Quick Compare| The Carnal Art of Lady Gaga and Orlan

Lady Gaga's most recent "body implants" are reminiscent of the body modification
performances of the controversial French artist Orlan. 
The representation of female beauty and the idealized nude body constitute two of the most potent and persistent themes of the visual arts. As a result, female artists, especially those who make themselves the subject of their art works or performances, often struggle with how best to situate and represent their own physical appearance into their practice.  Looking to the history of performance art, we can find a legacy of female artists (Carolee Schneemann, Valie Export, Adrian Piper, and Marina Abramovic come to mind immediately) who have had to contend with this key issue as they made themselves both the subject and object of their art practice.

These are some of the ideas that I raised in an earlier blog post when Lady Gaga first donned her infamous meat dress on the cover of Vogues Hommes Japan last year. Many people misread the act as something merely spectacular, when in fact she was carefully referencing a long tradition of female performance art that sought to transgress and reconfigure carefully established boundaries around flesh, gender, and social ritual. In her most recent iteration of this theme, Gaga’s “Born This Way” aesthetic has tapped into another legendary female performance art icon—that of the French artist Orlan.

Orlan's performance "Accouche d'elle m'aime" (Orlan gives birth
to her beloved self) is very similar to Lady Gaga's visual motifs
in her recent "Born This Way" video and stage performances.
Orlan rose to prominence in the art world during the mid 1960’s as an artist who used her own body to explore and measure the spaces around her. Through a long series of performances, installations, and photo works, Orlan consistently examined her own female form and persona in comparison and contrast to the traditions within art history that sought to isolate and represent women’s experience. In the 1990’s, Orlan took this examination to a more radical level by undergoing a series of plastic surgeries to further explore the standards of beauty established by centuries of male artists. As she explains in an interview with the Guardian in 2009: “my goal was to be different, strong; to sculpt my own body to reinvent the self. It's all about being different and creating a clash with society because of that. I tried to use surgery not to better myself or become a younger version of myself, but to work on the concept of image and surgery the other way around. I was the first artist to do it."

In her final series of surgeries, Orlan resurfaced with the now infamous “horns” (normally used to enhance cheek bones) that are pictured in the image of Orlan at the beginning of this post.  These implants are not entirely unlike the “shocking” implants that appeared on Lady Gaga’s face (and on other parts of her body) in her most recent series of performances accompanying the “Born This Way” album release. Once again, I believe that Gaga is taking her goal of raising awareness of difference and unique beauty to a very conceptual level with this move, and it is clear that the notion of carnal art—described by Orlan as the “not against cosmetic surgery, but rather against the conventions carried by it and their subsequent inscription”—is also at the core of her recent efforts.

See the following clips concerning Orlan's notion of "carnal art" (warning: some may find content disturbing) and compare to the visual world created by Lady Gaga in her dramatic "Born This Way" video:

Further Reading:

Clarke, Julie. "The Sacrificial Body of Orlan." Body and Society 5.2 (1999): 185-207.

Knafo, Danielle. "Castration and Medusa: Orlan's Art and the Cutting Edge." Studies in Gender and Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 142-158.