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...