Can a Face Tell A Story As Much as Words Can?
The kinship between people and art is a bond built from the need to express our innermost feelings. Art’s aesthetic qualities haven’t only been a key component in demonstrating personal taste; it’s also played a role in identity formation. A lot like art, our identities tell a story; however, it’s a story that’s often misperceived. When art and the body are fused together, a more profound story is told. It’s a story that’s prompted by individuals like Orlan, a performance artist, who uses body modification technologies to claim ownership over her identity. Technology can be both advantageous and empowering when examining body modification in Orlan’s work.
If we were to erase relentless images of perfect bodies, flawless faces, or even the media for that matter, we, who are built on these false ideas of beauty, would be a lot happier with who we are. We would also be able to construct an identity on our own without any influence from what we see in the media. As a result it’s difficult for you or I to create the authentic self, meaning that we construct our identity based on what we see, not on our own. False implications of authenticity, which are promoted by the media, are consumed by individuals who work to replicate images of beauty and perfection by applying it to their own identity. The medical industry also plays a role in promoting identities as something that can be changed, preserved or augmented. The question: is changing one’s identity a personal matter as much as it is a societal matter? And to what lengths will people go to achieve the identity they see as fit for public display? The answers to these questions are challenged by Orlan, who’s on a mission to conquer society’s tainted views of what it means to be beautiful. Orlan escapes common motives for undergoing plastic surgery. Her motives revolve around mastering her own identity by constructing it with the help of plastic surgery. In doing so, she’s proving that technology can be used as a means for proper use for proper representation because her many faces challenge what it means to be beautiful.
She says: “I was the first to use plastic surgery to divert it away from its obsession with improving the body and making it younger. I act with respect to sculpting oneself, inventing oneself” (page198, Donger et al).
Instead of trying to fit into an identity that society deems as acceptable, she does the opposite. Her work demonstrates the opposite of what we think of femininity, gender, race and conventional beauty. Orlan uses plastic surgery procedures to achieve human uniqueness and to break away from conventional ways of creating an identity. Her live surgeries are a part of her performance revealing the body as a machine. In the text Sociology of the Body, the author notes that Orlan “…has been engaged in a series of projects in which she performs body modifying surgeries, which are filmed while she is awake and during which she speaks about the politics of medical technologies, consumption, fashion, art, body image, and beauty” (Malcrida and Low, page 352). Although the surgeries are an extreme means for constructing an identity and her performances are gruesome, Orlan brings her audience closer to her project allowing people to confront the issue with identity formation. She’s allowing us to see how identity is created; a different perspective outside of the one that is commonly created by the media. Plastic surgery allows Orlan to produce the authentic self- an identity that is in constant flux.
(Picture: Orlan, Self-Hybridization African: Mbangu Mask with Face of Euro-Saint-Etienne Woman in Rollers, 2002.)
Above, Orlan becomes a site of power and a symbol of resistance as she depicts unconventional beauty. This face also challenges normality and even raises questions about abnormality. She demonstrates the binary between the natural and the unnatural, the beautiful and the monster, and even black and white (race). She also links the body and technology to personal agency because it’s become her choice to choose her identity and put it on display, which is interrupting and deferring the male gaze. It’s also important to note that the autonomous Orlan gains freedom by producing her many faces in a way she wishes to promote her identity. Her many faces are a testimony that speaks to our society. The fact that Orlan has sacrificed her body for body modification surgery demonstrates that the issue with identity has been an ongoing problem within our society- perhaps paralleling the reason why bullying is a growing problem?
In an interview she says:
“…the surgery performances are an extension of these ideas [self-sculpting], a way of refiguring yourself, of vacillating between disfiguring and refiguring, the idea of not accepting what is automatically inherited through genes…It was also present in the idea of retransforming my body in a way that violated dominant aesthetic criteria…The changes I made to my face was an attempt to sidestep the norms we-and I- are constrained” (184, Donger et al).
The autonomy Orlan achieves has the power to imply to its audience that there is more to the body than the body itself.
(Picture: Orlan, Fifth Surgery Performance or Operation Opera, 1991.)
During her performance surgeries, like the one above, face tissue and blood is revealed by surgeons who are constructing her face and although it may seem as though Orlan is portraying the body as organic, she is doing the opposite. She “surgically transforms herself into an ambiguous subject, potentially placing herself in an abject and marginalized relationship to society” (O’Bryan, 110). This solidifies the body as a machine and the body as a metaphor for the pain the body endures from public scrutiny. Orlan sacrifices the face she was born with for a constantly changing one. In doing so, she is escaping the ordinary world and is abandoning the ideological constraints that systems of power place on individuals. She isn’t striving to represent the real nor is she trying to produce something recognizable. Her purpose lies in engaging people in a discussion about identity. In another interview she discusses the notion of the body as a vehicle that carries meaning.
She says: “This body is at times helping us think, and at other times paralyzing us, deciding for us, as if it were outside of us. I have aimed to expose this distanciation, to put it into relief, through the multiple images of my body that I have created: the body as material; art as material for being, sculpting and inventing oneself; the body as language. I have attempted this by tapping into reality and thus employing the literal, or material, quality of performance with respect to the violence inflicted upon the body” (189, Donger et al).
Orlan represents utopian ideals because she’s become who she wants to be, escaping the institutions that affect the construction of a person’s identity, like the media for example. Despite the scrutiny that Orlan may encounter, medical technology serves as a purposeful tool that demonstrates how technology can be both advantageous and empowering. Identity formation has become a cultural narrative that people can relate to, oppose, or find interest in. Whether technology promotes individualism or whether it’s a part of aiming to create a conventional society, all technologies are a part of consumerism and capitalism. Undoubtedly technology can assist in reshaping the self and breaking out of the constraints society creates. The result of medical technology in Orlan’s work demonstrates how technology can be used to claim ownership over one’s identity, helping one achieve human uniqueness and empowerment. Her body modification work also demonstrates that the fusion of art and body can act as a powerful means for sparking conversations about identity. It also shows how a face has the power to tell a story. You couldn’t pay me to do what she does, which also says a lot about Orlan. She represents more than art, controversy and a changing face, which sparks both positive and negative conversation. She represents sacrifice.
What do you think?
Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Sociology of the Body. Ed. Claudia Malacrida and Jacqueline Low. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
O’Bryan, Jill C. Carnal Art: Orlan’s Refacing. Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 2005.
Orlan. Orlan: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. Eds. Simon Donger, Simon Shepherd, Orlan. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.