ORLAN // Narrating Ideas for the Future of “Self” | JAYNE BUTLER


Portrait of the French artist and performer Orlan, taken by photographer Fabrice Lévêque in 1997.



“Beauty is becoming less about luck and more about choice.”[1] Orlan, a female artist from France, exercised her right of choice, as well as control when she received nine consecutive cosmetic surgeries from 1990 to 1995. Each surgery was an artistic performance that was broadcasted live to museums and galleries across the world. Together she titled them The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan. These surgeries did not abide by current Western beauty standards: large breasts, a thin nose, and a flat stomach. Rather, each procedure combined aspects of “male-made” female figures in Western art history.[2] In doing so, she shattered the sociocultural standards that define female beauty. She stated in 2009:

“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 the image and surgery the other way around.” [3]

The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan may have been performed two decades ago, but her narrative remains contemporary and highly important. Through her performances, Orlan presents herself as an aesthetic artifact. She created an artistic roadmap for cultural change by highlighting the potential of future technologies and their use as a negative tool to reinforce the male gaze.


“[Body] modifications have generally been used to mark the social position of an individual in a manner visible to and recognized by other members of the society.”[4] Techne, meaning the art of craft and the root of technology, has been used to perform these modifications throughout history and cultures around the world. For example, modification to the earlobe is widespread, as well as modification to the genitals, as in circumcision. Despite this cultural connection, beauty ideals are drastically different amongst societies. Earlobe stretching is typical in Africa with often heavy ornamentation, while in Western cultures minimal perforation on the ear to hold light ornaments are commonly performed. Similarly, in Hinduism minimal perforations are made to hold embellishments, but on the nose rather than ears.[5] Techne or technology can be applied to all technical skills acquired and used by human. One primary reason that Orlan’s modifications are important to feminist discourse and sociocultural narratives is because of her control of the performances. In terms of body modifications, technology has a historical context of both aesthetics and control.

In TechGnosis, author Erik Davis explains the root of this Greek word and its duality in meaning. Teche refers to both “technical skill” and “trickiness.”[6] He implies that this ambiguity in language transcends to the word’s use. “Technology too is a spell and a trick, a device that crafts the real by exploiting the hidden laws of nature and human perception alike.”[7] And when cultures revolutionize their technologies, they “invite the creation of new gods.”[8] This human desire to exploit nature has lead to the desire of deconstructing and reconstructing the body; we test the limits of science on ourselves and others. Due to this unruly desire to play god, technology is continuously used as a tool for control. And through body modification, technology is often used to control women’s bodies. Foot-binding and the use of corsets are perfect examples of historical female control. Modifications, then and now, have been done to create the man made image of the woman and keep women trapped in the image of their body.


Before delving further into the physicality of Orlan’s surgeries, let’s consider the ideologies that construct them. Why did she choose these particular facial surgeries? What particular social and cultural constructions was she trying to elucidate? Let’s first turn to German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who spoke thoroughly about aura or authenticity in modern times of mechanical reproduction, particularly in regards to works of art. Aura is the essence of an object or being. Aura is what makes a thing unique due to it’s place in time and its historical context. Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction can shatter this aura by removing the original authenticity of a thing. He claims that the idea of reality to the masses is altered when works are reproducible. He stated, “To pry an object from it’s shell to destroy its aura, is the mark of perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.”[9] If applying this idea to Orlan’s performances, wouldn’t we consider this a shattering of an aura? Orlan took on attributes of female figures depicted in Western art history through plastic surgery. From the surface, it appears she is unnaturally constructing her aura by appropriating authenticity from images she did not create.

Benjamin’s argument about aura in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” touches on the “cult of beauty” in art that began in the Renaissance and the three centuries that followed. This period of “pure art” marks a stark difference to the revolution of reproducible works. Art in this time was based in tradition and ritual that could not be easily reproduced and had no means of mechanical reproduction.[10] This “cult of beauty” also marks the formation of the idealistic image of the woman; male artists produced “desirable” and perpetual features in their work. The aura of the woman was in fact being reproduced, although the works themselves were considered unreproducible. The features that Orlan adopted in The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan were of the time that Benjamin refers to. She altered her chin to resemble Bottecelli’s Venus, her nose to Psyche by Jean-Leon Gerome, her lips to Boucher’s Europa, her eyes to Diana by an unknown member of the French School of Fontainebleau, and her forehead like Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. She took on cult images of female beauty to critique Western art history and show the flaws in cosmetic surgery. She calls her surgical work “carnal art”, which opposes plastic surgery standards that are “engraved in the male”, but performed on the “female flesh.”[11] Cosmetic surgery aims to replicate the female aura as a reproducible object. It provides features that are indistinguishable from another. Orlan reclaimed control of her aura and identity by using irony to reject the female identity that history has laid out for her. In arguably the most prolific essay on the future of feminism, A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway asserts that irony is an important tactic of feminism. “Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method.”[12]


Female theorists and feminist thought has been left out of the history of philosophy until about two decades ago. This left women out of the conversation and without control of how they were discussed. “Epistemology and ontology are linked—that what we know sculpts how we act—is our legacy from social construction.”[13] Rebekah Sheldon critiques theories from both branches of philosophy in The Nonhuman Turn to explain the male/female divide. Women are historically associated with the physical and the Other: body, nature, and the earth. Men are associated with the mind, psyche or soul, and rationale. Many feminist theorists connect this idea directly to Rene Descartes and have associated Orlan with fighting his theory. In “Dissecting The Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” Irene van Oorschot states, “Attempting to (violently) transcend her bodily confinements, Orlan is seen to fragment ‘the Cartesian mapping that equates the male gender with the mind and the female gender with the body, in order to rearrange meaning’…”[14] Sheldon argues that Descartes was not the first or only philosopher to centralize gender in his divisions of form and matter versus metaphysics. The separation is rooted in all primary philosophical structures that divide gender yet claim “neutral rational systems.”[15]

Sheldon uses chora from Plato’s Timaeus to solidify this basis of feminist new materialism and how to overcome this obstacle. In this story, Timaeus is frustrated with the reasoning that separates our temporal, physical world from our “eternal world of forms” that is accessed through our intellect. He believes there must be a third world, which houses these forms while they transform from idea to being.[16] Timaeus postulates a third realm that generates the form to the object. He describes this space in only “hetero-reproductive terms,” such as “mother,” “womb,” and “wet-nurse.” This space serves as a “receptacle” to gain form.[17] The issue here is that it attributes women with being neither an idea nor an object. It places women in a space that is unconsidered.

Sheldon argues that despite the sexist flaws in Plato’s description of the chora, the idea of a third space between an idea and a form is not a bad concept. She states, “As such, it offers an opportunity to imagine an autonomous, dynamic, temporalized space through which subindividual matters, vibratory intensities, and affects might cross and be altered through that crossing[18] Sheldon believes that the study of the chora (when applied to a subject or idea) can help us better understand how it develops its shape. Moving forward with this critical lens, we can further make sense of Orlan’s ideologies and use the chora to describe the space in which she is performing. Plastic surgeries are primarily thought of in sequence of “before” and “after” leaving the phase of becoming (the chora) to be only experienced by the doctor. Orlan invites us inside this phase through her recorded procedures. She unwraps the chora of her by opting for local anesthetic. She can then experience and control the transition. And she unwraps the chora for others by recording the experience for an audience to view. She is both the object and the subject of her surgery; the object being operated on and subject that “coordinated every aspect of her transformation.”[19] She embodies all aspects of the chora; she is the idea and the transition to form.

Metaphorically, the chora has no range of time and place. It is situated between the the space of idea and the space of form leaving its state unknown. Orlan creates its temporality through the art of cutting media: audio, video, and photography. She also creates her own time frame by extending the surgeries over a number of years forcing the audience to conceptualize the work in this way.[20] Scholars Kember and Zylinska both suggest that this “practice of cutting is crucial not just to our being in and relating to the world, but also to our becoming-with-the-world, as well as becoming-different-from-the-world.[21] Like Orlan and Sheldon, Kember and Zylinska are concerned with “institutional responses that give names to cultural practices.”[22] In their book, Life After New Media, they speak thoroughly on the art of cutting, particularly in photography. They suggest that “a good cut is an ethical cut, whereby an in-cision is also a de-cision. Cutting well therefore means cutting (film, tape, reality) in a way that does not lose sight of the horizon of duration or foreclose on the creative possibility of life enabled by this horizon.”[23] By these scholars standards, Orlan’s surgical cuts were made with precision.


Let’s look further into Orlan’s place in contemporary art and culture. We can instead consider contemporary artists who straddle art and celebrity status to see if she fits more clearly in this sphere. Marcel Duchamp is a prolific French artist that Orlan has been said to draw inspiration from. She thought of her body as not only a canvas, but a “readymade,” a concept that Duchamp made famous.[24] Artist Andy Warhol has also been connected to Duchamp due to their shared interests in capitalism and transforming “a mundane object…into an unforgettable work of art.”[25] Orlan used a variation of this idea in her practice by selling the excess anatomy of her surgeries to fund the next one.[26] Both Duchamp and Warhol were also considered cultural icons of their time. In particular, Warhol’s fame marked a significant change in our society, in which an artist also functioned as a famed celebrity. Much like Warhol, Orlan’s work also highlighted current culture. But why was she left out the the sphere? Was it due to the severity of her work? Orlan’s surgeries gave her the status of Other, despite cosmetic surgery being in the realm of celebrity life. Take Michael Jackson, for instance, who was both artist and celebrity. Much like Orlan, his surgeries were a part of his aura that society cannot separate. Jackson’s physical and mental being has even been studied as a cyborg. Theorist Ollivier Dyens proposal of the cyborg seems to encapsulate Jackson. He stated, “The cyborg is a semantic transformation of the body; it s a living being whose identity, history, and presence are formulated by technology and defined by culture. It is a body free of dualities, guilt, sexual repression, and frustration…The cyborg is the obliteration of the biological.”[27]

Michael Jackson is thought to be an example of fusing this “nucleus of culture and technology,” but he falls short.[28] Firstly, he denied most of his plastic surgeries which implies that he carries guilt or frustration. Those feelings are absent in Dyens description of the cyborg. His technologies also fail him. In particular, his nose was formed so thin and delicate that it “cut off blood supply and [caused] permanent mortifying damage to the crafted tissue.”[29] His skin is also defies the definition. Dyens defines the cyborg as being without dualities. Jackson, a biological black man, used medical procedures to have white skin. Oppositely, Orlan succeeds by this definition of cyborg. She holds no guilt or dualities in her procedures; she made them public through her video performances. She let her identity be transformed through technology. It encapsulates social and cultural constructions. Orlan has withheld most personal information about her life, which furthermore allows her existence to be fully crafted by culture.[30] Her existence as a cyborg prototype is so pronounced that it was even copied by the famed musician, Lady Gaga.

Many consider Lady Gaga an artist who pushes limits of sociocultural boundaries. English scholar Shane Denson spoke about Gaga at The Nonhuman Turn conference at University of Wisconsin Madison in 2012. He argued that she is an “image of our contemporary convergence culture.”[31] This argument may be true in some regards, but the futuristic look which gained her fame is not authentic; it was copied from Orlan. The similarities are so obvious that Orlan sued Lady Gaga for plagiarism in 2013. Recognizable similarities include their use of stage names, their referencing of Catholicism in their work, and their use of their bodies as a canvas.[32] A deeper cut was made when Gaga began to wear prosthetic lumps on her temples, specifically in media to promote her Born This Way album. During Orlan’s seventh surgery, she had the surgeon implant two silicon bags on each temple.[33] Thus, she has permanently adorned this feature since the 1990s. Orlan’s lawsuit demands $31.7 million, which equates to 7.5% of the profits from the album, song, and music video for Born This Way.[34] The suit puts focus on an image from the music video that is believed to be copied from her sculpture, Femme Avec Tête (1996). It also focuses on Orlan’s sculpture Bumpload (1989), that is adorned with the temple lumps. An argument could be made that, like Orlan, Gaga was taking aspects of art history to create uniqueness that paid homage to her past. Unfortunately, Gaga dissembled this idea during an interview with NME magazine in 2011. She was asked if she drew inspiration from Orlan and attested that she did not know who she was.[35]

In The Nonhuman Turn, Erin Manning defines art as “the memory of the future.” She states that art is “the intuitive potential to activate the future, to make the middling of experience felt where futurity and presentness coincide, to invoke the memory not of what was, but what will be.”[36] By this definition of art, Gaga’s attempts at a visually futuristic aura fail. Her authenticity is a replication, not a forecast of the future. The visual “self” that she displays does not connect her current temporality with new ideas. She merely attempts to appropriate Orlan’s features and replicate elements of her artistic work. An individual’s aura should not be and cannot be reproducible. Furthermore, Gaga does not fit the bill as Dyen’s cyborg. The temporary additions to her features, like the temple lumps, do not obliterate biology. She is caught in frustration and dualities that limit the newness of her aura. Gaga must return to the drawing boards.

Manning also asserts in The Nonhuman Turn,  that an artist must create “an ease of entry” for their audience.[37] I argue, that Orlan’s work was ahead of its time. So much so, that its place in history denied Orlan an “ease of entry” for her viewers. The lack of entry caused a muddled understanding of her work and a societal dismissal of her surgical performances. Moving forward, there is one tremendous outcome to the Lady Gaga debacle. It has put the dialogue of The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan back on the table. The Gaga conversation is now a reference point to track the remediation of Orlan whom has transformed to an aesthetic artifact. Gaga’s emulation proves that Orlan had prototyped the future image of a pop culture icon. This prototype can continue to serve as one for the futuristic cyborg and not just the cyborg speculated by Dyen. Donna Haraway’s feminist cyborg as described in A Cyborg Manifesto reinforces the importance of Orlan’s social, political and cultural scope. “The cyborg is a hybrid of machine and organism, and serves as a ‘political myth’ pointing towards new routes open to feminists conceptualizing the relations between the (female) body and technology.”[38] Thinking about Orlan in this light allows us to continue using her work as an example of women working through the chora to find a definitive form of our own creation.


Jayne is a graduate student at the university of denver studying emergent digital practices. her creative research involves feminist histories, contemporary politics, and the intersection of the two. her art practice aims to create physical and metaphysical spaces in which communities can discuss contemporary issues and ideas. www.jaynebutler.com



[1] Irene Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” Amsterdam Social Science (2013), 30.

[2] Jill O’Bryan, Carnal Art, Orlan’s Refacing, (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2005), xiii.

[3] Stuart Jefferies, “Orlan’s art of sex and surgery,” The Guardian, Last modified July 1, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jul/01/orlan-performance-artist-carnal-art.

[4] “Body modifications and mutilations,” Encyclopædia Britannica, last updated September 4, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/science/body-modifications-and-mutilations

[5] Body modifications and mutilations,” Encyclopædia Britannica.

[6] Erik Davis, TechGnosis (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), NYU ITP, http://itp.nyu.edu/~mp51/commlab/walterbenjamin.pdf.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Orlan, “Carnal Art,” Orlan.eu, accessed November 14, 2015, http://www.orlan.eu/bibliography/carnal-art/.

[12] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, Simian, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149.

[13] Rebekah Sheldon, “Form / Matter / Chora,” Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin. (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2015), 202.

[14] Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” 35.

[15] Sheldon, “Form / Matter / Chora,” 199.

[16] Ibid, 211.

[17] Ibid, 211-212.

[18] Ibid, 212.

[19] Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” 30.

[20] O’Bryan, Carnal Art, xv.

[21] Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 82.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kember and Zylinska, Life After New Media: A Vital Process, 82.

[24] Rose, “Orlan: is it Art? Orlan and the Transgressive Act,” 83-125.

[25] Cristina Rouvalis, “Twisted Pair,” Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, last modified 2010, http://www.carnegiemuseums.org/cmag/feature.php?id=200.

[26] Are Flågan, “Posterchild for the Future: Living with Michael Jackson,” CTHEORY (2003), http://ctheoryarchive.net/posterchild-for-the-future-living-with-michael-jackson/.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Flågan, “Posterchild for the Future: Living with Michael Jackson.”

[30] Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” 37.

[31] Shane Denson, “Object Oriented Gaga: Theorizing the Nonhuman Mediation of Twenty-First Century Celebrity,” (paper presented at the A Center for 21st Century Studies Conference, Wisconsin, Madison, May 3-5, 2012).

[32] Abby Ohlheiser, “Meet The Artist Who Says Lady Gaga Ripped Her Off,” The Wire, last modified June 16, 2013, http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/06/meet-visual-artist-who-says-lady-gaga-stole-her-look/66284/.

[33] Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” 29.

[34]Jillian Steinhauer, “The $31M Lady Gaga Plagiarism Suit We’ve All Been Waiting For,” Hyperallergic, last modified June 19, 2013, http://hyperallergic.com/73698/the-31m-lady-gaga-plagiarism-suit-weve-all-been-waiting-for/.

[35] “Meet The Artist Who Says Lady Gaga Ripped Her Off.”

[36] Erin Manning, “Artfullness,” Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin. (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2015), 46.

[37] Manning, “Artfullness,” 52.

[38] Oorschot, “Dissecting the Self: The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan,” 34.