The Rebirth of Saint Gaga:
A Re-imagining of The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan
(written in 2011 during the release of Born This Way)
An operation is about to take place, a performance for the digital age. It will be filmed and broadcast across the globe and its viewers encouraged via web cam and live chat to ask questions throughout. There are computers set up in one corner of the theatre, to this end. In the corner diagonally opposite stands a jewel-encrusted unicorn - noble in stature, an emblem of the fantastic. And straddling these two realms of technology/reality and fantasy, is a slim woman sitting on the operating table. In a deep New York accent she reads from Brecht's The Duchess of Malfi, as the surgeon (in a gown designed by Paco Rabanne) loosens the woman's fingerless glove to insert a needle into the back of her hand.
The woman, of course, is Lady Gaga and she is about to undergo her seventh (and most widely-anticipated) procedure in The Rebirth of Saint Gaga series. Previous operations have included work on her thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts, ankles, waist and neck. All are part of an on-going vision to be reborn through a surgical discourse on freedom, acceptance and tolerance. Using her body as her medium, she is about to bring her ideal - Mother Monster - ever closer.
Gaga puts down her book as the surgeon takes up a pen to draw broken lines around her eyes, cheeks and mouth. On her chin she draws two circles, one inside the other, creating the illusion of an eye. Gaga, in an Alexander McQueen dress, lies back on the table and smiles, her golden hair framing her head like a halo. On her feet the exaggerated pink pointe ballet shoes extend her legs beyond the edge of the operating table. Throughout the procedure one breast remains on show, like that of a warrior woman who has removed the other for ease of using a bow and arrow. She puts her hand to her crotch to rearrange the prosthetic phallus there, ensuring its bulk is clearly visible.
The operation is the first of its kind. Though the body has often been used as a backdrop for public debate, and Gaga herself has been filmed undergoing six separate procedures, never before has it been broadcast on such a huge scale. Fed live to fifteen galleries across continents, it is also being transmitted to TV channels and websites around the world. The general public, art historians, artists, politicians, feminists and curious/enraged members of the medical profession all have their questions. Gaga is about to marry private space to public domain. Is she finally in our hands? Or are we in hers?
"I think we're ready," she says. "Put your paws up if you're with me."
A roar erupts from the crowds watching the big screens, as their reaction is filmed and relayed back to the operating room. Paws shoot up. They have given their consent. Gaga smiles.
The surgeon, a woman, sets about inserting needles into Gaga's nose. Tears run down her face and one of the camera crew can be seen grimacing. Her top lip is lifted as the needle delves deep inside to pierce her gums again and again. And then the surgeon is handed a long, flexible needle, which she inserts into Gaga's forehead, above heavily made-up eyes and black brows. We see her skin conform to its shape as the implement probes vigorously beneath the flesh. A scalpel cuts along the hairline and round to the back of the ear.
There are five images on the wall, onto which Gaga's face has been superimposed. Elton John, Ziggy Stardust, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and Kali all bleed into Gaga to create digital hybrids of artists, egos, creators and destroyers. Dresses and costumes made from meat, plastic, lace and bubbles line the walls. There are four clocks labelled Toronto, New York, Tokyo and Paris. Beside the computer screens four women in designer dresses and gold turbans stand, there to translate questions and answers into French, German, Spanish and sign language. As the surgeon begins to prise Gaga's flesh from her skull, the questions begin to pour in.
You reincarnate yourself over and over, right? With the costumes and wigs. Is this just a continuation of that?
- It's not a reincarnation. I never change myself. I am just reborn. I was born from the egg, I was born in space, I writhed in amniotic fluid in a transparent box. I was born a hybrid. I was born a star. Now I am going to be reborn as Mother Monster. Reincarnation suggests ending one form and beginning another. What I am doing is evolving into that which I was originally born to become.
Gaga has taken the facial features of women she admires, as moulds for her new face. The brow she has taken from Frida Kahlo ("for her spirit of endurance and because she was beauty in the face of prejudice"); from Candy Darling she has chosen the eyes ("she was more woman than most women"). The nose of James Pradier's Sappho is chosen "to represent gay, straight, bi and transgendered", the mouth of Queen Elizabeth I ("for loyalty to her people") and the chin of the Vienna Actionist VALIE EXPORT, the only one of these icons still alive, "because she embraces her gender through art".
Had you ever had cosmetic surgery before the Rebirth series?
- No, and I prefer the term 'plastic surgery' as this is a plastic art. You must understand, I'm not having this procedure done in an effort to beautify myself or indeed to fit myself within any parameters. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is about art; this is my vision, and the vision of the Haus. As an artist I have the power to design my image. I am the art and the artist, the performance and the performer.
But isn't this a bit extreme?
- No, it's no different to any of my other performances. It's a well-constructed cabaret.
But this seems more... real. You have a knife cutting through you. At this moment we're watching your skin being lifted from your skull. It's grotesque and totally compelling. Is that why you're doing this? To shock?
- Not at all. I see myself in an endless transformative state... I am committed wholeheartedly to theatre with no intermission. If you don't want to be part of the audience, you can leave at any time. You chose to witness this, knowing exactly what procedure was about to take place. If you are shocked yet you continue to watch, that says more about you than it does about me.
And we do continue to watch as the surgeon inserts the first implant, a single nub, into the centre of Gaga's forehead, like the early growth of a horn. There is a lot of blood but it is collected to be used as part of a post-operative installation which will include reliquaries containing body fat and scraps of scalp with hair attached, along with bloodied gauze and the surgeon's gown. All will be up for sale as part of the omnipresent theatre of involvement.
Is this another form of creativity for you? After dance, song, film... is this the next step?
- Whether it is my voice or my skin, the medium is always there. My body is sanctuary, my blood is pure, but I must reveal the private self if I am to call myself an artist.
For a moment her face is distorted as the surgeon pushes her fingers beneath the skin of her cheek to tuck in another implant. It's like a brutal sexual act and is very uncomfortable to watch.
Would you say you're setting new boundaries by revealing this sacred space, literally your insides, to a world of strangers?
You can only pour so much of yourself into songs, or poetry or art. You keep on opening up old wounds to get at the depth of your creativity. The next step, naturally, is to create new wounds, physically - cut open and sew up - so your imagination can continue to thrive. I'm not setting any new boundaries. I'm bypassing them all together.
Camille Paglia, amongst others, has made claims that what you are doing is anti-feminist and unsexy. Are you a feminist?
- I would be ashamed if I couldn't say I was. But I am more than that. I am feminist, neo-feminist, post-feminist and alter-feminist. And being sexy has got nothing to do with it. Do I dress in meat to be sexy? Do I bleed on stage to be sexy? No, I do it because I love theatrics, and because I have the freedom to be whoever I want to be. When I do dress in 'sexy' clothes, it is to appropriate these signifiers of sex and beauty, the way dying on stage appropriates the spectators' desire.
Who is the artist? You or the surgeon?
- The surgeon is the technician. She is an honorary member of the Haus. She is simply executing my orders, my design.
Like Warhol's Superstars?
Gaga must stop talking for a moment. A pre-recording of a section of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, read by Yoko Ono, is played out to the room and beyond while the surgeon inveigles Gaga's lips to her blade. As she begins to cut scarlet trickles down cheeks which are swollen in response to this brutality. It is hard to believe this is not another special effect. Her lips, usually painted perfect are now monstrous and blood-stained. They will continue to bleed and ooze over the coming days and weeks as they heal, which is as much a part of this spectacle as the surgery itself. As part of the after-show exhibition, a selection of photographs will be on view. They will depict her body's recovery from surgery and acceptance of the foreign objects placed within it. They will show the range of colours and textures, the changing topography of her face as it evolves.
Gaga raises her hand.
"I've had enough for today." It's hard to make out what she is saying. The women translate. "I feel sick. I'm in pain. I want to call it a day. I'll be back. In ten days time I will continue."
"We have just one more question."
A man from the BBC asks, "Who are you actually doing this for, Gaga?"
Saint Gaga begins to smile, before the pain hits her. She struggles to sit, gives up and remains lying down. Looking straight into camera she says, "I do it for my fans. For the misfits and the freaks who feel they don't belong. Look at me now. Do I fit the mould?"
She lies still as the applause filters through. The surgeon dresses her wounds, wrapping the bandage round her chin, over her ear, the top of her head, her other ear, and back to the chin, as though this will keep the pieces in place. When she has finished Gaga looks remarkably similar to her Madonna performance where, dressed in flowing material, she cast off the layers one by one until she was naked, rising from a sea of fabric like Botticelli's Venus. Reborn.
Faber, Alyda (2002) Saint Orland: Ritual as violent spectacle and cultural criticism, The Drama Review 46 (1)
Lovelace, Carey, (1995) Orlan: Offensive Acts, Performing Arts Journal, 49
O'Bryan, Jill (1997), Saint Orlan Faces Reincarnation, Art Journal
Lady Gaga interview, 2009, Elle Online
Lady Gaga interviewed by Peter Robinson (2011) Time Out
Lady Gaga interviewed by Stephen Fry (2011) FT Magazine