While others make art about the body, Orlan makes art out of her body. After nine operations, she has the chin of 'Venus' and the lips of 'Europa', bits of her flesh change hands for thousands of pounds and Madonna owns a piece of her thigh. Here, she talks about life at art's cutting edge

Andy Beckett
Saturday 13 April 1996 23:02 BST

IT IS DISCONCERTING to talk to a woman with horns. The pair peeping above the arches of Orlan's eyebrows may be small - more fleshy bulges than the antlers you might anticipate - but they are there none the less, firm and alien, twin deposits of silicone on a forehead with no apparent need of alteration. As Orlan speaks, in the deep, declaratory paragraphs of a middle-aged French artist, your gaze keeps drifting upwards to her brow. Whole explanations of her art boom by, unheard.

But Orlan does not really mind. She wants you to stare; indeed, after six sore years of plastic surgery, of entirely unnecessary slicing and snipping and grafting in the name of self-expression, it would be rather unfortunate if you didn't. Orlan's face is her art: an on-going, internationally exhibited work called The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. Beneath her powdery veils of make-up, she has gained a prosthetic chin, to echo Botticelli's Venus, retouches to the eyelids, to suggest a Fontainbleau Diana, lips plumped up with injections, to imitate Moreau's Europa, brow-work in homage to the Mona Lisa.

So far this has taken nine operations, with additional liposuctions from her thighs and ankles. Orlan's face has gone from a delicate pale-brown oval, the very picture of French delicacy, to a puffier version of the same, thickened and flattened, and minutely scarred. With dark-blue lipstick and half her hair blue too, teased up into an enormous hat-like quiff while the rest hangs bobbed and demure above her neck, Orlan could pass for an extraterrestrial in the bar scene in Star Wars.

This is not some awful mistake, some grotesquely failing quest to attain perfect beauty, but the very point of the exercise. While other artists such as Jenny Saville and Damien Hirst create art about the body, Orlan wants to make art out of her body, to become a spectacle - to make herself ugly, you could say - in order to provoke thought about surgery and the flesh.

Just to make sure, she dresses the part too: an oversize tartan bow-tie, a billowing black cape and the kind of stack-heeled trainers not usually seen on a 48-year-old. At the Institute of Contemporary Arts for a press conference before our interview, she glides on stage as if on invisible wheels, great black insect-eye sunglasses bent across her mask of a face. Outside, there is cool spring sunshine and a bomb alert in Trafalgar Square; in here, in the darkness, two dozen writers from art journals - all, reassuringly, in black - and Orlan, sitting impassively under a single stage light.

She loves to be theatrical. No questions may be asked until the end; instead the "conference" will be one-way: she will read from a prepared text about The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, while playing a video of her horn-adding operation. It will not be nice. "Sorry to have to make you suffer," says Orlan through her translator.

On a screen behind, Orlan appears wearing a polka-dot dress and a harlequin's hat. She is dancing in an empty operating theatre. Electronic music bubbles in the background. A man enters, muscular and bare-chested, and removes Orlan's dress. She lies down on the operating table. Surgeons, dressed in black, gather round; Orlan keeps her hat on. The bare-chested man dances, the surgeons prance in their Issey Miyake robes, and a mime artist translates proceedings into sign language. Orlan herself remains conscious, pointing and giving instructions, looking over at the camera and reading out loud from a volume by the French thinker Lacan. She smiles as skin is stripped from her back and her legs, and thick needles of local anaesthetic are thrust into her chest; forceps tug at her cheeks and forehead, jabbing around beneath the surface. Blood wets skin in bright, watery splashes.

In front of the screen, Orlan reads from her account of the operation: "... by now many spectators had left the operating theatre ..." In the ICA audience, some people have developed a sudden interest in their shoes. The surgery before them was performed - and to Orlan it is very much performance - in New York in 1993. It was entitled Omnipresence, and broadcast live to an art gallery in the city, two media-studies centres in Canada, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where a panel of intellectuals was filmed as they watched Orlan go under the knife. They and other viewers were invited to fax comments and suggestions to the theatre as the chopping went on.

Orlan's need for reactions was satisfied. The intellectuals squirmed; her operation was recorded by CBS news. The Modern Primitives, a gay group in San Francisco who enjoy piercing their bodies in anxious places, contacted Orlan with a view to having their own horns added. (She advised them against it: "I don't want to lead a group.") A young girl in Italy had her ears altered to look like an elf's after seeing Orlan on a magazine cover ("I wonder whether I have a good influence on young people"). Since then, rock stars keen to show their interest in art - David Bowie, Peter Gabriel - have dropped Orlan's name in interviews, and included her in their multimedia projects. French television put her on a discussion programme with Madonna, who eagerly associated her own mild body alterations with Orlan's - at least until Orlan gave her a little bottle containing a piece of her thigh at the end of the show.

Fuelling this notoriety requires effort and money; the operations can cost pounds 10,000 apiece. Orlan exhibits and sells every possible memento: postcards of her bruised face, videos, photographs luridly blown up as posters and triptychs, the formalin-pickled bits of her own flesh. The triptychs and videos go for pounds 6,000 each, and sell particularly well in America, thanks, Orlan suspects, to that country's obsession with surgery; the bits of flesh cost slightly less and are snapped up by irreverent Catholics in Italy. An exhibition of photographs from her New York operation, This Is My Body ... This Is My Software, opened at the Zone Gallery in Newcastle last week, and will tour the country; on Wednesday, Orlan will be back at the ICA to give a presentation called Woman With Head ... Woman Without Head, where she plans to merge images of her face with those of the Sphinx through the latest computer software and a great deal of explaining. After that, the next operation: to be chosen in October from proposals sent in by members of the public to a Copenhagen television channel.

And all the while, Orlan's little horns do their own publicity work: "Often I'm in the street, buying my meat or whatever, and I have to hold a conference right there." Orlan says this wearily - "I haven't got a minute for myself" - but you can tell she protests too much about the attention. In interview, she is quick with announcements of her uniqueness: "I am the ultimate work of art"; "I am the first artist to use surgery ... I am showing a new path, a new territory in art."

She takes off her sunglasses. Are the operations dangerous? "Of course. Anything can happen with surgery and an anaesthetic. There can be a shock, or a serious infection. But I don't take any more risks than a racing driver." Does the pain bother her? "I would prefer to drink a good wine with friends than be operated on. It is like going to the dentist: you pull a face and take painkillers afterwards ... But it is my audience that really hurts." What do her family and friends think? "When you do the work I do you don't need to ask permission."

ORLAN'S HAUTEUR is terribly Parisian. She sits up very straight to eat salad for lunch in the ICA cafe, as careful not to crease her vast cape as any bourgeois lady in Chanel. When she has finished, she powders her nose at table before a little gold-edged mirror.

Orlan is old-fashioned. She lives in Paris with her husband, an artist called Stephane Napoli. Two days a week she takes the train down to Dijon, where she is a professor at the School of Fine Arts. Her own work has its traditional element too: in making it "uncomfortable" and "against bourgeois order", Orlan places herself in a long line of professionally shocking French artists, going back to Dada and the Surrealists. As Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld Institute points out in a forthcoming essay on Orlan, another French artist called Gina Pane had her body pierced and scratched as a work of art during the Seventies.

Orlan's own surgery project is not an eccentric bolt from the blue, but the latest stage of a studiedly avant-garde life. She was born under a different name (she will not say what) in the industrial town of St Etienne in 1947. As a teenager she wanted to be an opera singer, but didn't have the voice; by the mid-Sixties she had switched her attention to theatre and poetry. Like millions of others, she was energised by France's near- revolutionary convulsion in 1968. Orlan staged "performances" in the street, posing in parodies of famous paintings of women, and disrupting feminist rallies by appearing with placards announcing "I Am A Man And A Woman". In 1971, she declared herself Saint Orlan; the following year she exhibited herself in Milan, wrapped in black vinyl and white leatherette to resemble Bernini's famous sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Then Orlan had a big row with her mother. She wanted to marry Orlan off; Orlan did not think this compatible with a life of artistic exploration. The upshot was a series of works during the mid-Seventies in which Orlan used sheets, collected by her mother for her trousseau, to entertain lovers and record their exertions. This taste for testing the public grew: next Orlan appeared at the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris in 1977 offering kisses to visitors for five francs a time and, later, to sleep with three Nice art dealers for a project called Art and Prostitution (they declined).

But by the end of the decade Orlan's public appearances were being met by insults and spitting. More damagingly, her stunts were becoming predictable: there were only so many ways a 30-year-old Frenchwoman could run down the street with her clothes off. A sudden illness saved Orlan. About to give a performance in Lyons, she discovered she needed urgent surgery to her uterus. Orlan ordered the camera crew in the auditorium to follow her to the hospital and broadcast the successful operation to the audience left behind.

Oddly, the new art form she had chanced upon went down very well in England. Orlan began her surgery project in earnest at an arts festival in Newcastle in 1990. Her current exhibition there is being publicly funded. "People here seem to be very receptive," she says. "In France it varies. French people are maybe a little ... cold. They always wait to hear what other people say." She is thinking about becoming some lucky English person's next-door neighbour.

This fondness may be a little optimistic - one paper has described her as "a pathological publicity vampire ... shot through with a self-loathing that has driven her to self-harm" - but there is common ground between Orlan's operations and the bodily explorations of British artists like Mona Hatoum and the recently deceased Helen Chadwick. And Orlan has advocates here. Dr Rachel Armstrong, a young paediatrician, is her British agent and collaborator. Armstrong has given up her practice to "hybridise my medical research with art" - in other words, to suggest new facial possibilities for Orlan, using computer modelling and her medical knowledge, arrange the operations, and then publicise them through impressive-sounding but opaque press releases.

"Orlan is a graphic philosopher," Armstrong says, perching black-clad and shoeless in a Soho film-editing suite. "She wants to work at that edge where it's not safe." This doesn't sound terribly artistic - Orlan could just have Munchausen Syndrome (a mental condition demanding endless unnecessary operations) and a nice line in self-justification. But once Armstrong suggests the themes behind Orlan's operations, then the whole enterprise seems more convincing. For one thing, Orlan's attention-getting appearance upsets expectations: middle-aged women, she and Armstrong argue, have growing economic and political demands but "don't really have an aesthetic, unless it's to recoup what they looked like when they were thirty".

And getting those horns has meant challenging many everyday ideas about surgery. Orlan's operations are not medically necessary - indeed they may threaten her health - and she demands them of doctors, not vice versa, as traditional medical practice dictates. "You try getting your GP to do that," concludes Armstrong in a rare moment of plain speech. Orlan's beckoning to the scalpels and chloroform makes as many people shudder as her actual surgery. It may also further the French philosopher Michel Foucault's questioning of the divide between mental illness and sanity: "sane" people aren't supposed to do such things, yet Orlan receives funding from the French government.

She cuts against the grain of plastic surgery too: starting out beautiful, she has slipped further away from a conventionally pleasing appearance with every snip. She intends this to provoke debate about the relentless improving march of surgery and genetic engineering. It can also prove awkward: "In the gallery where I was exhibiting in New York, the curator organised a meal for me," she remembers. "I started talking about plastic surgery and normality - and no one said anything. In a flash, I realised that all the women had some sort of plastic surgery ..." Orlan mimes a face- lift and, for the first, unexpected time, cracks her mask with a laugh. "These could have been my patrons ..."

ORLAN may not, however, be as challenging as she thinks she is. Other people have been more brave, or more mad, with their bodies. The Jim Rose Circus, a favourite at the Edinburgh Festival, has featured men pounding screwdrivers into their foreheads and lifting weights with their penises. Ron Athey, an HIV-positive American performance artist, has shocked the ICA more thoroughly by hanging from meat hooks and stabbing his head with needles.

The freak-show quality of much of this is obvious; attempting to match or exceed such excesses strongly risks diminishing - if not disappearing - artistic returns. At the same time, Orlan risks being outflanked from another direction too. "Orlan does tend to underestimate the extent to which people do alter their bodies," says Sadie Plant, who lectures on computers and the body at Warwick University. "The whole piercing scene, everyone who's tattooed or dyes their hair - and they're not doing it for performance art." In this context Orlan is only one rebel, albeit a prominent one, in a wider insurrection against the age-old notion that government, laws and doctors should control what people do with their bodies, whether it be which substances the public can ingest or what kind of surgery they can have performed.

Yet Plant does acknowledge that Orlan's new face is only one part of her work: "It's much more about the feeling of having it done. She is so much into promoting the act of surgery, what's left afterwards is just a trace. People can be disappointed at how mild it looks." And Orlan does impose limits on her experimentation. Her operations, for all their peeling and splitting, are not quite as gory as you might fear, being limited to skin-work. Bones and internal organs do not feel the knife. One other attribute is untouchable too: "I'm never going to change my voice."

But Orlan is not chickening out altogether. In a year or two, she plans to have a final, climactic operation. It will involve a nose; not her current nose, but a new one, starting midway up her forehead and tapering down to a point some inches beyond her present petite tip. Months of computer simulation and skin-stretching exercises will be required before the surgery can be attempted. If it works, Orlan will change her name, leave her studio near the asylum where Antonin Artaud raved out his days, and disappear into another identity. She may not be that hard to spot, of course. !

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