''I see so much all the time,” says Orlan. “Sometimes, I want to see nothing.” This is why I'm driving the infamous French performance artist, in town for the opening of MOCA's “Out of Actions,” along Highway 60 to Joshua Tree National Park. More Soul Gold is playing on the stereo, and Orlan's striking half-black, half-cornflower-yellow wig is bobbing and swaying to the rhythms of Dyke and the Blazers as she gazes contentedly out the window at the car lots, fast-food establishments and designer-outlet stores. “Look,” says my companion on this peculiar cultural exchange, playwright Sharon Yablon, “isn't our architecture ugly?” Orlan nods, smiling, not understanding.
Her contribution to MOCA's survey of performance art is Le Baiser de l'Artiste (The Kiss of the Artist). In a room dominated by feminist works of the '70s, a tape loop and cutout version of a naked Orlan re-creates her performance as a human kissing machine hawking smooches for 5 francs; accompanying it, a photograph of her as St. Orlan, a canonized nun, one breast peeking coyly from the baroque folds of her habit. But she is best known for her “carnal art,” cosmetic surgeries that have transformed her features into a walking discourse on feminine representation: Her chin cites Botticelli's Venus, her eyes Gerome's Psyche, her lips Boucher's Europa, and so on.
The art references aren't readily apparent; besides the yellow eyebrows and black-and-yellow outfit color-coordinated with her elaborate wig, the only truly peculiar aspects of her countenance are the two caterpillar-shaped bumps of collagen implanted above her brow (after the Mona Lisa), which she decorates assiduously with glittery makeup.
Orlan tells me that it is difficult for her to find plastic surgeons willing to work on her. She remains awake during her surgeries; in one especially grisly photo, she smiles at the camera while the skin of her neck lays bared – a bloody flap stretching from collarbone to ear. “I do not wish to make all my life plastic surgery,” she says. “But I want to make a hole in my body and then close it up.”
When we reach Joshua Tree, Orlan wanders about, taking photos of the trees and the rocky outcroppings with a disposable camera. She poses, touristlike, while I snap a picture of her aestheticized head against the ancient rocks. “I like this landscape very much,” she says in her basso profundo voice, “but to my head it is not desert. There is too much here.”
Outside the Del Taco in Yucca Valley, I wait in the car while Sharon and Orlan go in to order. A woman with an unkempt Pat Benatar haircut exits the restaurant with her horse-faced daughter in tow; they look back at Orlan nervously, and I see the mother's lips form the word Halloween. Inside the Del Taco, every eye is riveted to this diminutive Frenchwoman who seems blissfully unaware. Back in the car, heading down the Yucca Valley, the lips that may or may not remind one of Boucher's Europa clamp down on a spicy chicken taco.