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Carnal Art: Orlan’s Refacing

C. Jill O’Bryan
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Carnal Art
    Book Description:

    The French artist Orlan is infamous for performances during which her body is surgically altered. Responding to Orlan’s definition of her performance surgeries as “carnal art,” C. Jill O’Bryan considers how the artist’s ever-fluctuating face questions idealized beauty and female identity, and complicates the notion of identity-and its relation to the body—at the boundary dividing art from identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9580-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Shape-Shifting
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    What do we see when we look at depictions of the female body in art? What is the relationship between our interior understanding of consciousness and our exterior form? What does it mean to have an identity: does the body determine the identity, or is identity constructed? What does a change to our body mean to our identity? What does it mean to enact a live performance of body-morphing as art?

    The French artist Orlan’s surgically manipulated face is a collage of features appropriated from art: Greek goddesses painted by Botticelli, Gérard, Moreau, and an anonymous school-of-Fontainebleau artist; also included,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Orlan’s Body of Work
    (pp. 1-38)

    Orlan’s earliest photographs, a series of small black and whites, target overt art historical themes. Several feature her challenging pictorial conventions of the female nude as she awkwardly bends her torso, arms, and legs, reshaping her curvy bare body into angular abstractions. In another black and white the masked beauty transforms herself into a grotesque hag. In yet another she voraciously escapes convention by climbing out through an ornate picture frame. And Orlan’s very first photograph,Orlan accouche d’elle m’aime(1964; translated both as Orlan Gives Birth to Herself and as She Loves Herself), articulates later themes of doubling, cloning,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Looking inside the Human Body
    (pp. 39-80)

    A historical link exists between Orlan’s performance surgeries and the anatomical dissection theaters of the Renaissance. Both were publicly performed outside the exclusive domain of the medical and scientific arena, andboth theaters were designed to draw the gaze of the spectator into the body. While viewing Orlan’sOmnipresence,I could not help but recall textual accounts of the Renaissance anatomy theaters, medieval and early Renaissance renderings of “autodissection,” and Renaissance paintings documenting anatomists at work carefully dissecting a body (e.g., Rembrandt’sThe Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp).

    A macabre quality hangs over the spectatorial dimensions of theatrically performed...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Between Self and Other
    (pp. 81-92)

    “Binary terror,” as defined by Rebecca Schneider, identifies the binary structure as “sacred to our Western cultural ways of knowing.”¹ Schneider points to the necessity of interrogating binary codes to discover their nature—what they sustain and what they expel. Taking the necessity of this interrogation into account, Orlanperformsself/other, interior/exterior, and beauty /the monstrous feminine inLa réincarnation de Sainte-Orlan. She viscerally tampers with epistemological truths such as the positioning of the ideal above the real; she performs an undoing of ideal feminine beauty in Western art because the attributes that she appropriates from images of idyllic feminine...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Interior / Exterior
    (pp. 93-106)

    While watching Orlan’s surgical performanceOmnipresence,I became acutely aware that as soon as one looked inside of her body, a ubiquitous principle took hold: when an individual’s body is opened up, there is a maiming that takes place that crosses the boundaries of the material body.¹ From the point of view of the spectator, a deconstruction of identity comes into play as well.

    In 1998 Elizabeth Grosz noted in her lecture “Naked” that representation of any kind is almost like “a second skin.”² This skin, the skin of the paint, stone, photograph as a container and a boundary between...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Beauty / The Monstrous Feminine
    (pp. 107-122)

    One reason many spectators find Orlan’s work offensive and horrifying is that she performs between the boundaries of beauty and the monstrous. Within a binary code, one binary implicates the other. The Medusa myth allegorizes the collision of beauty and the monstrous feminine. Medusa’s beauty brings on the rape of Neptune and the subsequent vengeance of Minerva, who transforms her into a Gorgon. The Medusa myth also embraces an alliance between representation and the gaze, which overflows with meaning. One does not endure the gaze unscathed—Medusa’s demise begins with Neptune’s gaze on her, resulting in his desire; her metamorphosis...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Penetrating Layers of Flesh: Carving in/out the Body of Orlan
    (pp. 123-132)

    It is not the passing from one body into (an)other that torments;

    a passage from beauty to beast.

    Although the dimensions of this passage are never wholly discernible to me

    inasmuch as I perceive nothing but stone.

    Hence I cannot fix the image that is myself. It momentarily exists, they say, in the gazes

    of others. “The pupil is the finest part of the eye,” Socrates has said. “It is the part

    that sees and it is the part where one can find the image of oneself looking.”

    (Quietly, before the passage, I exchanged such gazes with others.)

    Curious that...

  11. CHAPTER 7 A Few Comments on Self-hybridations
    (pp. 133-140)

    Self-hybridations précolombienneandSelf-hybridations africaineare series of computermanipulated self-portraits in which Orlan inscribes onto herself signifiers of beauty originating outside Western culture (e.g., enlarged cranium, tattooing, scarring) (Plates 3–6; Figures 3–6, chapter 1). She also appropriates physiognomic features of other races; Orlan finally gives herself an exaggerated Mayan nose. (She has for years been wishing to surgically appropriate this nose onto her face. Now she has several versions of her Mayan self constructed virtually.) On her Web site (, between two Mayan nose manipulations (one in which her face is clearly feminine, a gold crest running across...

    (pp. 141-150)

    In April 2000, Tanya Augsburg, a scholar and professor at Arizona State University, and I began a dialogue with Orlan that has grown over the years to greatly enrich my understanding of Orlan’s work. “EXTRActions: A Performative Dialogue ‘with’ Orlan” is dedicated to Dr. Augsburg.¹

    JO:You have spoken and written with great gusto and clarity about identity.²

    ORLAN: You speak of identity, I am not for definite identity, but in fact I am for nomadic, mutant, shifting, differing identities. It’s here, it seems to me, that our era inscribes itself. We are in a prison from which we should...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 151-184)
  14. Index
    (pp. 185-198)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-199)
  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)