Body Imagery in the Avant-gardes of the Twentieth Century

How to Cite

Hein, N., 2010. Body Imagery in the Avant-gardes of the Twentieth Century. Body, Space & Technology, 9(2). DOI:




A haunting scene from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Andalusian Dog (1928) shows a razor cutting into a woman’s eye; this act celebrates pure violence against a human body, breaking through one of its protective membranes. In The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan (1990-95), this image resurfaces when a surgeon’s scalpel is plunged into the face of the French performance artist Orlan, marking her face permanently.

In the Futurist manifesto ‘Multiplied Man and the Religion of the Machine’ (1911), F. T. Marinetti dreams of a ‘nonhuman and mechanical being, constructed for an omnipresent velocity . . . naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative. It will be endowed with surprising organs: organs adapted to the needs of a world of ceaseless shocks’ (de Maria, 2000: 40; author’s translation). Why not modify the body with an extra arm, as Australian artist Stelarc did in his performance Third Hand (1997). This prosthesis transforms the artist into a hybrid of the organic and technology, enlarging and magnifying his body with intrusive technology. At the same time, the prosthesis brings his body close to the Futurist concept of the multiplied man.

Whereas Surrealist artists dream of sexually mutated bodies, Jack and Dinos Chapman present them to us as genetically modified mannequins. In their installations, childlike mannequins that have penises instead of noses or that show other mutations frolic about. As we shall see later, the Chapman brothers do not try to create erotic images (as the Surrealists did) but they show the monstrosity of society and people, evidenced by mutations of the human body. Still, the similarities between the imagery of contemporary art and that of the historical avant-garde are striking, which I will illustrate in this paper.

Many scholars have established a link between the avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century and the neo-avant-garde that evolved in America and Europe during the 1950s. Marvin Carlson, for example, writes in Performance: ‘The primarily European avant-garde of the early twentieth century provided a background and a lineage for early performance art, and in certain cases this avant-garde even provided direct inspiration through individual European artists who brought such experimental concerns to the United States during the 1930s and 1940s’ (1996: 101).1 This link goes beyond the shared interest to shock and upset the public, and to challenge artistic and societal norms. The new avant-garde artists have adopted practices, such as happenings, that engage the audience in a way similar to some of the avant-garde soirées. In addition, the paradigm shift from product to process instigated in the historical avant-garde has become fundamental for the new generation of artists. Moreover, I suggest a resurfacing of avant-garde body imagery in contemporary art and performance, as I will show in the work of Orlan, Stelarc and the Chapman brothers. The work of these artists was, of course, also influenced by the neo-avant-garde, but I would like to put forward that today’s artists—deliberately or not—have returned to issues raised and images presented during the early twentieth century. They reinterpret them, however, for our modern society, shaped by cyber- and gene technology. Most important, contemporary artists impress us with their readiness to use their entire body—exterior as well as the interior—and to radically transform or mutilate it. In this sense, they promote the idea expressed in the historical avant-garde movements of using the body as material.

During the historical avant-garde, artists increasingly began to realize that the human body was the perfect site for embodying ideas and ideals. In painting, sculpture, and photography, as well as the performing arts, bodies were used to represent the movements’ programmatic visions and to provide a site for social criticism and experimentations. Specific images dominated each movement, such as the glorified multiplied man in Futurism, the female body as site of desire in Surrealism, or the fragmented body in Dada. These images were not exclusive, however; all of the avant-garde movements glorified the body, used the artificial body, created fragmented and modified bodies, or attempted to overcome corporeality.

Representations of the body embodied the artists’ and movements’ intentions, and the artists’ own bodies increasingly became the site for staging ideas. F. T. Marinetti, Hugo Ball, and Duchamp, among others, seemed to embrace the notion that the artist’s body is as viable for staging ideas and ideals as any other body—in some cases more so since artist and work of art appear as a single image. One result of this identification of artist and representation is the eradication of the duality between creator and performer. Giovanni Lista explains this shift in reference to Futurist performances: Futurism ‘invented performance as an expressive form in which the avant-garde artist himself becomes involved. . . . The performance is in fact the ultimate aim of Futurism’s aesthetic program: the artist’s subjectivity makes the work, which is an active act, inscribed in the present’ (2001: 12; author’s translation). In other words, the shifting of the poet onto stage emphasized the persona of the artist and conflated author and actor, actor and character, author and text. As a result, spectators associate an artist’s persona, including his or her body, with a certain work of art and a certain movement. Today, body and performance artists habitually use their own bodies as subject and object, continuing thus a tendency that began at Futurist evenings. This shift also questions the separation between art and life, which the avant-garde movements wanted to abolish.2 When Marinetti presented himself as the proto-Futurist, he not only deliberately chose his body as site and material but also showed that the Futurist persona cannot be separated from the image since the body embodies it. Marinetti purposely chose his body as a model because it fitted the Futurist body image. By contrast, body and performance artists today do not embody a certain image or become a fictive character; instead, their bodies become identical with their work. Perhaps we cannot speak any more of embodiment since there seems to be no longer any separation between art and body, as in the case of Orlan, for instance: now the work has taken over the body.

The first generation of body and performance artists during the 1960s and ‘70s—Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic and others—stressed the sensual, experiential component of their performances and was highly indebted to Antonin Artaud’s understanding of body and performance. For example, the American performance artist Chris Burden subjected his body to risky acts and pain. For Shooting Piece (1971), he asked a friend to fire a shot at his arm. Even though the risk was monitored, the pain was real and desired by Burden, as Carlson explains: Burden ‘was trying to use extreme body situations to induce certain mental states’ (1996:103). Clearly, acute pain could lead to a different mental state.

This sensual aspect is completely absent from the work of the contemporary artists mentioned above. This does not mean that Stelarc and Orlan do not experience pain during their performances, but the sensual experience is not the main aspect of their work. Instead, it is the idea of the body as matter and material that is at the core of their performative representations. A body that can be freely modified and mutated all for the sake of creating a work of art.

Body Modification: The Prosthetic Body

Additions—such as prostheses—are one way of modifying the body; they are fundamental to Stelarc’s work in the late 1990s. Most of his experiments present one or another kind of prosthetics to modify and enhance his own body. To the artist, moreover, the body has always been a prosthetic body: ‘ Ever since we evolved as hominids and developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators and we constructed artifacts, instruments and machines. In other words we have always been prosthetic bodies. We fear the involuntary and we are becoming increasingly automated and extended. But we fear what we have always been and what we have already become—Zombies and Cyborgs’ (2004a). This conviction plays out directly in his work of the 1990s, in which he embraces technology and virtual reality to transform his body into a prosthetic body.

Since Stelarc is not missing any limbs and is in no need of prosthetics, his prostheses cannot be seen as substitutive. At heart they are extensive and magnifying, if one wants to use Umberto Eco’s terminology developed for distinguishing different kinds of prostheses. Stelarc transforms his body by extending its natural range and capacity, even though in reality his artificial extensions are often more a hindrance than an enhancement. As Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha explain, ‘Stelarc employs his body as a passive physical object, subject to the forces of gravity or to electrical manipulation. At the same time, the physical parameters of his body (including his body activities) are amplified and externalized in various ways: as sounds, visual projections or movement of robots or prostheses’ (2002: 24). The hybridization counteracts the obsoleteness of his living body. Obsoleteness has been one of Stelarc’s main conceptions of the human body: ‘The body is neither a very efficient nor very durable structure. It malfunctions often and fatigues quickly; its performance is determined by its age’ (2004b). This body needs to be enhanced with prosthesis since it has fallen behind in its evolution in comparison to the modern world. This concept echoes that of the Futurists who believed that the body was not adequate any more for modern life.

Basically, the Futurists and Stelarc concur that the present living body is not adequate enough for surviving in the modern world and needs to be enhanced. But whereas Stelarc wants to create a superior body using both natural and artificial material, he rejects all intention of ‘redesigning the species, or creating a master race’ (Farnell, 2000: 145). He certainly wants to set himself apart from earlier attempts at creating a ‘master race’. The Futurists, on the other hand, voiced no hesitations in creating a superman, a hybrid of man and machine. Stelarc seems to follow in Futurism’s tracks, but he uses today’s aesthetics and technology to create enhanced techno-bodies to replace the obsolete living body.3 Like Marinetti, however, Stelarc believes that only the enhanced (multiplied) man has a chance to subsist in the modern world. But even though the similarity between Futurism’s and Stelarc’s techno-body is striking, the motivations for constructing such hybrids differ.

In one of his most famous projects, Third Hand, Stelarc attaches an additional robotic arm to his upper body. The prosthetic arm becomes a magnifier in Stelarc’s piece because it multiplies his natural body, allowing him to perform tasks concurrently with three arms. An additional limb—suggests Third Hand—increases the corporeal faculty and thus renders it more adequate for today’s world. But somehow today’s technology is not yet advanced enough to make his third arm function properly. Perhaps these difficulties stem less from the prosthetic arm than from the outmoded body that cannot adapt easily to the new corporeality. In any case, Stelarc needed to rehearse quite a long time to control all the parts of his enhanced body. Indeed, the animation of the extra arm requires a very complicated mechanism. Electronic signals that are picked up by electrodes from other parts of his body, located mainly in the abdomen, move the different parts of the prosthesis. The electronic signals can be sent either by Stelarc or by a computer. (This electronic computer manipulation questions the autonomy of the body, as the body surrenders completely to the artificial muscle stimulation, an aspect of Stelarc’s work that is worth mentioning at this point but will not be discussed in further details in this paper.)

Despite the similarities in body image—the man-machine hybrid—there is one main difference that sets the Futurists and Stelarc apart. Marinetti and his fellow Futurists never built a multiplied man. One of the reasons was certainly that at the beginning of the twentieth century technology was not advanced enough to realize what Stelarc can today. But Marinetti did not even try to build a techno-body; he merely envisioned it as the body of the future, describing it in detail in writings such as Mafarka the Futurist and his manifestos. Of course, robots and other hybrids appeared on Futurist stages; however, these figures did not even come close to the ideal. Yet the Futurists in one sense did realize their man of the future in that they surpassed Stelarc’s (easily malfunctioning) techno-body, since they focused not only on physicality but also on attitude, behavior, and, above all, the mind. The glorified body meant not only the physically enhanced multiplied man but also the man of action, who embodied extraordinary mental and physical strength. For this reason, the artists themselves could function as models for the glorified body image. Stelarc, on the other hand, is imprisoned in the idea that human physicality needs to be enhanced by hybridization. Thus, he not only ignores the potential of the mind but highlights the duality of body and mind. In his work, the body is reduced to matter, which is inadequate as such, and needs to be modified to withstand today’s world.

As Stelarc tries to overcome the obsolete body, prosthetics are used neither as a statement about body norms nor to create new figures but as a necessary part of today’s physicality. The ultimate goal is to magnify the corporeal potential, which was already envisioned by the Futurists.

Body Modification: Under the Skin

Surgery is another method of modifying the human body. In daily life, the face is often the first part chosen to be altered by people undergoing cosmetic surgery. The face is the most recognizable body part in today’s culture; indeed, the media promote certain faces like icons. This fixation on the face certainly inspired Orlan’s work, The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. By modifying her face, the French artist reinforces the face’s conventional role of dominance over the rest of the body. Orlan participates in and at the same time takes a very critical position toward idolatry and iconography. Indeed, as Philip Auslander knows from the artist’s personal accounts, Orlan rejects cosmetic surgery that is meant to enhance or beautify the body (1997: 131). By using the same techniques but for a different purpose, Orlan presents her critical view of society’s relation to beauty and plastic surgery.

Cutting into the body or more specifically into an eye in An Andalusian Dog, by contrast, has different implications. It violates the membrane of the eye, its skin, but a healing process is not possible. Yet, violating the body for art’s sake was very uncommon during the historical avant-garde. Artists primarily worked with the human body’s surface to present their ideas and intentions. Of course, artists transfigured the body, but they either kept the living body unharmed or used an artificial body—the marionette, the pictorial representation, or the fictive body in literature—for their staging of disruptive acts. Some artists occasionally offered glimpses into the interior; yet such glimpses often did not reveal the body’s natural internal makeup but showed, for example, clockworks or other unnatural sights (Surrealism), or exemplified the atrocities of the war and violence (Dadaism and Expressionism). Only in rare cases was the body’s interior depicted, as in Hans Bellmer’s Rose ouverte la nuit (1935-36), a disturbing gouache sketch of a girl exposing her inside, and in Dalí’s obsession with any part of the body. Generally, the aesthetic was that of the surface, and the inside was rather neglected in these explorations. Even today, most artists focus on the surface.

By contrast, Orlan not only reveals what people usually try to hide from the public—the cutting into the skin, the blood, the messiness of surgery—but she also makes those aspects a crucial part of the spectacle. Here Orlan is unique in her approach, although she links her performance to the Renaissance anatomical theatres that were no less sensational and that also utilized surgeons who performed in front of an audience. In these anatomical presentations, sometimes under the pretext of scientific studies, corpses were cut open in front of gaping spectators. It was not the violence inflicted on a human body but the interior makeup of the body that attracted attention. In a way, Orlan banks on the same curiosity in her modern viewers. What makes her work particularly provocative is not only the genuineness of the surgeries but also their public staging. Orlan knows that cutting into the body for art’s sake breaks a taboo, and she makes the spectators conscious of this by forcing them to watch the performed surgery. In ‘Sorry for Having to Make You Suffer’, Anja Zimmermann maintains that the theatrical presentation of the surgeries is as important as the end product: ‘rather than simply giving her body to art, letting it become an artwork, she stages it in the context of the traditional connection of science as art and shows what happens to the body when it becomes material’ (2002: 43).

This focus on process away from final product was begun in the historical avant-garde and has since shaped the understanding of art, highlighting the creative process and in this respect coming closer to performance. By watching performance/surgeries, the spectator witnessed the transformation of body material, as did Orlan, who was conscious throughout the procedure and talked into the camera or recited texts.The skin has lost its shielding quality and exposes not only human vulnerability but also whatever is underneath: body tissue, blood, and other bodily fluids. As the scalpel cuts through her skin, Orlan offers her entire body to the viewers; any part has become equal in its function as material. Other artists have offered their interior to the spectators before. For example, Stelarc filmed his intestines in a technically sophisticated way, inserting a mini-camera into his body. The French voice artist Henri Chopin swallowed a microphone in order to record interior body sounds. But these offerings of the interior body are rather ‘clean’. Conversely, for Gina Pane, who was one of the first female artists to harm her body on purpose in performance in the early 1970s, bodily outflow, such as blood, mucus, and urine, was part of the work. Ron Athey staged violent ritualized performances of self-abuse twenty years later, as if he was trying to exorcise the AIDS-virus from his body (Warr and Jones, 2000: 32). Unlike Orlan, Pane and Athey glorified the mutilations, and the artists thrived on the experience of bodily pain. Body fluids had become part of the work in what Arnold Aronson calls a ‘masochistic branch of performance art’ (2000: 168). Mostly, however, the body mutilations were symbolic.4 By contrast, Orlan’s body was forever marked. The surgery, indeed, modified Orlan’s face: some parts are taken away while others are added. Her face is molded like a sculpture out of clay, except the material is human and a surgeon needs to perform the changes, using all of modern medicine’s potential. The changes are permanent, unless Orlan decides to alter them with yet another surgery.

Having finished her long-term project Reincarnation, Orlan abandoned surgery and turned to computer simulation. Virtual reality is a ‘safe’ way to redesign bodies and, as a matter of fact, much more appropriate for today’s transient society. Using virtual technology, Orlan embraces the new possibilities of current technology. Society, however, continues its frenzy over plastic surgery, promoting it in the media and through ‘before’ and ‘after’ campaigns. Yet Orlan apparently has reached the boundaries of the transformation of her own body and has decided to stop using it as artistic material. Still, her face and body are her main sites for performing modifications. In Pre-Columbian Self-Hybridation (1998-99), she virtually merges her face with Pre-Colombian art using virtual technology. Underneath the image her face shows through, but virtual technology transforms her into another persona. These works seem like a modern version of photo collage—only the face here merges with a virtual image. Unlike her earlier works, these focus on the final product, the modified face; they are not performances but representations. The reception of Self-Hybridation in 1999 differed greatly from that for The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan. In ‘Art Become Flesh . . . and It Was Called ORLAN’, Olga Guinot points out that ‘Her critical intention is still there but recently, Orlan has reflected on the excessive impact of the series of operations and the different treatment given to her subsequent series of virtual portraits’ (2002: 204). Guinot seems to be referring to the rather tame response to the virtual images. As Orlan enters a new phase in her work, using virtual reality instead of the scalpel to transform her body, she moves further from the body and performance art involving mutilation and enters what Stelarc has described as the ‘virtue’ of the cyberworld: ‘Virtual Reality technology allows a transgression of boundaries between male/female, human/machine, time/space’ (2004c).

Body Modification: Mutations

Yet another theme of body modification is body mutation, which implies a genetic remapping of the body. Here I want to look at one specific idea of remapping that links contemporary artists, such as the Chapman brothers, to Surrealist fantasies: mutations of the sexual organs or of the sexuality of the body.

The English Chapman brothers first became noted for their interpretation of one of Goya’s etchings of horror, Disasters of War (1810-20), which they recreated using life-sized mannequins. In their installation entitled Great Deeds Against the Dead from 1994, two desexed and otherwise dismembered mannequins hang from a tree. Despite having been maimed, the other parts of the bodies are still smooth. The faces are expressionless, even though one head is hanging on the tree having been brutally severed from the body. The dummies lack the utter distress visible in the human faces and on the entire bodies in Goya’s etchings. Translating the etchings to lifesize dimensions and showing the atrocities in color does not necessarily increase the horror; yet it is definitely different to see life-sized three-dimensional mannequins used. The materiality, the size, and the three-dimensionality of the bodies, together with their familiarity from shop windows (now mutilated in their plastic nakedness) add quite a different aspect to the installation. Instead of being solely an outcry against bodily violence, the mannequins raise questions about today’s consumer society and standards of beauty. The Goya bodies depict mutilation inflicted by human hand. Strictly speaking, this early Chapman installation does not yet deal with mutation but with modification in the form of maiming.

In the mid-1990s, the Chapmans’ sculptures and installations, such as Fuck Face (1994) and Two-faced Cunt (1996), took on increasingly sexual messages. These installations are shocking because they present children, often young girls, seemingly playing innocent games. Their bodies, though, show explicit sexual mutations: they have penises for noses, recta for mouths, or similar metamorphoses. Fuck Face depicts an endearing young boy in an oversized t-shirt, with a penis for a nose and a rectum for a mouth; an image that is definitely transgressing society’s expectations and norms. The piece comments on society’s fixation on sexuality by blatantly presenting sexual deformations; it also shatters the innocence normally ascribed to children. Similarly, in Two-faced Cunt, the deformation has sexual implications. The two-headed girl, uncannily referencing Siamese twins, shows openly the female sexual organs but, as in Fuck Face, in a deviant place, at the seam between the two joint heads. The mannequins imply that the modifications were not directly performed by human hand, as in Great Deeds, but, rather, indirectly through social or genetic malfunctioning or manipulation. Still, these bodies seem not to be singular freak products of nature but rather to be examples of a new, engineered norm. Such mutated bodies present a horrific scenario in which technology and science know no limits. Society and its body images at large are the targets of the brothers’ critique.

Patricia Ellis writes poignantly about Fuck Face for the retrospective at the Saatchi Gallery in London: ‘Fuck Face will always be a dick’. She explains, ‘Kids are just smaller versions of the adults they’ll become. . . . It’s a psychology worn on the outside. In these two sculptures [Fuck Face and Two-faced Cunt], the Chapmans treat genitalia as a sort of “branding.” Though innocent of their deformities, there’s a certainty that the kids somehow fit their “label.” Whether it’s a trait that’s genetically inherent, or merely the children conforming to viewer expectations, everything you need to know about them is worn plainly on their faces’ (2004). The metaphor or allusion is presented blatantly as mutated body topography.

Erotic fantasies seem not to be the motivation for creating these sexualized bodies. Even though the two brothers acknowledge Sigmund Freud as an influence for their work, the misplaced penises and recta appear to be rather critical of (male) desire and of society. In this respect, the work of the Chapman brothers could not differ more from that of some Surrealists who depicted women sprouting penises. Surrealist depictions were generally sketches or photographs, such as Man Ray’s famous Veiled Erotic (1933), in which a machine’s handle alludes to an iron phallus. With those fantasies the Surrealists followed Marquis de Sade’s fantasized idea of the female sexual body and affirmed Freud’s claim that the male is obsessed with his own sexuality. But today the Surrealism’s notion of veiled eroticism is replaced by a convulsive monstrosity performed on the bodies of children, a taboo that the Surrealists had only begun to break with their sexualized child-woman.

The Chapman brothers use an iconography similar to that of the Surrealists when they transform children’s bodies or present the mutants in other works, such as their installation Hell. However, they do so for different reasons. They want to expose society’s ills by presenting deviations of character as mutations of the body. These mutations do not have positive connotations, like the sexual fantasies in Surrealism, but apocalyptic ones. Therefore, the Chapmans seem to be making the same criticism of society as the Dadaists during and after World War I. Dada artists depicted crippled soldiers to remind society of the terrible acts of the Great War, responding to a shattered world in the same way that the Chapman brothers today respond to a culture of video games, gene technology, and genocide. The emphasis on genetic mutations may warn against the abuse of recent scientific discoveries; more seriously, it casts blame on society for condoning and participating in the abuse and destruction of mankind. The Chapmans’ mutations raise our awareness, responding to society alike by presenting deviant bodies that address society’s image of normative bodies.

The correlation between the avant-gardes at the beginning and end of the twentieth century manifests itself in similar body imagery, as, for example, in the techno-body promoted by the Futurist and realized in Stelarc’s prosthetic body. It becomes also obvious through the use of the artist’s body as artistic material. Here the contemporary artists go further than their avant-garde models, as new technology enables them to break through the body’s surface, get under its skin, and intrude forcefully into it, incorporating the interior in their work. Most prominently, Orlan’s work eradicates the avant-garde’s hesitation to expose the corporeal inside. Living bodies were not harmed during the historical avant-garde. The Chapman brothers’ mannequins turn Surrealist fantasies into probable nightmares. In that manner, contemporary artists reinterpret avant-garde conceptions of what the human body means, modifying their concepts and imagery for today’s world.

Nina Hein

Nina Hein holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from Columbia University, New York, and is currently an Assistant Professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University in Dubai where she teaches classes on film and film production.

Nina has also been directing theatre and dance in New York, Munich, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and exhibited her video work in New York, Düsseldorf and Sharjah.

Her interests in multimedia, the imagery of the body and the relationship of body and space inspire all of her work.


1. See also Aronson, 2000 and Goldberg, 1988.

2. Cfr. Bürger, 1984.

3. Conversely, the body art of the 1960s was less interested in techno-bodies; technology played a rather minor role and did not merge with corporeality. In performance and body art, technology was primarily used to trigger bodily experience, as the example of Chris Burden has shown.

4. Even the most extreme Futurists and Dadaists did not risk getting physically hurt during their performances, except in their interaction with the audience (or recklessly driving cars, like Marinetti). Only in the performances in which the artists used costumes and the like to transform their bodies did a slight friction between human body and artificial elements cause a feeling of discomfort. But their bodies were never in danger. In contemporary body and performance art, it is not the audience members who are a potential danger for the artists but rather the volatility of the act.


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Nina Hein





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