When you think about famous French artists, you might think of Monet or Cezanne, maybe even Jacques-Louis David, if you are more into neoclassicism than impressionism. Chances are, Orlan is not anywhere near the top of your list. You may never have heard of her, but when it comes to plastic surgery, no artist has more fully explored and illuminated the possibilities than she.
Orlan is a radical artist who has undergone nine plastic surgeries, several of which were performed in New York. She says, "My goal was to be different, strong; to sculpt my own body to reinvent the self," and to accomplish this, her surgeries were more than medical affairs. The plastic surgeries were theatrical art pieces, complete with costumes, music and poetry. They were filmed and replayed in galleries, sometimes even fed via satellite to worldwide audiences.
Orlan's surgeries are not what most people would choose, nor what surgeons would recommend. She describes them as "carnal art," and puts them in opposition to some religious ideals that seek to suppress and erase the body. In one series of surgeries, she sought to replicate body parts from famous paintings: the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the chin from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, the lips from François Boucher's Europa. The result is not intended to be beautiful, but instead is intended to make a statement about beauty. She has emerged from the surgeries with enlarged lips, and facial implants on her temples. She says, "There are other ways to think about one's body and one's beauty. If you were to describe me without anyone being able to see me, they would think I am a monster . . . But if they see me, that could perhaps change."
Unlike many feminists who deride plastic surgery, Orlan embraces plastic surgery for its feminist potential to give women control over their bodies, to remake their bodies to better express their identities. Like most art, Orlan's work pushes beyond the boundaries of mainstream sensibility to make her message clear: your body is yours and plastic surgery can make it even more so.