Art at the cutting edge
Her body is her canvas and the operating theatre her studio. Susanna Beaumont discovers the art of Orlan.
It could be described as the ultimate in self-
canvas. but knives. stitches and lengthy operations. This is facial mutation. state-of-the-art cosmetic surgery done in the name of art.
()rlan is a French multi-mcdia artist who uses her body as Irer canvas. surgeons as her instruments and the operating theatre as her studio.
Shocking. bizarre. grotesque. intriguing. stomach wrenching ~ her work is all these things and more. Over the last ten years. under the title The Reincarnation ()iSl ()rlan. the 49-year-old. Paris— born artist has had her face repeatedly carved-up and remodelled. In her latest operation. ()nrni/n'eswn'c. cheek implants were grafted on to her temples giving her a slight ‘horned‘ cum high-browed Bette Davis look. Photographs of this operation form the exhibition This /.v My Body . . . This Is My Software at Edinburgh's Portfolio Gallery.
It doesn't make for easy viewing. If blrmd-dr'enched bodies from ('usiiu/Iy involving ketchup from the BBC‘s prop department get you squirming. ()rlan's
queasy. As the surgeons. dressed in Paco Rabano or Miyake ~~ for ()rlan the operating theatre is a I/It’uil'l’
runs. ()rlan has her eyes wide open. She is under iust local anaesthetic. allowing her to interact with the proceedings and recite philosophical tests. as the video camera rolls and a photographer takes straps.
portraiture. Except we are not talking paints or even a l
art. featuring the real thing. could make you seriously
This is iust one of many operations. Over the years ()rlan‘s lt’eint'urnulion has transformed her face into a hybrid of facial features plucked from an masterpieces. She has the chin of Botticelli's l‘i’llllﬁ.
‘Art is outside our norms, outside the law, against bourgeois order; it is not there to cradle us, to reinforce our comfort.’
the eyes of (ici'ard‘s /’_v_\‘i‘/n’ and the forehead of
where surgeons per/om: «- cut her Ilesh and the blood I ,tlunu /.I.'t'(1.
t But is this art or iust the rrltimate in shock tactics',’ L As artists push back the boundaries of artistic
3 activity. is this gross vanity with an eye to pulling l media coverage - masquerading as art 1’ ()rlan. who
Orlan: ‘My work is against the standards of beauty’
urnlerstandably says she would rather be drinking wine with friends than being operated on. is prepared for scepticism. ‘My work is blasphemous,‘ she declares. adding that art must ‘disrupt our thoughts
it is outside our norms. outside the law. against bourgeois order; it is not there to cradle us. to reinforce our comfort. to serve up again what we already know.‘
The essence of()rlan‘s work is that it cuts to the core and tackles taboos head-on. She kicks aside ‘the body as temple‘ idea. takes complete ownership of her body and does what she wants to it. Without shame. ()thers. from Hollywood babes to r‘sIargarct Thatcher and Princess I)i. disappear from circulation to have nose jobs or other cosmetic surgery done on the quiet. ()rlan changes her face for all to see. There‘s no mystery. no attempt to cover up. There are photographs showing her face post‘op. bruised. puffed and sore.
()rlan is no advocate of an idealised female beauty. ller' reconstructed face is a lease on so-called female perfection: ‘My' work is against the standards of beauty. against the dictates of a dominant ideology that impress themselyes more and more on feminine . . and masculine Ilesh.‘
Dr Rachel .»\rmstrong. a London-based paediatrician and champion of ()rlan‘s work. say s; ‘It‘s an extremely political statement. She is saying my skin is a costume. I can change it. When Picasso broke up the human body on canvas people found that a brutal assault on the body.‘
For centuries the human body has been treated as a canvas for decoration. from body art to body piercing. ()rlan claims that with modern technology. more can be done You can look like you feel you want to look. do what you Hunt to do to your body.
()rlan is not alone. .-\ustra|ian artist Stclarc has attached electrodes to his body w hich. \ ia a computer and the Internet. can be operated to make his body moye. Ron .»\they. who has performed at the (TA. has suspended himself from meat hooks and Mona llatoum. shortlisted for last year‘s 'l‘urncr l’ri/c. has filmed the internal workings ol her body. Looking to the future. or more specifically the millennium, ()rlan is planning to ha\c the largest nose possible grafted onto her lace. Ilow cy er you cut it. it gets us talking. This /.v .l/_\' Bin/y. '/ /ll.\' ly .l/v .Vu/Iiiiii‘r' I\ (1/ l’rn'I/n/io (nil/cry. lat/in/mrg/I. Sui / 39 ./:in.
ART AND SPACE
Interviewing Belgian artist Niek Kemps, one thing becomes obvious very quickly. The man loves questions not answers. His Tramway exhibition Big Eyes Small Window will probably confirm this. Combining work first shown at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery with a new commission from Glasgow’s premier contemporary space, Kemps’s work lies somewhere between painting and sculpture — an evolving space nestled between the
struggling traditions of modernism and post-modernism.
‘I never talk at one level,’ says an animated Kemps. ‘Our world is complex and I like that a lot. I have fun with complexity, so please do not try to solve it. People always try to make things understandable. They should iust accept complexity, then they will understand much more.’
Presumably embracing this cunning philosophy — a real 90$ stress-buster — the exhibition features collaborations with painter Herbert Brandi, and conceptualists Allan Ruppersberg and Lawrence Weiner. Incorporating their works, Kemps has produced ‘large but intimate’ sculptures relying on opaque material, natural light and multiple- perspectives. Serving both to obscure and direct attention towards paintings
and objects, Kemps believes this work canstimulate thinking appropriate to modern culture.
‘People still treat art with a 19th century politeness which is not
relevant to contemporary art,’ he says.
‘As a basic rule, my work relates to the space which I think is as important as the artwork. When someone first sees this exhibition, it just looks like typical three dimensional sculpture but I force the spectator away from a classical viewpoint with one fixed perspective.’ In the new Glasgow commission, Kemps uses the shed as an integral part of another interactive sculpture. On tables inside a steel and plastic structure - a museum constructed within a museum - Kemps tempts us with 50 closed boxes. Made from
paper, glass and tin, each box has diverse contents — two beetles endlessly chasing each other, a butterfly encased in glass, plans for a mythical garden.
‘lam interested in the possibility of change,’ says Kemps. ‘The moment of the twist — no the period before. Most of the time artists are working in white boxes and in this container - the gallery or museum - people are supposed to look at art. I wanted to give the viewer a chance to be on their own here - not busy reading, looking at other people or judging what they see before they see it. Big Eyes Small Window is an opportunity to discover something only for you.’ (Paul Welsh)
Niek Kemps is at Tramway, Glasgow from Friday 7 Jun-Sunda y 14 Jul.
66 The List 3| May-l3 Jun 1996