Over five decades, ORLAN, now 70 years old, has given birth to herself, dressed up as a saint, carried out several plastic surgeries, and digitally removed her own skin. It is this impulse to draw attention to herself at all costs that leaves her open to the charge of narcissism, and it’s one she doesn’t deny. Even her flamboyant nom de guerre was chosen immodestly.
“When I introduce myself,” she tells me, “I say ‘I am ORLAN, among others,’” meaning that she represents a multiplicity of different identities. “And every letter of my name is written in capitals,” she continues, “because I have no desire to step back into rank.”
Women, as British film theorist Laura Mulvey once wrote, have historically been the bearers, rather than the creators, of meaning in visual culture. A woman’s body, at least as far as the male heterosexual gaze is concerned, is a series of codes. In art, she is often found nude, recumbent, and passive. Her body is heavy with culture and discourse. In making five decades’ worth of self-portraits, ORLAN has taken control of her own image and staked a claim to her body.
This reached its zenith in the early 1990s, when she underwent nine facial plastic surgeries—including one that gave her her now-infamous forehead implants. She documented the entire performance on film, some of which can be seen at La Plaque Tournante. It’s gory, sure, but uplifting too: She’s shown fully conscious, smiling, and reading aloud to the camera.