct the other participants of her works. In “the theater of operation” not only the people on the stage also the audience play their roles as interactive participants. Even they have the real pain. The audience experience a big furor generally while watching the spectacle where the surgeon inserts needles into her face and skin, slices open her lips and severs her ear from the rest of her face. They are irritated and uneasy as Orlan saves her silence.

Orlan’s artistic production is like a parody of the practice of the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis who was choosing the best part from different women and combining them to obtain the ideal woman image. Orlan has selected different features from famous Renaissance and post-Renaissance representations of ideal beauty. In a computer-generated way with the help of surgeons she combines the nose of a famous sculpture of Diana, the mouth of Boucher’s Europa, the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the eyes of Gerome’s Psyche and the forehead of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa on her face. The operating rooms are also decorated with enlarged reproductions of the related details of these works. In her deconstruction of the Western art history she selects these female prototypes for reasons involving history and mythology: “She chose Diana because the goddess was an aggressive adventuress and did not submit to men; Psyche because of her need for love and spiritual beauty; Europa because she looked to another continent, permitting herself to be carried away into an unknown future. Venus is part of the Orlan myth because of her connection to fertility and creativity, and the Mona Lisa because of her androgyny-the legend being that the painting actually represents a man, perhaps Leonardo himself.” (4) Orlan says that, “after mixing my own image with these images, I reworked the whole as any painter does, until the final portrait emerged and it was possible to stop and sign it”.

Actually I intend to demonstrate these relations directed to the samples of the Western art history by Orlan as a parody and refusing the tradition of the art historical inheritance in a contradictive manner that fuses humor sense to horror, rather than the contemporary representation of this tradition. In this paradoxical work you could see the belonging to the Western culture as well as the marks of hate to it. A similar tendency can be witnessed in the works of American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and modern American author Chuck Palahniuk who struggles against the main principles of Western culture. He criticizes American and in a relation the other Western societies as satirize their crucial values. It is very interesting that one of his novels, Invisible Monsters is about the transformation and mutilation of body and face, surgery operations and related identity problems. A comparative reading of the works of the three artists in a connection could offer some imaginative beginning points to the critique of modern societies.

Orlan’s art could be analyzed with its similarities to the other performance artists like Bob Flanagan, Yves Klein, Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic. However, two important points separate her from the other ones. First one is pain. Orlan does not suffer from pain thanks to anesthesia as the other performance artists call pain under a masochistic meaning and desire it. Second one is that Orlan’s art is completely different than the other ones with its totality and profoundly imagined, calculated, designed and practiced eligibility. She builds her work of art through her all life. This is not spontaneously or aggressive. Contrarily it is a work of art that is very consciously and well organized after detailed plans.

Even without pain art is a matter of life and death for Orlan despite her tranquility about the operations. Always there is the element of risk and she is face to face the probability of paralysis and death. Orlan sacrifices and spends her body day to day for art and it is not an endless source. This is maybe a kind of postmodern potlatch . (5)What is spent and gifted is the body and what is gained is the artistic pleasure.
Orlan does not only present her work named as Carnal Art, at the same time, she is self-reflecting the new/revolutionary level art has arrived. While she is practicing her Carnal Art theory, she undertakes the mission of representation of this practices in the theoretical/esthetic area too.

In the Carnal Art Manifesto, in an ironic expression, Orlan states that Carnal Art is a self-portrait in the classical sense, yet realized through the technology of its time. It is an inscription in flesh lying between figuration and disfiguration that our age makes possible now. According to Orlan the body should become a “modified ready-made”. Here the pain is not a means of redemption or purification unlike “Body Art”. There is not a wish to achieve a final “plastic” result, but rather Carnal Art seeks to modify the body and engage in public debate. It has a contradiction against the Christian tradition and its body-politics. Orlan transforms the body into language and with her own words she is reversing the Christian principle of “the word made flesh”, the flesh is made word. Only her voice remains unchanged. She judges the famous “you give birth in pain” as an anachronistic nonsense. In Carnal Art, thanks to local anesthetics and multiple analgesics pain is defeated. Her slogan is “long live morphine!”

Now the artist can observe her body cut open, without suffering. When she sees herself all the way down to her entrails, she reaches a new version of “mirror stage”. Carnal Art affirms the independence of the artist as fights against a prioris and dictates. That is the reason why it engages society and the media and will go as far as the judicial system. Its purpose is problematizing “the status of the body and the ethical questions posed by them”. In the most general sense its critique also covers male body, although its beginning and the particular field of interest is female body. “Carnal Art loves the baroque and parody; the grotesque, and the other such styles that have been left behind, because Art opposes the social pressures that are exerted upon both human body and the corpus of art. Carnal art is anti-formalist and anti-conformist”. (6)

After Orlan’s Manifesto I can add that Carnal Art might be considered as an anti-authoritarian political discourse because it rejects authority, domination and codes of the power as a kind of bio-opposition. At the last analysis, how is Orlan’s body formed and transformed depend on her own willing only, not on traditions or fashion. This is one of the top levels human freedom could reach. Carnal Art that never could become a social liberation project, is a source guides to the personal freedom, self-control, emancipation and liberation of the artist. However, it could be connected to the social politics in some aspects through feminist theory and movement.

Actually, another field that could be discussed comparatively with Carnal Art is the critique of the reason in social theory. In an age when the reason has become totalitarian and determines social relations elaborately the discourse of Carnal Art has some common points with the critical names of philosophy and social theory like F. Lyotard, G. Deleuze, M. Focault and J. Baudrillard. I hope to discuss these connections another time in another context.

When we debate on the work of Orlan she named as “Carnal Art”, “theater of operation” or “body sculpting” there are some words/notions inevitably we use: face, image, appearance, view, reflection, form, feature, way, style, copy, text, picture, photography, etc. We discuss and consider her performance art and the recreation of her body and face through these words. They are the words that we use most often as discussing Carnal Art. For the Western colleagues it would be surprising to know that there is a word on the world covers all the meanings of the each word I have mentioned according to the context and its meaning changes in different semantic relations with other words in the structure of the language. This word is suret. When you look at to the Turkish dictionaries you could see that this word originally comes from Arabic has the meanings of appearance, view, form, shape, face, feature, way, style, copy of a picture or a text, duplicate, the apparent aspect of existence in Islamic philosophy, and in some contexts picture/painting and photography. (7) This word that is not used often in the current Turkish has not got an equivalent in English. Hence I have to continue to use this word as suret. I had noticed to the strange correspondence first in 2002 when I was preparing for a review about Orlan’s art. (8)The title of the Turkish article was the same with this paper. But I did not attempt to debate the excellent correspondence of suret with the attributes and the characteristics of Orlan’s performances and delayed this discussion to the first occasion. I had to wait for this occasion for 2 years.

I suppose everybody would agree with me Orlan’s transformations involve her face before everything. She changes continuously her face, that face is seen as identical to identity generally and accepted unchangeable, to designate the uninterrupted fluidity of identities. Her feature is the focus of her work. The depicting of her feature is purified from the codes of authority. Her work is a text in inter-textual relations with other texts from the history and the modern world. She decides her appearance and view, these are the basic elements of her esthetic discourse, through her own way and style. On the one hand she copies paintings from art history while producing her work, on the other hand she reproduces or duplicates herself through photographs and videos. So, I suggest suret as an explanatory multiple notion. I wish the Western colleagues will give the required attention to this word and will accept the conceptual present of the East.

Walter Benjamin discussed the transformation of art work in the age of mechanical reproduction. Today maybe we are in the age of post-mechanical/organic reproduction age. The artist reproduces her art in an organic way and also uses the helps of mechanical and digital reproduction techniques. But this is a reproduction that eliminates the difference between the original and the copy. In this sense, it reminds us the simulation concept of J. Baudrillard. Another important concept of Baudrillard is seduction. I suppose the power of the concept of suret comes from that it is located in a sphere where these two concepts of Baudrillard are in a contiguity. Suret seems to me as a state of simulation gained a seductive dimension. But, it is more fascinating with its Eastern, mystical seductiveness. As reference to a tale from the Middle Asia that Baudrillard quoted to explain his seduction concept, suret is like the redness on the edge of the tail of fox.

Another meaning of suret is the apparent, perceivable aspect of existence according to Islamic philosophy. In this viewpoint everything is suret and we can never be cognizant of the essence precisely. It seems like an Oriental version of the “Matrix philosophy”. But essentially the problem is more complicated. Debate the correspondences, similarities and differences of suret to the Western intellectual world is over the aim of this paper and requires a comprehensive research.

I have bordered this work with demonstration of the revolutionary feature of Orlan’s art and indicating to the power of suret concept to expound the extraordinary character of Carnal Art. As a result, I could say that art is never emerges in a transcendental area where it is disconnected from the social, econom ical, political, environmental problems of the age. Always, beyond a relation of determination, there are interactive dealings between art and the other social fields. To analyze Orlan’s or other artist’s works we do not have to omit these connection. Art obtains its meaning only in the historical, cultural and social contexts. However, the sociological approach is not enough itself without any contributions from other fields and world languages. Notions are the basic elements of social theory. In the sociology of arts we needs new notions for the new facts. I believe in that suret is one of them.

Eskiþehir, October 2004


1 Barbara Rose, “Orlan: Is It Art/Orlan and the Transgressive Act”, Art in America, 81:2 (February 1993)
2 Ibid.
3 Kathy Davis, Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences, Rowman&Littlefield, 2003
4 Rose, op. cit
5 potlatch: A ceremonial feast among certain Native American peoples of the northwest Pacific coast, as in celebration of a marriage or accession, at which the host distributes gifts according to each guest's rank or status. Between rival groups the potlatch could involve extravagant or competitive giving and destruction by the host of valued items as a display of superior wealth. Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, Fourth Edition
7 source: The Official web-site of the Turkish Language Istitute
8 Kubilay Akman, “Orlan’ýn Suretleri”, Mecmua, issue:8, 2003