All my life I have tried to push the limits of what it means to strip down.
2021 will be a retrospective year for ORLAN – always written in capital letters, because she doesn’t want to fit into the line, into the ranks. The artist, often reduced to her surgical performances in the 1990s, is about to publish her autobiography. In “ORLAN Striptease: Tout sur ma vie, tout sur mon art”, she completely strips down, pushing the limits of the self-portrait – just like she’s been doing ever since she started out in the 1960s. From the “Body-Sculptures” (the iconic “Attempting to Escape the Frame” or “ORLAN gives birth to her loved self”) to her most recent ORLANoïde, a robot fashioned in her own image, ORLAN has dedicated her œuvre to fighting against the innate. With “ORLAN, Historical striptease”, the Ceysson & Bénétière gallery is presenting a new exhibition dedicated to her early photographic work until March 21st. But before we talk about the body, the conversation starts with an unexpected topic: her love of slow dancing…
How did 2020 go for you? Has it had a particular impact on your artistic production and projects?
Surprisingly, the impact has been positive. I’m usually constantly hopping from plane to plane for conferences and exhibitions. Then all of a sudden, it was quiet in the studio, and I had the time to do what I really wanted to do. When I exhibited at the Sorbonne Artgallery in 2019, I gave a talk with Donatien Grau. He told me: “Now you have to write your autobiography”. When suddenly lockdown happened, I asked myself what I was going to do with that time, and I realized Donatien was right: I was going to write my autobiography. I started working day and night, and in July the manuscript was pretty much done. I asked Jean-Loup Champion [from Gallimard Editions] to come over and have a look at it. Four days later, he told me that he couldn’t stop reading. He offered to publish me as soon as I wanted. The second lockdown gave me the opportunity to finish up the manuscript – I was staying at my friend’s Fabrice Hyber in Vendée at the time – and to add some memories that came back to me… Precisely a whole page on slow dancing, something very hot… I’m trying to do a good deed for the young generations: to show these people what they’ve missed! After social distancing, I’m hoping it’s going to be a hit! I am also preparing a project in the field of music, but it’s still top secret… My autobiography is titled “ORLAN Striptease: Tout sur ma vie, tout sur mon art” and will be out in May.
You write a lot, which is something we know less about you. Is writing part of your artistic practice or more something private to you? Do you separate the two?
Yes, and this is actually a constant conflict with myself. I’m interested in an art that is elaborated, well thought out. I have never created a piece without a very long research and elaboration process. When the concept is completed, I try to find the best materiality for it. It can take very different forms, and that’s why my work is very difficult to fit into a category – even if it is sometimes too quickly described as “performance”. My performances have caused such media scandals that it is hard to get out of it sometimes. I have worked a lot with sculpture (in Carrara marble, resin, 3D-printing…), created very diverse works with biotechnologies, my own cells, artificial intelligence and robotics – most recently with my robot, the ORLANoid. What matters to me is to say something about our time, to question the status of the body in society through all the cultural, traditional, political and religious pressures that are imprinted on our bodies, and especially on women’s bodies. Lockdown wasn’t good at all for my robot. It had just traveled to Dublin to work with some big artificial intelligence developers, but it would have been better if I had been there to work with them. Until the health crisis is resolved, I won’t be able to move forward on this project. But I still have several parallel projects!
Left: Studio view, “Attempting to Escape the Frame with mask”, 1965
Right: Studio view, Portrait produced by the body-machine four days after the surgery performance “Omnipresence”, 1993
You are currently presenting a new exhibition at Ceysson & Bénétière, titled “ORLAN, Historical striptease”. The exhibition seems to focus on your early work. Can you tell us about it?
The public often loses sight of earlier work since you are always asked to present your most recent pieces – or even create new ones – for exhibitions, fairs and biennials. Ceysson & Bénétière, with whom I started working two years ago, decided to re-explore all my historical work, and it’s been really great! My first exhibition with them,”ORLAN before ORLAN”, was devoted to my paintings. Now they’re showing this new exhibition. What’s really relevant about it is that these are works you cannot share on Instagram or Facebook because they would be immediately censored. It’s absolutely horrifying, and incredibly ridiculous.
Instagram recently threatened to ban you because they consider your work to be in violation of their policy.
Every time I show these works, they are censored. For an artist working with the representation of the body, not being able to show a breast or nudity is a big deal! I recently learned that feminist groups had taken Instagram to court, and I’m very happy about that. I contacted them right away to give them my full support. Of course, I’m not a believer in God, but if you are, you necessarily believe that God made human beings in “his” image and that they are masterpieces. Therefore it’s necessary to show these masterpieces of God, from every angle and in their sexuality! What’s crazy to me is that men can show their nipples, and women can’t. We only censor men when an erect penis is shown. On the other hand, algorithms have not learned how to spot a vulva on a face, so I made a mask out of it!
Your work revolves around freedom. Still it seems there was more freedom in the 1970s than today, particularly in terms of the liberation of bodies and the emancipation of women.
At that time we could still hope for more freedom for the future. Today, everything is closing up. I created “Flayed liberty” as a manifesto – all my works are. This flayed woman is a self-portrait but without any image of me, it is entirely made by the 3D machine. I wanted to show a body you don’t see on the catwalk: a heavy, different, mature, solid body. And above all, seeing a body that has no skin, there can’t be no racism involved. I wanted the work to be read in two parts: an allusion to anatomical plates, but also a “cyborg” reading of my time with all these prostheses that I used in my performances. The woman is slowly taking the posture of the Statue of Liberty. It’s because we are losing our freedom, whether we are artists or not. All my life, I worked for the emancipation of women, for equality, for the freedom of bodies. And suddenly, everything closes. Like many artists and citizens, I fought for contraception, for the right to abortion, and today everything is questioned. At any moment today, we can suffer a terrible backlash.
What’s your take on women in the arts today?
The situation has improved, but not enough. In the end, it’s always the same: There are very few women in the big market or in the rankings. We are told that a lot of women have been put in positions of power in the art world, but the problem is that sometimes a lot of women prevent other women succeeding. We have been taught to hate each other and to be competitive. As I write in my autobiography, being a woman is a biological and societal calamity. The #MeToo movement has done a lot of good. But in France, as soon as feminism takes a step in the right direction, there is always a huge backlash. A hundred women even signed a petition to silence feminist struggles, without any compassion, without any sisterhood with women who started to speak out. They were suddenly ridiculed. That’s just unspeakably violent to me.
Studio view, “Weeping Women Are Angry“, 2019-2020
Your feminism is an integral part of your work. Was it always conscious?
It came progressively, with my own experiences. I created “The Origin of War”, which is the counterpart of “The Origin of the World” – for me the most horrifying painting ever created. It is the work of a sadistic serial killer who cut off the head, arms and legs of this woman to show only the place of sex and reproduction. I wanted to see what would happen if I replaced her by a man, and also cut off his head, arms and legs. I called it “The Origin of War”. I know that not all men are the same, but when you see so many rapes and femicides, you wonder how men are made… Who makes them this way? What can we do to make them differently? I sometimes get very depressed, but that doesn’t stop me from continuing to fight.
One of the highlights of your career was “The Kiss of the Artist” in 1977, which you presented during Fiac although you were not invited.
You must read my autobiography! I had a few friends who got me in, notably the art critic Giovanni Joppolo who was the editor of “Opus” at the time. I placed myself between the columns because they didn’t want me inside. So all the people who came in and out couldn’t miss me. My friends wanted me to join them inside, by the magazine stand. They were amazing: they took “The Kiss of the Artist” – a heavy piece! – on their shoulders and created a procession inside, just as the officials were entering. Even those who had turned me away did not want to make a scandal in front of the big names and ministers who were present. In the end, they acted as if it was a performance programmed especially for them! Nevertheless, “The Kiss of the artist” had terrible consequences for me. I was immediately fired from the school where I was teaching, via telegram, which was completely illegal. They wrote to me: “Your attitude of the last few days is incompatible with your role as a teacher. All your classes are suspended. We will advise on your behalf.” My students were fantastic. They went on strike and composed songs in praise of “The Kiss of the Artist,” demanding that I be reinstated. I ended up not being able to afford my studio payments, and it was dramatic because I lost a lot of pieces and negatives. But the rest was a succession of happy endings. “The Kiss of the Artist” was shown all over the world and bought by the Frac. What I enjoyed the most was that for the 30th anniversary of Fiac, the work was exhibited at the entrance and protected by glass. On the wall, a text described it as the work that had had the biggest impact in Fiac’s history. So, my motto is: do what’s right and let people talk.
The surgical performances are automatically mentioned when talking about your work. At the time, did you suspect that these performances would have such an impact? Often to the detriment of the rest of your work.
I would never have believed it. All the work I did afterwards couldn’t possibly have been as upsetting, or as controversial.
The media also made false assumptions about you and these performances…
They said I underwent 114 surgeries, that I was the greatest masochist of all time, even though rule number one with my surgeon was that I didn’t want to feel any pain. In people’s minds, surgery is only meant to create beauty. That was not my intention. I was trying to undergo a surgical operation that had never been done before and that was not supposed to bring beauty. We thought a lot about it with the surgeon I worked with in the United States. She suggested using cheek implants and placing them elsewhere. If you describe me as a woman with two bumps on my temples, then I am an unwanted monster. But look, I’m not! Today, these reputedly monstrous bumps have become tools of seduction like any other. This is my convertible car!
Left: Studio view, “African Self-hybridations”, 2002
Right: Studio view, “Self-hybridation Opéra de Pékin N°8”, 2014
As you say, you are fighting against the innate.
Exactly. The first idea of these surgical operations was to fight against stereotypes. I am not against plastic surgery at all, but against what we do with it. I like to have the power of self-invention. I wanted to attack “the mask of the innate”. We are told that God made us this way and that we should not touch it, but I find it revolting to have been given a face by nature and not being able to change anything about it. As a woman, you are frowned upon if you do what you want with your body. You are told where you should be, what you should look like, what you should think. Going off the rails is not very appreciated…
You work on hybridization, notably with biotechnologies. What is the next stage of hybridization for you?
I worked with my microbiota, with genetics, I cultivated my cells with the Pasteur Institute… We talked about striptease earlier, and it is for sure one of the themes of my exhibition. Still I believe that stripping down is impossible. As women, we are always covered with fantasies, preconceived ideas, comparisons, things that we just can’t get out of ourselves. That’s why I say that stripping down is impossible. All my life I have tried to push the limits of what it means to strip down. I created a large series called “Tangible striptease in nanosequences”, for which I worked with my microbiota. For “Striptease from cells to bone”, we created a software that could recreate my skull in 3D-printing from my medical scans. Many artists have worked with generic skulls, but this is my skull with identity. When you look at it, you see a different material in my jaw. At one point in my life, a friend who is a dentist and collector told me that I needed implants. He offered to transplant either my own bones or beef bones. I said, “What’s the use of staying alone? Let’s invite the other in!” I chose the beef. To circle back on the idea of striptease, I explored it to the point of making a self-portrait representing what my eyes prevent me from seeing: my microbiota, my parasites… All these things that live in total symbiosis with me.
Let’s go back to your ORLANoid. It can be seen as an extension of your work on the body, but in a new materiality. There’s also a link with “ORLAN gives birth to her loved self” (1965). Isn’t it the continuity of your early work?
There are many things I could say… Do you have all night? This robot is above all a sculpture, a self-portrait. But we can see that the body is a machine, and it integrates artificial intelligence. I tried to mix artificial, collective and social intelligence. The robot integrates a text generator that produces infinite phrases from a bank of twenty-two thousand words I recorded in separate mp3. It’s not an easy job, but someone had to do it! The robot has a movement generator, unlike an automaton that always repeats the same movements. Technology is constantly evolving, so it’s always going to be a work in progress. You know, I am neither technophile nor technophobe. When I was a teenager, I could never have imagined that I would have an android in my pocket [she points at her phone]. I always try to think about what’s going to happen in the next twenty years. All the negative things we have to say about transhumanism are linked to ancestral fears. As human beings, we have the capacity to reinvent ourselves, to create new technologies, in the same way that certain animals and insects have abilities we do not possess. So it’s not a question of post-human, it is about a natural development of the human. This is what I believe in. A society that won’t reinvent itself is a dead society.
Transhumanism is based on the refusal of death, and you are completely in line with this movement.
I refuse death, and I have created a petition against death on my website. People are afraid to sign it because it goes against everything they have been taught. In terms of life expectancy, we really did draw the short straw! Do you realize that some species of whales live 320 years and that giant sequoias can live up to four thousand years? I would love to be hybridized with a giant sequoia, but I wouldn’t want to have roots. I’d prefer to have resources. I can assure you that if I had 320 years ahead of me, I would be doing something other than absorbing plankton… There is nothing worse than death, or the process of getting old. But we have been forced to accept it. We must take action, do something!
To make art is to remain immortal!
If I can’t enjoy the beauty of life, then what’s the point? If we all say no, we might have a chance!
Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian & Marie Cheynel
Images: Jean Picon