Wednesday, May 6, 2015

ORLAN - Carnal Art

There's this extremely tired cliche in horror about killers that goes: "Blood is his paint, and flesh his canvas!  He is an artist of the body!"  That said, let me introduce you to a woman who ACTUALLY IS ONE.

Born Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, she now goes by ORLAN.  A artist since her teens in the '60s, she is known for challenging societal conceptions of femininity in her work.  Melding media such as video broadcasting and photography with her performances, she is best known for pushing boundaries in the most gruesome, glorious ways using her own body.

While the rest of her work informs the following, in this article, I'm going to focus in on her project "The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan."  In 1990, ORLAN began a series of plastic surgeries to reconfigure her face.  She chose features from famous paintings and sculptures, informed by classical Western standards of beauty.  Surgeons gave her the chin of Boticelli's Venus, and lips like Francois Boucher's Europa. They gave her Mona Lisa's forehead.  Critics frequently reduce her art to a shock-tactic meant to garner attention for herself, or a striving to become a "beauty".  Instead, in her own words, Orlan chose these features because she was compelled by the stories of the women depicted.

However, ORLAN didn't just order the surgeries and reveal herself after years of transformation.  Rather, the surgeries themselves became her performances.  She dressed herself in flamboyant, ritualistic costumes and insisted that cameras captured all the stomach-churning realities of the operating room.  She wanted to convey everything about the process of the surgery, not merely its result.

In her Carnal Art Manifesto, a text released in tandem with the project, she exclaims "I can observe my own body cut open without suffering!... I can see myself all the way down to my viscera, a new stage of gaze."  Later, "Carnal Art transforms the body into language, reversing the biblical idea of the word made flesh; the flesh is made word."  (See footnotes for a link to the full text).

Now, this might all seem very artistic and diffuse and not very creepy at all.  Well, allow me to present for your edification: Orlan - Carnal Art.  This 2001 feature-length documentary IS BRUTAL.

TRIGGER WARNING: Unedited surgical procedures, so much blood, scalpels, needles, lots of full-frontal nudity, sacrilege, and extreme Frenchness.

Seriously, though, if you have a problem seeing blood, you need to lay down before you watch this thing.  I don't have issues with blood and gore, and yet, ORLAN's art was very effective on me (i.e. it was extremely hard to watch without squirming).

The best or worst thing about how this documentary is run is that in the process of conveying the artistic message of ORLAN, its rendering is a bit... intense.  Watching it, my rational mind kept nodding, saying "Yes, I understand art is going on." while the rest of me screamed "IS THE SCARY MUSIC REALLY SO NECESSARY?!  OH, GOD, WHY AREN'T YOU CUTTING AWAY WHEN THE THING GOES IN HER CHIN?  WHAT IS THIS?"

But, make no mistake- just because ORLAN revels in the grotesqueries of surgery, and criticizes the manner in which it's often used by women, doesn't mean she doesn't support it.  If anything, her work reinforces how plastic surgery can be an immensely powerful tool for self-realization.  She refuses to be held back by the conventions of society which still revere the body as sacred, and reforms her flesh as she sees fit in a radical act of determination.  She chooses features that have previously been determined by others and makes them her own in the most intimate of ways.  Which, I have to say, I really respect.

And just to take it a step further, ORLAN also kept relics of her experiences in the operating room, including the doctors' used surgical gloves and chunks of her own flesh.  She used them to make more art.

In conclusion, I'd like to point out that artists like ORLAN can have a lot to say with regard to the horror genre.  ORLAN is not working within horror as a genre, but rather high-brow, body-performance art.  In her performances, where her face is literally cut open, she makes statements about intimacy, identity, life, death, fear, agency, beauty, sacredness, meaning, and art itself.  As a result, work like this really highlights how shallow splatter can be.  I appreciate the technical expertise of making gore "look good" on film, but 95% of the time all that fake blood and silicone doesn't even have anything to say outside of "Look, we're made of meat!  Are you scared yet?  Be spooped!"  After watching something as fascinating and harrowing as Carnal Art, it's even harder for me to be interested in the paltry, flailings of slasher movies and torture pron.


Carnal Art Manifesto:

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