Subversive Portrait Task

Pick a subversive portrait, why is it successful?

“Orlan is not her name. Her face is not her face. Soon her body will not be her body. Paradox is her content; subversion is her technique”


Orlan is a well-known French multimedia artist. Her art and performances challenge social and political conforms and push people to question themselves. One may view her actions as crazy or objectifying, another empowering. Throughout her career she has shifted identities, seen as extremely ambiguous and the first to use plastic surgery as an artistic medium. Her body has been manipulated, enhanced and reproduced: surgical procedures, which have been photographed, mixed and filmed, all under her strict direction (yes, she was partially awake!) For Orlan art is a life or death situation and she isn’t joking! Her body is simply the tool she uses to create her art and express her ideas. However, that way of thinking still raises conflicting ideas and arguments within society even today.

Take pornography as an example. Self-assured porn stars that are ready and willing to become commodities of the public’s sexual fantasies, use their body merely as tools for their work or ‘performance art’.  This creates much controversy as some people see porn as people openly objectifying and degrading themselves for the pleasure of a male dominated audience. However, porn stars don’t recognize their chosen career as something harmful, as they are in control. They decided to use their bodies in this way and are prepared for the consequences, whether good (money) or bad (religion, politics, society). This is exactly how Orlan is.  Her body is hers, her art is hers: she is in complete control.

Orlan is a feminist, which complicates matters further pushing her into the brunt of many debates. Feminism is the idea that there are limitations placed on female behaviour and that these limitations should be removed. Feminists aim for political, social, and economic equality to men. For me feminism seems to be particularly problematic when a woman, particularly a feminist woman, is considered sexy.

Now many feminists agree that women can wear make-up, wear racy lingerie and still be a feminist. However, some argue that if women want to be seen as equal with men, those things shouldn’t be done or even necessary. Those things are set out to attract and please men, why shouldn’t they do things to please us? The argument pushes conforms of society’s understanding of the gender divide yes. However, on the contrary if a female feminist does look beautiful and radiates her sexuality that can be empowering. It could also encourage others to express their sexuality, just as men have been doing for centuries. Orlan pushes people’s ideas of the female body in society.


Therefore, the subversive portrait I chose is from Orlan’s’ scandalous performance in Paris from 1977, “Le Baiser de l’Artiste” (The Artist’s Kiss). It was based on the texts ‘Facing a society of mothers and merchants’ and ‘Art and prostitution’, written in collaboration with Hubert Besacier, and gave Orlan a name in the world of art.The single black and white image shows Orlan sitting behind a slot machine of her own nude body with an assertive and strong expression. She looks extremely pretty compared to her more disturbing and recent images. She’s seen here with long dark hair, big eyes and mouth plump and painted. The image of the body fits in social conforms of what is attractive, making her instantly intriguing and irresistible in this society. The slot machine transforms her into an object of satisfaction. The slot machine worked so if a person put 5 francs into the slot, which would than drop into a little pile of coins where Orlan’s crotch would be, Orlan would give them a kiss. When Orlan originally performed “Le Baiser de l’Artiste” she yelled to the allured audience, “Who wants a kiss from the artist?” and people would approach her for her affections whilst others stood back in horror. Journalists flocked to the event, some were amused and some were embarrassed.

By Orlan transforming herself into a machine, which required payment in order to operate, shocked the world over. We witnessed an attractive feminist woman objectify herself for public entertainment. It raised many questions. Can we pay for a kiss? Can a woman only be a sexually attractive body? Do we objectify women in this way even without the slot machine?  Orlan the artist and the woman seems to never play the victim: she is subject and object, actress and director. However, I still find this raises complexities, as it seems she’s quite comfortable in becoming something for her viewers to consume and enjoy. But again, this may make her feel empowered.

“Le Baiser de l’Artiste” questioned peoples’ ideas on the objectification of women as well as social ideas of what a sexually attractive woman should be. It made us question if Orlan was being objectified or being empowered and in control. It pushed peoples conforms and boundaries making society realise that we needn’t be so narrow minded.

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