Carnal Art: Orlan's Refacing is meticulously researched and extremely well written-considering the epistemological difficulty of some sections of the discourse, it is an easy and pleasurable read. The text is accompanied with both black & white and colour photographs, some of which are not for the faint hearted. Even if you have no trouble viewing normal medical procedures, some of the images will probably disturb you, partly because of the context and partly because of the subject matter.
Orlan's art is somewhat hard to define precisely. She is, "...a multimedia performance artist who places her body into the center of beauty technology in order to expose and question those techniques of gender that simultaneously construct and discipline `beauty-conscious' female identity" (p. 20). Most of her performances occur in a hospital operating theatre, involving deconstruction and reconstruction of her face, and essentially require equipment such as video cameras and film crews. All performances are transmitted to the public and are strictly controlled by Orlan, who is conscious during the procedures having only local anaesthetic. Having had facial surgery in an operating theatre with only local anaesthetic myself, I can assure the reader it is not something one would do for fun.
Orlan must be very serious and dedicated to her art or be very seriously mad to undergo these procedures. "Consciousness [in the operating theatre] is her [Orlan's] ultimate weapon against psychoanalysis. It allows her to preclude a diagnosis of psychological illness" (p. 104). The charge of madness has been raised by some of Orlan's more severe critics. I believe this is an important and valid question to ask. O'Bryan discusses this at various times throughout the book, and it appears that Orlan is very much in control of her life and her art. I do not think, from O'Bryan's discussion at least, that the charge of madness is valid. Not only for the abovementioned psychoanalytical reason (after all many insane people inflict severe pain upon themselves while consciously doing so), but specifically because Orlan's work, like many other artists, has evolved over a long period of time, involves steady considered planning and complex logistical organization.
There are one or two parts in this book that are infuriating and tend to mar an otherwise excellent scholarly work. These are when O'Bryan seeks the support of other feminist writers and quotes them at length. Specifically, (briefly) quoting Straayer, "I suggest that most if not all women do want to be men..." (p. 101)-a totally unsupported, unscholarly feminist, stereotypical speculation. Further, Doane, "Most specifically, it is the possession of the male gaze" (p. 104). This discussion concerning Orlan temporarily obliterating any reference to her gender when the skin of her face is removed by the surgeon (and shown at extreme close-up), does not only prevent possession by a male gaze but prevention of any gaze, including for example, her mothers' or a female best friend. A little further on O'Bryan recognises this herself, "What is represented [by the face] is the fragility of identity" (p.106).
The book has an Introduction (Shape-Shifting), seven chapters as follows: 1-Orlan's body of Work; 2-Looking Inside the Human Body; 3-Between Self and Other; 4-Interior/Exterior; 5-Beauty/The Monstrous Feminine; 6-Penetrating Layers of Flesh: Carving in/out the Body of Orlan; 7-A Few Comments on Self-hybridations . Finally-EXTRActions, a Performative Dialogue "with" Orlan. This section while rather short is a pithy discussion between O'Bryan and Orlan.
This is a provocative book, raising important questions and challenging status quo prejudices on many fronts. Some of these include-the validity of the feminist psychoanalytical critique; the validity of many aspects of feminism itself; the authenticity of privileged bourgeois artists (such as Orlan) taunting the very bourgeois society that enables her to create her art; the efficacy (as art) of extreme (unnecessary?) bodily modification when in many countries essential life saving surgery is unavailable. These above questions, some raised unintentionally throughout Carnal Art, are what makes the book so interesting and important in addition to the exposition of Saint Orlan and her art. -Rob Harle --Leonardo Review, August 2005
The work of the French artist Orlan defies facile description, but in her book Carnal Art: Orlan's Refacing (2005), author C. Jill O'Bryan does an admirable job of discussing the artist's work and its conceptual foundations in a style that is both scholarly and accessible.
Although Orlan has been working with photography and performance art since the 1960s, it is her series The Reincarnation of St. Orlan, begun in 1990, that has drawn the most attention and debate. In this series, plastic surgery became the method and Orlan's own tissue the medium as she underwent a series of operations to appropriate the features of various Western art-historical icons of feminine beauty, ranging from Botticelli's Venus to da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Orlan orchestrates the surgeries, arranging costumes and decorations, and because she undergoes only local, rather than general, anesthesia, is also an active participant in the "performances." Her most ambitious and well-known surgery-performance, Omnipresence (1993), in which she received her distinctive forehead "bumps," was videotaped and broadcast live to galleries around the world, where observers were able to participate by faxing and phoning in questions to which the artist responded.
O'Bryan opens Carnal Art with a discussion of Orlan's performances, and goes on to locate them within the tradition of the Renaissance anatomy theater and contrast them with the "body art" of recent decades. She also dedicates a short section to the artist's more recent Self-Hybridations series, in which Orlan digitally combines images of her own face with those of African and Pre-Columbian masks and photographs, in an exploration of non-Western beauty ideals.
O'Bryan focuses on the conceptual framework of Orlan's work, exploring how it has investigated concepts that are generally seen in diametric pairs -- self / other, before / after, interior / exterior, beauty / the monstrous -- and how it creates tensions by occupying the middle ground between each of the poles. She examines concepts of the body such as the implications of turning it into an object and for looking inside it, its role in the formation of identity, and the relationship between surface and the contained. In particular, she discusses how women's bodies, and faces, are represented as bearers of a male-constructed "beauty" and recipients of the male gaze. O'Bryan considers the mythical figures of Medusa, Baubo, and Marsyas and what they reveal about identity and the gaze in Orlan's work. The author draws from an impressive array of scholars, utilizing film, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory and citing, among others, Derrida, Lacan, and Luce Irigary. She concludes the text with a fictitious "performative dialogue" with Orlan, comprised of quotations from various sources, including personal interviews.
Carnal Art is an intelligent, well-written discussion of Orlan's work and, at just under 200 pages, a relatively short read. Despite the highly theoretical nature of the material, O'Bryan's tone is engaging and her writing clear. Illustrated with black and white photos throughout and a central section of full-color plates, the book is by no means an exhaustive study of Orlan's oeuvre, but an excellent choice for anyone interested in a thoughtful discussion of the theory behind Orlan's art. -Ceri Meyers --intelligent agent vol. 6 no. 1