On June 23rd, ORLAN opened her first-ever solo exhibition in Berlin with a special performance, revolving around her ‘Pétition Contre la Mort’ (Petition Against Death). The infamous feminist icon and forerunner of ‘Carnal Art’ brought a regal intensity to the subdivided project space of La Plaque Tournante, negotiating earnestness and humour without risking cynicism. ‘Ça fait trops longtemps que ça dure!’ [It has lasted too long!], ‘Assez!’ [Enough!], ‘Je veux la mort de la mort!’ [I want the death of death!]
These invocations were accompanied by vocal gymnastics from British mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg. It was a simultaneously nerve-wracking and very moving experience, like watching an adored cult leader improvise. We scrambled to get out of her way as she made unplanned moves about the gallery. We fought for tossed scraps of the petition ‘signed’ with her red handprint, and for her direct eye-contact.
The exhibition, curated by Frédéric Acquaviva, shows a collection of ORLAN’s work spanning decades: there is documentation of her scandalous 1977 performance, ‘Baiser de l’Artiste’, in which she charged 5 francs for a kiss outside the Grand Palais. There’s also documentation of her infamous surgery-art procedures, by which she acquires ideal version of discrete facial features such as the chin of Botticelli’s Venus and the Mona Lisa’s forehead (as well as less conventional facial alterations and protrusions). Newer work retains this interest with mixing her own visage with others’, so that both origins remain visible (separable in the mind’s eye) and yet fused. A series of these ‘Self-Hybridisations’ with Pre-Columbian, American-Indian and African sculptures is on display.
The space itself is an old doctor’s surgery, providing a clinical backdrop that heightens the drama of these artistic procedures. The ‘natural-ness’ or ‘constancy’ of the body seems a frail cultural construct in this space.
Claudia Grigg Edo: Does your art aim to present different options for women, regarding how they might look, move or behave?
ORLAN: I hope so. I hope so for both women and men. Because it is how we behave together that means things work in one way rather than another way. In my ‘Body Sculpture’ work, I aim to present the body in such a way as distances conventional clichés about women’s bodies and feminine seduction. But this aim applies to men too, as we are all formatted – there are frames that constrain all of us, that prevent us from moving differently. I aim to deconstruct and decode the behaviours that are learnt, and to propose something else, more inventive and creative.
CGE: Is your work motivated by anger, or a different energy?
O: The work evolves. At the beginning my work was that of an adolescent rebel, very critical of society. Right now I try, more than anything else, to live in my time. To keep a critical distance from social phenomena. And, also, with regards to the tools I employ, to explore new technologies and biotechnology.
CGE: In the digital age has the body been displaced? Or is it just complexified?
O: I believe that I am nothing but a body. Entirely a body. And that it is my body that does the thinking – that is why I said ‘Here is my body / Here is my software.’ I wanted to contrast the dichotomy between body and soul, as for me there is no soul. It is the body that thinks.
CGE: Do you consider yourself part of a group, or a singular artist?
O: I consider myself a singular artist. The only group in which I could have been placed was that of l’Art Corporel (‘Body Art’). But I wrote a manifesto (‘Manifesto of Carnal Art’, 1989) precisely to dissociate myself from Body Art because their work on pain is opposed to my work. I find pain anachronistic. Due to technological and medical advances, we have almost halted pain. So, it strikes me as strange, right now, to make a work about the body that focusses on testing physical and mental endurance. I am very happy for other people to make work like that! But it’s not my area. I am far more interested in bodily pleasure than pain.
CGE: Do you really want to live forever?
O: Yes, I would like that. But above all I think that there is an unfairness, because some types of whales can live for 350 years, and so I don’t understand why human beings don’t have the right to a century. So yes, there’s an injustice. We must hybridise with whales. This is something very strange in nature: the different life spans of different species.
The more you live, the more treasures and experiences you gain. And when you’ve learnt, you’ve known, you’ve understood the experiences that you’ve lived, you gain the creativity to make something. If you die young you don’t have a chance to make something out of what you learn.
That’s why I made that petition! It’s enough! Too much is too much. We have been asking for our lives for millennia. Do you really want to die? Do you want your family to die? If you’re not interested in dying then sign my petition. If we all sign then maybe there’s a chance.
CGE: Why do you think people are so obsessed with the work you’ve done that is surgical? Why is that different for people?
O: I think that I touched a nerve. There was a real media impact. Everyone knew me because of this; people recognised me in the street. I’m very proud to have taken these steps first. But it was manipulated by the media, who would report things that were opposed to my practice. They said I’d had 114 surgical operations, that I’d done it all my life, that I was the biggest masochist in the world. A lot of silly untruths.
I did it to change my image, to place another representation onto my face. And to use this new face in my work. Inside the operating theatre everything was transformed to make it into an art piece. I directed the photography, the filming. My medical and surgical teams wore costumes by Paco Rabanne and other designers. Also costumes that I designed.
The film of the operation was transmitted live by satellite. There were no webcams then! So you could watch it from the Centre Georges Pompidou and from my gallery Sandra Gering in New York, and during the operation I could reply to questions from people in the galleries. It really was an artwork, just as I would make in my studio.
CGE: What was your aim in these surgical works?
O: In society there are some bad feelings toward the female body. Women now are faced with models of beauty, just as in past times women were faced with Botticelli’s Venus. Botticelli did with brushes and paint what we now do with Photoshop. And these models are unattainable. Everyone ends up humiliated and they run after this perfect image. So I decided to undergo a surgical act that would not be about beauty. I had implants that are usually placed in the cheeks put instead on each side of my forehead. If someone described it, and you could not see me, you might think I must be the most hideous of all women, an undesirable monster: a woman with two bumps on her forehead. If you see me, it might be different. So, I aimed to deconstruct images, norms and ways of looking.
But I didn’t only do that with my body. For example, in 2011 I made a 5-hour video about immigration (‘Asil/Exil’), in which a long piece of material passes extremely slowly in front of photo portraits of refugees. The material is a transparent hybrid of the flags of all the countries they passed through. The skin of the refugees changes colour. It becomes redder, blacker, yellower, whiter, when the particular flags pass over their faces. And there, too, I wanted to expose and challenge our assumptions regarding skin colour. I aim to point at what is going on and show people that we suffer from automated habits. That we should rethink and rework our responses to people and situations.
CGE: Is there any relation we have with our bodies that is not cultural?
O: I don’t see any.
LA PLAQUE TOURNANTE
ORLAN: ‘This Is My Body…This Is My Software…’
Exhibition: Jun. 24–Aug. 15, 2017
Visits by appointment only.
Sonnenallee 99, 12045 Berlin, click here for map