The "Weird Science" of Plastic Surgery Art - Introducing Artist Orlan

Samantha Johnson

by Samantha Johnson | May 24, 2012 @ 11:00AM

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OrlanMany artists have found unique or extreme ways to make a statement, but there is none quite like French performance artist, Orlan. Orlan is against the common conventions that are carried by cosmetic surgery, and has therefore decided to put her own body under the knife in order to defy the standard, and she is the first artist to do so.

The operating room becomes her stage, as she wears special costumes that are made by famous designers such as Paco Rabanne and Issey Miyake. While she lies on the operating table, fully conscious and under only a local anesthetic, poetry is read and music is played. Vials of her blood and fat leftover from her surgeries have been displayed at public exhibitions. To fund the operations, Orlan sells videos and postcards of the surgical events, and accepts payment for any interviews she grants.

“My work is not a stand against cosmetic surgery”

The procedures are captured on video and shown to live international audiences via satellite. These surgeries have been exhibited in a number of galleries across the U.S. and in Europe, as well as at the Sydney Biennial in Australia.

Orlan during one of her performace surgeriesThrough “carnal art,” as she has named it, Orlan seeks to link the interior self with the exterior self. Unlike some types of body art, carnal art does not use pain as a means of redemption or to attain purification, but to modify the body and engage in public debate. Orlan is easily identified by the two protruding knobs on her temples, which she asked the surgeon to insert during her seventh surgery in New York.

The idea of turning surgery into performance art occurred to her when she was operated on for an extra-uterine pregnancy under a local anesthetic which permitted her to play the role of detached observer as well as patient.

Recalling that the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis made a practice of choosing the best parts from different models and combining them to produce the ideal woman, in a “Weird Science” ideal, Orlan has altered her face to mimic the mouth of François Boucher's Europa, the forehead of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and the chin of Botticelli's Venus. Orlan chose these models more for their mythical and symbolic connotations than for their ideal beauty.

“My work is not a stand against cosmetic surgery,” says Orlan, “but against the standards of beauty, against the dictates of a dominant ideology that impresses itself more and more on feminine. . . flesh.”

Only state-certified surgeons operate on Orlan, and all the accompanying decorations, including crucifixes and plastic fruit and flowers, are sterilized in accordance with operating room standards, as are the photo blow ups of previous Orlan performances that decorate the operating room. Orlan has undergone five of the seven surgeries she wishes to complete.

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