What happens when you use plastic surgery to shatter beauty ideals? Is that even possible?
Before television, magazines, and social media, beauty standards were imposed by art. For centuries women had to resort to all sorts of methods and tricks to match the standards of their time. For instance, medieval women would pluck their brows almost completely and shave part of their heads to make their foreheads appear more prominent.
As time goes by, trends evolve, but we all still aspire to the standards our own generation follows. I guess, for us the new resource that will help us achieve the unachievable is plastic surgery. However is that plastic surgery's sole purpose? For French artist Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte, best known as Orlan, it’s not. Actually, she’s made of this procedure an essential part of her artistic purpose: to become a walking work of art.
When did she decide to put her body under such procedures for art’s sake? It all started in 1978, when she had to be taken to the hospital during one of her performances. She suffered from an ectopic pregnancy, which required surgical intervention. This presented a new opportunity for her to explore new artistic boundaries, so she called a video team and asked them to film the entire operation. She even told the doctor she wanted to be conscious throughout the entire procedure, since according to her, it would be a great way to understand pain and its relation to the body.
From that point onwards she began to create performances that delved into the essence of the body and its nature. Later that same year she did a performance where she displayed her genitals while on her period through a magnifying glass in an attempt to shatter Freud’s claim that even the “devil runs away from the sight of the vulva.” She named this performance “Documentary Study: The Head of Medusa” a character many feminists have adopted to call out misogynistic attitudes.
During the nineties she underwent surgeries to turn her body into art, but she was heavily criticized, for she made it look as if plastic surgery didn't represent a health risk and that at the end of the day she was succumbing to beauty standards. However, her mission was the exact opposite, she wanted to shatter images imposed by society and draw references from history and art. In the space of five years, she had nine operations and in some of them she wanted to imitate important works of art, for example, she wanted Mona Lisa's forehead. She even added other cosmetic procedures like protuberances that resembled horns.
Mireille's main goal was to prove that one can reinvent the self and that you can change your perceptions of beauty if you so wish. She viewed the operating room as her stage where her body became a canvas and each cut and slice formed part of her transformation and process. Mireille has now become an icon in performance art and even important fashion designers base some of their works on her procedures.
Her work is still quite divisive regarding opinions, as it happens with most performative artworks, where some still claim that she's only a woman wanting to draw attention from the public through morbid actions. Others believe her work is highly misunderstood and that she’s a great example of a feminist whose works have a strong social value. Anyways, no matter on which side you stand, Orlan is one of those artists we really have to study for she makes you question your own thoughts about image and beauty.
If you are looking for more performance based art, here are a few artists that have also challenged people's expectations: