The Body as Costume; ORLAN’s “Omniprésence” and the Standard of Taste – Taylor Neal

Orlan is both fascinating and dreadful[1]. This seems to be the consensus among spectators and discourse regarding the French artist Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, who has made a name for herself as a performance artist and feminist icon since the early 1970s under the name Saint Orlan, claimed by the artist in 1971. With her body of controversial, self-titled Carnal Art that aims both to shock and subvert the art world with unprecedented commitment, Orlan has become most well known for her work with plastic surgery, where the artist physically manipulates and uses her own body as a medium to mirror the features of classical female figures, such as Botticelli’s Venus, as a means of challenging female beauty ideals from an art historical perspective. This portion of her work manifests in a series of nine “surgical performances” entitled The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, which took place over five years spanning from 1990 until 1995. However, most notable amongst the series’ installations is the artist’s November 21st, 1993 exhibition of her seventh plastic surgery procedure known as Omniprésence, which was the first and only of the operations not only to be broadcast live, but also to be broadcast in fifteen galleries internationally. In a pre-social media world, the ability to watch and interact with the artist herself in real-time from around the globe as she prepared for facial plastic surgery – during which she would remain conscious for the operation’s entirety – was ground-breaking to the point of extreme controversy on an international scale. The notion of taste then, pushed to unprecedented extremes with Orlan’s graphically captured performance art, sparked passionate debates. Here, the ongoing discourse surrounding Omniprésence will be analysed under the framework of taste laid out by David Hume, as the line between “riveting, or revolting,”[2] attempts to be deciphered.

As the basis of this analysis, I feel it crucial to mention my first encounter with Omniprésence was in my freshman year at Concordia University in a first-year Intermedia class, during which our professor screened Orlan’s “surgical performance”[3] on a large projector in front of the class, without a trigger warning. Within the first two minutes of the video, a classmate sitting directly behind me fainted and began convulsing in his chair. He was taken immediately to the hospital, and the remainder of the day’s class was cancelled. The following week, the incident was not addressed in class formally. However, my fellow classmates and I have partaken in several discussions of the incident ever since, as it is quite the controversial instance of subjective judgement. It has been stated several times since that the professor should have anticipated this drastic reaction to Orlan’s performance art, that the professor should have known better. The claiming of such a statement seems in itself to be a debate of taste. By frowning upon the professor for showing a work of art in a classroom, oneself is making a judgement both of the art as well as of the professor. The entire episode then heavily begs questions regarding standards of taste, or lack thereof, as a matter of right or wrong. Where does the line exist between radical art, and art considered too “grotesque”[4] to show in a first-year Communications classroom, and how can this case of right and wrong be proven through the philosophical framework of the standard of taste?

In his writing Of the Standard of Taste, David Hume (1771-1776) endeavours to determine a universalized standard of taste, if one may exist whatsoever, through the unpacking of the notion of sentiment, in contrast to that of understanding and judgement. For Hume, there is a large difference between judgement, understanding and sentiment, as sentiment does not refer to anything beyond itself and is always real, and therefore always right, if the man is conscious of it. Understanding and judgement by contrast, cannot be considered inherently correct, due to their reference of something beyond themselves; understanding and judgement reference the object. In this way there can only be one understanding which is right or real, while there may exist as many sentiments as there are spectators of an object[5]. Sentiment does not represent the object itself, but merely a relation to it, existent only in the mind of the viewer who contemplates said object. Therefore, it always achieves common sense as it can never be deemed concretely wrong. However, there is always a common sense that opposes one’s sentiment, usually deemed “absurd and ridiculous”[6] by the individual critic. While “the natural equality of taste” is forgotten in this dismissing of sentiment which does not comply with one’s own, the general rules of art within a society are founded on the common sentiments and experiences of that society’s majority[7]. Here, Hume recognizes that one may not assume on all occasions that man’s feelings will agree with these general rules which require the “concurrence of many favourable circumstances,”[8] therefore it is these disagreements which spark debates of taste within art discourse. For Hume, the goal is to decipher where the notion of beauty arises from the uniformity of sentiment. In the case of Orlan’s Omniprésence, this notion of beauty is precisely what the work aims to subvert. It is the very notion of subversion – its limits and its discursive value as art – that becomes the subject of debate.

Regarding Orlan’s work, differences in the sentiments expressed from experiencing Omniprésence arise from the work’s shockingly graphic presentation of facial surgery. “Depending upon one’s tolerance for blood,”[9] scholars have placed Orlan’s work on either of two sides divided by a seemingly malleable line of taste distinguishing justified, radical exhibitionism from description as “mad”[10] or “grotesque”[11]. In her 1993 review of Orlan’s work, Roberta Smith disregards Omniprésence as a “sensationalist,” narcissistic cry for public reaction[12]. “Orlan’s travail goes on and on, becoming a tedious blur of needless suffering laced with a narcissistic stoicism and a desperate need for attention. Orlan’s ultimate goal is equally amorphous and, despite its trappings of sensationalism, oddly esoteric.”[13] For Smith, Orlan’s filmed facial surgery does not even reach the level of sentiment described by Hume, though she acknowledges that there will be a small, specific audience for it, as for Smith the work’s “esthetic amorphousness and genuine amateurism”[14] causes her to go as far as questioning whether or not the general population will even care. This then removes Omniprésence from any debate of taste whatsoever, as in order to debate an object’s value, one must establish some relationship with said object in the form of sentiment. At the bare minimum, one must care in some way.

Smith’s article is unique in this way among the body of discourse that surrounds Omniprésence (1993), as across all other writing produced in response to Orlan’s series of surgical performances found in my research, there is never a denial of the work’s shocking nature, commonly regarded as violence. In her 2002 article titled Saint Orlan: Ritual as Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism, Alyda Faber states that “[h]er practice of self-directed violence creates a spectacle that violates the viewer and establishes her body as “a site of public debate,” (Orlan 1998:319)”[15].  Faber then goes on to compare Orlan’s work to the writing of the French philosopher George Bataille (1897–1962), as he “documents his attempts to stay inside the experience of violence through a sustained practice of internalized sacrifice”[16] in the context of Christian hagiographies. This relation to Christianity mirrors Orlan’s subversion of beauty through her appropriation of traditional Christian art figures, as well as her readings of religious texts as she undergoes the multiple Reincarnation surgeries. For this purpose, the artist remains conscious during the entirety of each of the surgeries and reads until she is no longer physically able. “While Orlan seems more interested in the self’s negotiations with and disappearance into technology—rather than into nature—like Bataille, Orlan enacts the transformation of self into a sacred figure and art.”[17] For Faber then, the violence of Omniprésence can be claimed by its religious framework, as she enacts physical pain upon herself for the sake of transgression in claiming her dogma as an artist. “Orlan’s art develops a transgressive form of pre-discursive communication by creating a spectacle of violence” which “creates an experience of the kind of vertiginous attraction-repulsion that Bataille calls a sacred apotheosis of the wanton sordid flesh.”[18] In this way then, Faber accepts the “acutely painful experience”[19] of Orlan’s Omniprésence as both justified and necessary.

Following the claims made by the artist herself regarding Omniprésence, Orlan has been widely considered a feminist artist working in the interest of female agency in its most extreme form; “the use of her body as a medium of transformation.”[20] Positioning Omniprésence as art which reclaims and disrupts the male gaze over the female body as object,[21] Sabrina Beram, in her discussion of Cerise Myers’s thesis, states:

“Unlike the silent representation on the canvas, Orlan literally talked back to her audience while taking questions from viewers who watched over the live feed from New York being beamed into galleries and museums worldwide for her seventh performance, Omniprésence. Myers comments that in doing so, Orlan “reclaims the female body from its passive status in Western art history, actively turning hers, as the art object itself, into a ‘site of public debate’” (22). [22]

For Myers and Beram then, taste and sentiment regarding Omniprésence comes as agency over the female body, and therefore the work’s violence is necessary in Orlan’s asserting of her motivations as a radical feminist artist. In the words of the artist: “My work is not a stand against cosmetic surgery, but against the standards of beauty, against the dictates of dominant ideology that imposes itself more and more on feminine…flesh.”[23] In this way, Orlan takes possession of her own image through the technological advances available to artists at the turn of the 21st century in “the tradition of the modernist avant-garde, particularly that which (re)placed the body in the center of performance as one material among many others…and then placed the woman’s body in the center of the performance.”[24] As these readings of Omniprésence correlate quite closely with what has been said by the artist herself about the Reincarnation series, it can then be said that these interpretations do not exist merely as sentiment. Rather, these radical feminist readings may be considered as “understanding” within the framework of Hume’s Standard of Taste, as there may be only one true “understanding” of an object; that which mirrors the artist’s purpose for creating it.

In Hume, art is created with a certain end or purpose for which it is calculated and is therefore deemed more or less perfect based on its ability to fit this end.[25] Throughout contemporary art theory, the extreme nature of Orlan’s work seems to have been “understood” and reconsidered in its age much more widely than upon its first introduction to the international art world in the early 1990s. In contemporary art theory, there exists an extensive body of writing which claims Orlan’s work as radical feminist art of a positive nature. However, throughout discourse of its time, Roberta Smith’s consideration of Omniprésence as narcissistic, and conceptions of Orlan’s art as “anti-feminist”[26] do not stand alone. In a 1994 review, Leigh George views Orlan’s extensive reconstruction of her appearance not as subversion, but as an obsession with her appearance[27]. George points out that both during and outside of Orlan’s performance art, the artist is “stylishly dressed with an immaculate make-up job and every hair in place.”[28] In his book Escape Velocity, Mark Dery also objects Orlan’s claims to feminism. For Dery, “[Orlan’s] professed feminism and her manifest posthumanism cancel each other out: Those who declare war on what is natural are in no position to bemoan the unnatural standard of beauty imposed by our society.”[29] The many reviews of Omniprésence archived from its time which make such claims as that of Smith, George and Dery, are examples of opposing sentiments to the art’s intent or “real understanding”, however these juxtapositions further serves to illustrate Hume’s deciphering of taste, as for Hume taste is further influenced by the different manners and opinions of our age and country; essentially, taste is both generational and cultural[30]. In the midst of feminism’s Third Wave in the 21st century, where radical feminism has grown in practice and extremity since 1993, perhaps contemporary society is more well-equipped to digest Omniprésence and Orlan’s artistic intentions than the art theory of the 20th century.

Today, this sort of art will be further accepted as “at the extreme of Postmodernity,”[31] where the notion of Postmodernity itself has mutated since the 1990s. By classifying a work within a genre of art, one is making a judgement of taste regarding the work’s value as art, as by deeming it part of a larger structure it becomes inherently valuable. Though “there is no denying that most of her art is troubling,”[32], critics such as Philip Auslander pass judgements of taste of this nature.

“Given the extent to which the body is subjected to, invaded, and ultimately, produced by technologies while under medical treatment, it may be that the medical body is the ideal vehicle for performances concerned with the fate of the body, self, and identity in a technologized and mediatized postmodern culture…and Orlan’s all are.” [33]

While taste as generational and cultural enacts Hume’s second variation of taste, the varying opinions regarding Orlan also illustrate his first variation, which depends merely on differences in the humours of men. For some, Orlan is mad, grotesque, narcissistic and anti-feminist. For others, she is radical, cutting-edge, Postmodern, and feminist. The line between these interpretations has been based on sentiment, which is a subjective, instinctual reaction always correct and real so long as it exists in the mind of the viewer. As claimed by Hume, there has only been one interpretation of Omniprésence which may be called an understanding, as there is only one possible understanding which will correspond with the artist’s intentions herself in creation of the piece. Those who are not equipped to understand the work have based their distaste for it on sentiment, which opposes its understanding and purpose. Moreover, the sentiments of Orlan’s critics have never been concerned with aesthetic judgement in the way of Kant, as the work does not aim for beauty, rather it directly opposes the confines of such a concept, and therefore the debate has been much more one of ethics and philosophy than one of aesthetics and the general rules of art.

Where then, has this left the decision of my professor to show Orlan’s Omniprésence in class? There appears not to be any concrete way to judge this action on the basis of right and wrong – as a matter of morality – but rather this action must be judged simply as a result of the sentiments experienced by the audience present in the classroom on that day. If the student had not fainted, it is not outside my conclusions to state that my classmates and I would most likely not still discuss the viewing of that video and its consequences to this day, as the consequences – or sentiments – enacted by Omniprésence would only have existed in the minds of the students individually. They all would have differed, and perhaps some may have understood the piece, but the debate would have remained a subjective one if the student hadn’t given such a drastic reaction. Perhaps this is Orlan’s point. Perhaps lasting discourse requires extremity, and taste then is the ability, or lack thereof, to digest its consequences.

[1] Knafo, Danielle. 2009. “Castration and Medusa: Orlan’s Art on the Cutting Edge.” Studies In Gender & Sexuality 10, no. 3:142-158. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed May 18, 2018).

[2] Smith, Roberta. “Review/Art; Surgical Sculpture: The Body as Costume.” The New York Times. December 17, 1993. Accessed May 19, 2018.

[3] Faber, Alyda. “Saint Orlan: Ritual As Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism.” TDR/The Drama Review46, no. 1 (2002): 85-92. Accessed May 19, 2018. doi:10.1162/105420402753555868.

[4] Beckett, Andy. “SUFFERING FOR HER ART.” The Independent. April 13, 1996. Accessed May 20, 2018.

[5] Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, 226-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. 269.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 270.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Smith, Roberta. “Review/Art; Surgical Sculpture: The Body as Costume.” The New York Times. December 17, 1993. Accessed May 20, 2018. costume.html.

[10] Jeffries, Stuart. “Orlan’s Art of Sex and Surgery.” The Guardian. July 01, 2009. Accessed May 20, 2018.

[11] Beckett, Andy. “SUFFERING FOR HER ART.” The Independent. April 13, 1996.

[12] Smith, Roberta. “Review/Art; Surgical Sculpture: The Body as Costume.” December 17, 1993.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Faber, Alyda. “Saint Orlan: Ritual As Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism.” (2002)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] n.d. “Saint Orlan faces reincarnation (‘Omnipresence’, a series of videotaped surgical performances).” Art Journal 56, no. 4:50-56. Arts & Humanities Citation Index, EBSCOhost (accessed May 21, 2018).

[21]Myers, Cerise. 2006. “BETWEEN THE FOLLY AND THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF SEEING: ORLAN, RECLAIMING THE GAZE.” Networked Digital Library of Theses & Dissertations, EBSCOhost (accessed May 20, 2018).

[22] Beram, Sabrina. “Required Taste.” An Analysis of The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. January 01, 1970. Accessed May 21, 2018.

[23] n.d. “Saint Orlan faces reincarnation (‘Omnipresence’, a series of videotaped surgical performances).”

[24] n.d. “Saint Orlan faces reincarnation (‘Omnipresence’, a series of videotaped surgical performances).”

[25] Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” 1963.

[26]Smith, Kathy. “The body in pain: Beckett, Orlan and the politics of performance,” Studies In Theatre & Performance 25, no. 1 (January 2005): 33-46. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed May 20, 2018).

[27] George, Leigh. “Orlan: Onmipresence.” Art Papers 18, (September 1994): 53. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed May 21, 2018).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove Press, 1996.

[30] Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” 1963.

[31] Auslander, Philip. 1997. “Part III: Postmodern body politics: Chapter 11: The surgical self.” In Frpm Acting to Performance, 126-140. n.p. : Taylor & Francais Ltd / Books, 1997. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed May 20, 2018).

[32] Jeffries, Stuart. “Orlan’s Art of Sex and Surgery.” The Guardian. July 01, 2009.

[33] Auslander, Philip. 1997. “Part III: Postmodern body politics: Chapter 11: The surgical self.”

Header image: screenshot of Orlan performing OMNIPRESENCE, November 21, 1993, in New York. (MYRIAPODUS Films & Orlan)