|Striptease occasionnel à l’aide des draps du trousseau, by ORLAN.|
ORLAN's best photograph: a striptease in the style of Botticelli
The sheets were for my wedding trousseau, but I covered them in sperm and used them for a striptease instead’
Interview by Kim Willsher
7 Jan 2016
he first one of these striptease photos is quite posed. I am a kind of Madonna. Then, as I undress, I am using my body to express the history of art – by emulating The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Finally, you are left with a pile of sheets on the floor, like a chrysalis from which you don’t know what will emerge.
This was done in 1975. The idea is that striptease for a woman is impossible because, even as she undresses, she is re-dressed by other images, thoughts, preconceived ideas and prejudices, none of which she can remove. Viewers don’t see a nude woman – they see what’s in their own head.
The sheets were part of my trousseau, the gifts my mother prepared for my marriage. When I was a young girl, every time I wanted to go out, she would insist I help with these sheets. I asked all my lovers to put their sperm on them, then I used dye to bring out the pretty stains. Later, as part of a performance, I took a large needle and thread and embroidered the stains while blindfolded or looking straight at the audience.
I don’t think my mother ever saw my works with these sheets. She knew I was into art and poetry, but she thought I’d stop all that nonsense when I was married. In fact, I didn’t marry until much later and the sheets were never used for their original purpose. They were made of heavy scratchy linen that was extremely disagreeable against the skin.
The photos were taken by one of my lovers. I don’t remember exactly who, but I decided everything: the pose, the angle, the light. Unlike some of my other work, this wasn’t very provocative or transgressive. If you take away the trousseau, it’s basically me posing as the Venus of Botticelli.
These days, I’m interested in what kind of striptease might be possible in our era. For my latest exhibition, I had cells taken from my body in a biopsy and cultivated them, then played with how they looked. So it’s a striptease with cells instead of clothes. I also took medical scans of my body and produced a 3D image of my skull. Lots of artists have worked with skulls, but I’m one of the first to work with my own – a skull that has an identity.
I almost chose another work of mine, The Origin of War, as my best shot. This was inspired by The Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet’s famous painting of a woman’s sex, with no head and no arms, just the top of her legs close up. My shot shows a modest-size penis that is half-erect. As an image, it is absolutely mutilating, like the work of a serial killer. It was shown at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and they put it quite high up on the wall. I realised afterwards that they were not allowed to show erect or even semi-erect penises so they put it up high so that if anyone asked, they could say: “No, no, it’s not an erection. It’s just a question of perspective.” Most newspapers and magazines have refused to publish the work, but it has been on television, which is a strange reversal.
I’m successful now, but it hasn’t always been easy. In 1976, I performed The Kiss of the Artist at a contemporary art fair in Paris. I sat behind a slot machine that had been made to look like my nude torso. In return for a kiss, I invited people to put money in a slot between its breasts. The coins fell into a transparent box at the pubis. I was sacked from my job. The work was intended to question moral values, but the private school where I was teaching sent me a telegram saying: “Your attitude is incompatible with your role as a teacher. Your classes are cancelled.”
I was left with no income and no money, with debts and a studio to run. It was a difficult time. The work caused a scandal. I was insulted, called a prostitute, told my work was “absolutely disgusting”. My neighbours would kick the door of my flat as they passed. But the work helped my comeback, so there was a happy ending.
Born: Saint-Etienne, France, 1947.
Studied: École des Beaux Arts, Saint-Etienne
Influences: Michel Serres, Julia Kristeva.
High point: “Travelling in Africa when I was young. And my plastic surgery performances in the early 1990s.”
Low point: “Being fired from teaching.”
Top tip: “Don’t follow the line – take a step sideways.”