Thursday, December 21, 2006

Retrospectives on the Body Class - Orlan

During the final week of my body and lit class, we talked about Orlan, a French performance artist whose work includes body modification and plastic surgery.

To be honest, Orlan's work strikes me as both incredibly interesting, and weird as all get out. The hybridity stuff, for example. What does it mean that a white (well, she looks white) woman from a country (France) that was involved in colonialism is making herself into hybridized figures of Native American and African peoples? Is it a hyper-aware critique of colonialism? Further acts of appropriation? What does it mean to "adopt" momentarily and for the making of art, a small part of the practices of another people? (Hybridizing with robots seems less troubling to me. But then, as someone who's a cyborg, I find it discomfiting to see that appropriated, too. Cyborgness wasn't fun to get, and isn't fun to have, but I depend on it. Does Orlan making it art seem too easy?)

Given the nature of her work, I think it's a critique, but even within the critique, there's slippage, it seems to me.

I guess it gets to my discomfort with what it means to encounter other cultures. I'm uncomfortable with some aspects of tourism, the practices of going to "see" other cultures on display, especially when the seeing of those cultures on display involves people having to dress up in a way that isn't practiced really? But then, I feel a bit strange when I go see "pioneer" museums or whatever with white folks dressed up as pretend pioneers. It's a job, right? But still, the theatricality pretending to be the "real" (yes, I went all Lacan on you, sorry), when the "real" really isn't accessible in that way.

I want the "real" but can't get at the real, really. Authentic experience is always changed by my presence, inserted into spaces real and metaphorical. (Angsty, me? Why do you ask?)


  1. Anonymous9:14 AM

    I had a similar reaction to going to see Body World (the science exhibition where a guy peels off different layers/exposes body parts of cadavers and puts them in unusual positions). I know a lot of anatomy and have seen lots of bones of dead people and animals, so that didn't bother me. But I was bothered by the positioning of the bodies. All of the male bodies seemed to have some authority: standing tall, looking afar, ski jumping, leading a child by the hand, doing "the thinker," etc. But the women were in sexualized yoga positions, dancer positions, standing coyly with one hand at their lips, and another curved around their stomach. In the same way it seems you're uncomfortable with this white woman appropriating other cultures, I was uncomfortable with this white man appropriating the female body (and likely many bodies from people of color, though race was impossible to tell in these cadavers). Blech.

  2. Anonymous10:36 AM

    What rock do I live under? I'm not aware of any of these bizarre "performance artists"...maybe it's better that way!

  3. E-mail her and tell her it made you think, the ultimate accolade for an artist.

    She's hardly alone in her genre, although others chose singing and acting rather than surgery, and maybe didn't pitch as high art.

    Grace Jones and Boy George did the make-up and sang.

    Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine), Brent Spiner (Data), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator) have done the human/android thing.

    Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?', filmed as 'Blade Runner' digs deep in this vein.

    Daryl Hannah was a particularly convincing mermaid, Jeff Goldblum made a compelling fly, and New Zealand must be knee deep in ex-hobbits.

    For the race issue, a vast proportion of Othellos were white. And then you have The Black and White Minstrels. Hmm. If all of this makes you uncomfortable, responses to race being more sensitive over there, try the classic British comedy 'Carry on up the Khyber'. Technically non-PC, but you'd have to be a stoney-faced old puritan to watch it without laughing.

    Then there are punks, new romantics, and goths, who live the styles.

    Gender? Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. The pantomime tradition. Female impersonators such as Danny La Rue, Paul O'Grady (Lily Savage), Harris Glenn Milstead (Divine) and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage).

    Clanger's personal favourite:

    Tim Curry, covering most of the bases with great aplomb as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.

    Kids play dressing up games, 'cops and robbers', 'cowboys and indians', and Clanger's favourite when he was a small clanger, 'doctors and nurses'. Later we add meaning, call it art, attempt to convince people that it is, and hope it pays the bills. And maybe it makes people think.

    Orlan is of course French, a nation where those of an artistic bent do sometimes tend to take themselves and their art a little too seriously.

    Switching the major roles (gender, race, nationality, species) for dramatic effect is ultimately little more than a jump to the left ... and a step to the right.

  4. Kate,
    I saw Body Worlds too, and we discussed it in class. Totally fascinating and WEIRD handling of gender and race issues. And the fetus room is a womb room. I'll have to write on that, too!

    Hang with me, I know all the best stuffs!

    Great examples! I, too, have a fondness for Tim Curry in that role. One of the best entrances on films, with the heels and all.

  5. Anonymous7:18 PM

    Ah yes, gotta love Tim Curry. And I will always think mermaid whenever I see Daryl Hannah