French Performance artist, Orlan rewrites herself by physically reconstructing her face multiple times in her 1990 series “Reincarnation of Saint Orlan.” She underwent nine plastic surgeries to transform her face using features of ideal forms of female beauty taken from the art historical canon. She engages in self-hybridization not only through incorporating features of other women into her own face, but by also incorporating their narratives and texts. Orlan’s “Reincarnation” is a process of continual becoming. Her body consumes these other bodies and texts just as they in turn consume her. This act of self-hybridization and becoming multiple also reveals the presence of a death drive directed both at the self and at the canon. The canon is collapsed into a single image, and that single image exposes the horror and absurdity of the canon itself.Orlan is performing and masquerading her own self-creation or re-creation. The surgeries were all filmed, making the camera a prosthetic and extension of the scene of creation. Orlan also becomes a prosthetic herself as the film is screened and projected in numerous art galleries turning the artist into the mechanized copy of the real original through the performance. Orlan performs her transformation and site of becoming as she reads Lacan’s “mirror stage” on the operating table. This self-referential act about the recognition of self as Other, or in Orlan’s case, Others, brings psychoanalysis onto the operating table as a patient. Orlan’s body is caught between machines, between the artificial model and blueprint on the computer screen, and the camera projecting the transformation of her face onto another screen. Screening is a theme in traumatic narrative, revealing and concealing of certain images. The camera also acts as a mechanical double of the surgery and Orlan’s body as reproductive organ, the camera is a mechanical reproductive organ. Orlan’s body is being worked on by the surgeon, the camera and cameraman, the canon of beauty, and in her reading Lacan, she is being worked on by psychoanalysis.
In the Carnal Art Manifesto, Orlan writes “I can observe my own body cut open, without suffering! I see myself all the way down to my own entrails; a new mirror stage” (U, 192). This reveals the objectification of the self and the new mirror stage which originates out of destruction. Instead of encountering a whole image of the self in the mirror, one encounters a direct image of the self, which is mutilated and fractured. One witnesses the self becoming multiple. This identification with the unstable transitional body over the stable holistic body points to a modern rupture in the self. “The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan” is against finality. Although there was a finished body at the end of the series, it is a body that will always threaten another mutation. If the word “final” can even be used in the context of Orlan, the final result of the Reincarnation was a face and a body that appeared to be still in transition. The human signifier is destabilized and raises the question of whether it was the signifier on the operating table all along.