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Explore the Relationship Between the Body and Technology in the Work of Orlan and Stelarc

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Explore the relationship between the body and technology in the work of Orlan and Stelarc

A performer is essentially composed of two entities: the self and the representation of the self. The human body is the physical manifestation of this represented self and is interpreted by the observer depending on its gender, age, colour, attractiveness, adornment and perceived disabilities (these perceptions often being culture-bound as well). In addition to this, the performer uses make-up and costume, and interactions with the performance space to affect the interpretation. For the focus of a performance space, what better place to start with than this powerful physical signifier?

In performance, there is a tendency to perceive the actor and the body as a very separate entity to the concrete, technological elements of the stage. Orlan and Stelarc, contemporary performance artists, challenge this perception - Mcclellan (1994, para.14) describes them as "the post-human Adam and Eve", suggesting that they are heralding in a new 'breed' of performer, inextricably related to, and even created by, technology. This certainly reflects the role of the body and technology in current Western society - medical technology can create life in vitro and, defying nature, can alter its intrinsic genetic makeup, and internet technologies can allow a person to project a fabricated disembodied persona onto the 'net' to interact with others over vast distances. Orlan and Stelarc embrace technological integration as a prerequisite to their work - the questions lie in what it means to the self if the way in which it is represented (the body) is altered.

In combining aspects of endurance and durational performance art, Orlan presented the alteration of her own body in the surgical theatre. 'The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan' is her most well-known piece of work, begun in 1990. However, she did begin performing in the 1960s when, even then, she demonstrated a subversive attitude towards the body. In 1964 she used her own body as "a unit of measurement ('Orlan-corps')" to measure public buildings (Flande [ed.], 'Biography', www.orlan.net). This project continued into the late 1970s. The reduction of her body to a tool of measurement was the less extreme forerunner to the reduction of it as a canvas in 'The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan'. In both pieces, she objectifies her body, however in 'The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan', the implications on herself and her audiences are far more controversial.

A surgical textbook defines ideal beauty as "[that] of a white woman whose face is perfectly symmetrical in line and profile" (Balsamo cited in Auslander, 1997, p.129). Ethnocentric definitions such as this one inevitably affect the way in which beauty is idealised in fine art. These idealisations were the inspiration for 'The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan'. The project was a series of officially nine surgical operations, undertaken with the intention of altering parts of Orlan's body to imitate those of iconic images of female beauty including Renaissance works such as Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' and Botticellis' 'The Birth of Venus'. In the self-consciously ironic attempt to recreate perfect beauty, Orlan turns a Western canon of images against itself and effectively undermines it.

Orlan herself describes her work as "Carnal Art - [that which] is self-portraiture in the classical sense but made by means of today's technology" (www.orlan.net). Orlan suggests that, by undergoing surgery, she is creating a work of art which is 'classical' in that it presents an idealised aesthetic; however, she uses herself as the raw material. Cosmetic surgeons operate on her body and face whilst Orlan is under a local anaesthetic. Her mundane actions of reclining and reading a book (see appendix 1: 'Fourth Surgery-Performance') are performative in that they are deliberated to create juxtaposition with her mutilated body. The audience would expect surgery to normally be performed under general anaesthetic and therefore, for a conscious person to express feelings of pain and discomfort - Orlan, however, remains calm throughout. If she were to remain unconscious and passive, it would be more comfortable for the audience to observe the operation; Orlan's conscious involvement creates a disparity between how the audience expect the human body to react to surgery and her seeming indifference. Her status is raised as she is as active as the other performers - the surgeons. Orlan's performative self is therefore disengaged with her body, which functions as an artistic medium, rather than as a mode of direct expression. Her body being subjected to medical technology does not seem to affect Orlan herself.

The desired outcome of the surgery is specified by Orlan in the form of a wall hanging in the background of the stage; (see appendix 1) the hanging is of the face of Botticelli's Venus. From a contemporary point of view, this puts the observer in mind of 'before and after' pictures paraded on television programmes such as 'Extreme Makeover', first broadcast in September 2003 ('News You Can Use', www.abc.com). Orlan's work was strangely prophetic in that she exposed how easy and mechanical it could be to prescribe a desired form for the body and to fulfil it. The popularity and growth of the cosmetic surgery industry has now permeated Western society to the point where it is used as a form of entertainment - something that Orlan had, in a sense, already done by theatricalising the process. The use of the images is also suggestive of media advertising. Physical environments constantly remind individuals of what they should be aspiring to, in television, cinema, bill boards and, more recently, on the internet. The hangings in her performances reinforce the importance of the ideal image and the desire to achieve it.

The 'before and after' aspect of the work was explored further in Orlans' installation project 'Omnipresence' (1994). Orlan uses digital technology to superimpose images of herself with those of famous representations of Greek goddesses such as Venus, Europe, and Diana. These images are displayed alongside photos of her recovery from the operation of the same title (Seventh Surgery-Performance, 'Omnipresence', 21st November 1993). Obviously, the gruesome reality of the body as a work in progress is nowhere near the computerised image (see appendix 2, 'Omnipresence'). The contrast of the lower row of artistic brushed images with the upper row of photographs present the body as fragile,

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