Stephen Fry makes me smile. Have a look-see and a listen-hear…oops I mean here:
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.
Our whole lives are spent searching for happiness. It can be attained. It can be lost. How daunting it can be. Happiness is but a flicker, a flame, a glimpse. Our reservoir of smiles soon runs dry, only to be filled with tears, until we find happiness again. We are overwhelmed. Hope becomes a virtue to live by; seeking smiles instead of tears. Whatever made us happy begins to lose its significance. What makes us happy doesn’t last a lifetime…
Then again, neither do we.
Dear New Year, Old Love:
We’ve begun another new year. I without you and you without me. I promised myself that I would forget you and if I couldn’t forget you, I promised myself that I would seek a way to. I often break promises with myself. This letter is probably an indication of that. Perhaps if you didn’t still hold such an important place in my heart, I would be able to forget you. Not all things in life are easy to erase. You are one of them.
I took a drive tonight. In a whirl of subconscious freedom I found myself driving down the road, which led me to the place, our secret place, where everything we experienced there was nothing but a great memory. Despite that I was aware of where I was travelling to, I couldn’t fathom the thought of turning around. I had to face it. I had to face the place where we shared greatness in us. You’ve always known me as brave and mostly stubborn and when have I ever been afraid? You’re right, almost never. I put the car in park and climbed out of the driver’s seat. I leaned on the hood of the car and took everything in. It was a little scary, being there, without you. I’m not sure if it was because it was dark, but it seemed as though a lot had changed about that place in so little time. The trees are much bigger, the grass is much taller and everything is grander than it used to be. They’ve even started building houses nearby. Everything has become bigger, grander, except our love. A lot has changed. So have we.
I walked to the spot where we sat that night in the cold; where you and I had smoked our last cigarette; where we witnessed the smoke from our mouths get carried out into the distance through the translucent air. I sat there tonight, between frosted blades of grass and buried my head in my arms. I shut my eyes tightly and revisited that moment of moments we shared, once upon a time. I remembered how we sat and stared at the moon and the stars, and breathed out the warm air from our lungs. I rested my head on your shoulder. You wrapped your arm around my left side and held me close. Neither one of us said a word. We just sat there in silence and allowed it to cloak us with comfort. I remembered how beautiful that silence was. There was something about it, which I relished and felt possessed by. The words in this letter wouldn’t be enough to describe the effect it had on me; the effect you had on me. Time stood still and so did we. We didn’t need words. Maybe it was because we couldn’t find the right ones or maybe our love for each other was important enough that it was able to exist without words. I don’t think we ever needed words to explain it, we just knew. Silence was enough. Sitting in the cold beneath the moon and the stars in silence, was enough. We hadn’t even kissed, yet inexplicable electricity between us, was there. Most would have considered it overzealous and silly to contemplate an unstated love as deep as ours. Perhaps it was, but that’s what made it shameless and beautiful. I remember how anxious I was. I remember how butterflies filled my stomach and danced about with excitement. And that knot in my throat. That knot. How I wish I could feel that again.
Tonight I touched my lips and closed my eyes. I tried to remember how kissing you felt. I tried to remember how seamless each brush stroke of your lips was against mine. I remember how you looked at me, how you looked into my eyes and held your stare. I remembered how you placed your hands on both sides of my face, pulled me in with assurance and confident strength, and kissed me. I remembered how deliberate your intent was. After I reminisced about that moment, I opened my eyes and I placed my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart. A lump formed in my throat, different than the one I had felt years ago when I sat there with you. All I felt now was sadness. That lump in my throat was the result of tears being held back. Panic electrocuted me. In that moment I realized I was there, alone, without you. In that moment I was afraid that I would probably be alone forever. I fell back and lay there and although I wanted to cry I felt an overwhelming blissful sensation of joy. I lay there with my arms behind my head and smiled. Although I was sad, I was interrupted by happiness. I suppose what they say is true: you can be sad and happy at the same time. Bittersweet moments seem to strike us in the most magical of ways. It’s finding happiness in sadness which makes a memory, a moment, very significant. When you can miss someone and smile at the same time it demonstrates true victory over a broken heart. It demonstrates that wonderful memories have the strength to last a lifetime.
So, I write this letter to you with tears and a smile. This bittersweet feeling I have is not a force to be reckoned with. If you’re wondering why, I’ll explain. I wrote this letter to come to terms with what I felt tonight. If this letter ever finds you, please read it with an open heart. Every word hangs from emotion. Every word is a glimpse of our past. I have always hated clichés, I have, but I couldn’t help but imagine a senseless, bold me, who had the guts to run outside in the gently falling snow, all the way to you, just to tell you how wrong I was, what a big mistake I had made and how much I wanted to recover what we had and how much I wanted to bring it back to life. Every New Year’s Eve, I pictured our reconciliation like this, but I never followed through. My pride always got in the way. I suppose the abolisher of fairytales, in me, always interfered. I sometimes wish we could go back to that moment where you and I sat on that hill, in the cold, where we didn’t feel cold. We felt like ourselves. Now I don’t feel like myself anymore, because you’re gone. Perhaps one day we’ll find ourselves on that hill where things would be different just to be the same, in the way they used to. If that day never comes, just know that I’ll be fine. I will forever celebrate a new year, an old love.
Your past love
Remember when someone said this to you and it was only a figure of speech? Let’s hope tomorrow’s events turn out the way we’re hoping they will and the above remains as a figure of speech. In case the world does end tomorrow, I’m posting this today. In case it’s my last, I just want to thank ya’ll for reading. If we live to see December 22nd, then ignore what I’ve just said.
I like words. I much prefer them in poetry, in songs, in stories. This is where words live beautifully and safely. They grow happy together and we, we grow fond of them. I don’t know what happened to words. When they became ugly. When we stopped believing in them and in their beauty. The words, which roll off our tongues and are formed by our tender lips strike, impose, and come with malicious intent. Often words tend to lose their beauty, especially in conversations between two people, who discuss hatred and cruelty.
I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation in which words reflected catastrophe. You spoke those words loudly. Why did you? Words, which are beautiful, must be spoken with pride, for everyone to hear. Not words which are brutal and destructive. When did it become apparent to you to use such words so openly? I suppose you have no idea what it’s like to be betrayed by words. To have them used against you. To be pinned up against the wall and forced to hear them; your mouth covered from speaking words in defense.
In ill repute, I write this letter to you. Everything has been shed above. Perhaps reading them will do more justice than hearing them. I fear that defensive words, which are spoken, sometimes do not do justice. They are said and then they flutter away into dismay. Words, which are spoken ferociously and not gracefully, sometimes lose their importance. I have choked on your words and have wanted to throw them up. They made me feel ill; however, what those words mean to me will eventually fade away, as do the effects on a person. I have learned not to allow disgusting words, like the ones you have spoken, to impose on the beauty language can be. I do have one request: in the future, please do not taint them with anger, violence, and humiliation. If you so choose to, please confine them to your mind and not to the open world. Words are meant to be beautiful. Seek beauty in words instead.
A disgruntled listener