This paper examines, from a feminist perspective, conceptions of the body proposed by the multimedia and performance artist, Orlan. The paper addresses rather exclusively on one of Orlan's major performances entitled 'The Reincar nation of Saint Orlan', a series of cosmetic self-reinvention process mostly undertaken in the 1990s. This paper is concerned with issues of identity and bodily self in relation to post-structuralist ideas and recent developments in gender studies as they show points of intersection with the works of Orlan. The paper argues that Orlan's work, which demonstrates a form of body in a constant state of fluctuation, has been a consistent and probing investigation of a female identity compatible to the politics of representation in the 1990s.
In order to discuss the above-mentioned thesis, the main body of this paper consists of two parts. The early part of the paper is focused toward the discussion of a female subjectivity in relation to Orlan's body alteration project. This discussion begins with the commonest misinterpretation of the objectives of Orlan's cosmetic surgery that Orlan is following the culturally determined canons of beauty simply to be more beautiful. While comparing Orlan's surgical performance to cosmetic surgeries done in general, I will discuss Narcissism and deliberate acts of alienation from self-indulgence. By drawing on to psycho analytical/ media theories, I will elaborate on the mechanism functioning behind the artistic mediums of cosmetic surgery video, which in turn will help explain the female subjectivity prevalent in Orlan's work.
In the second part of the paper, I intend to situate Orlan's bodywork in the context of earlier(70s, 80s, and 90s) female/ feminist body art practices. This part addresses the shift from celebratory, affirmative female imagery typical of feminist art in the seventies, to the semiotic analysis of images of women which, in the eighties and nineties, problematized the question of sexual difference as one of representation. Given such historical backdrop, I argue that Orlan's performance iconographically de-stabilizes the previously existent representational codes by using them in an entirely different manner. Unlike artists of the earlier times mentioned in this paper, Orlan no longer leans on the over-determined socio-sexual status but seeks deliberate escape from it by denying any possibility of fixations in her images. The broad spectrum touched by 'The Reincarnation of St. Orlan' is further discussed towards the end of this paper. Not only bodily identity, but also personal, gender, cultural, and national identity demonstrates the various scopes of meaning Orlan's work may bring to us.