"We reconstructed my entire skull. They cut my bottom jaw in half on either side and moved it forward. They cut my chin off and pushed it out. Then they cut the whole of the top of my face and straightened it."
My mouth fills with a queasy wash of saliva as artist Alana Francis describes her maxillofacial surgery to me over the phone. "If it gets very cold I can feel where some of the metal is, and on my chin, if I push it, I can feel the end of a screw." Okay. That's me. I'm done.
Francis' latest project, a range of seven images inspired by and based on the medical documentation of her own facial reconstruction surgery, will go on show today at Flowers Gallery as part of the annual Artist of the Day exhibition in Cork Street, London.
Artists like Orlan, Genesis P-orridge and Amalia Ulman have long been taking that hackneyed old phrase about the body as a canvas and slicing it open to reveal a fresh, quite literal, interpretation. But why are we, as artists and audiences, so drawn to life under the knife?
"I'm trying to reclaim ownership of my body, away from being someone else's canvas; away from this medical experience," explains Francis. "I found it quite cathartic to use my hands to make these solar plate photo etchings. In a way, I was taking back control for the aesthetic of the print, after giving up so much aesthetic control to the surgeon."
Because Francis underwent surgery for medical – rather than cosmetic – reasons, much of the outcome was determined by what the surgeons felt was best. Her aesthetic – how her own face would end up – was, she explains, "almost an afterthought".
Artist Ji Yeo explored this wrestle for control over your own body through her Draw on Me project. Yeo, who grew up between two of the world's busiest centres of cosmetic surgery, America and Korea, took to the streets of Brooklyn in 2010 wearing a nude suit, holding a sign that said: "I want to be perfect. Draw on me. Where should I get plastic surgery?"
Gratifyingly, most men who did take pen to Yeo's body did so to write messages of encouragement, like: "You are beautiful as you are," and: "You already are perfect." "It doesn't mean that I overcame all my fears or vulnerability," Yeo told The Guardian, "but it helped a little bit."
For some artists, however, surgery is the frontier on a far more experimental journey than simply raising self esteem. "We call it unity. Pandrodyne – positive androgyne," Genesis P-orridge told me during an interview in 2013 to promote h/er self-titled, photo-heavy memoir, explaining h/er and h/er late wife, collaborator and muse Lady Jaye's quest to unite as one single entity by having surgery and undergoing hormone therapy in a bid to resemble one another.
"We wanted a term that didn't have a history already. We wanted to go somewhere that wasn't about gender at all, but about the ending of difference; about inclusivity and becoming one. We stopped doing hormone therapy because it drove Jaye mad," explained P-orridge, laughing. "After three or four months, Jaye said, 'That's it, no more – we've done that experiment, it sucks; let's just get tits and not bother with all that.' It was sexy, too, having tits."
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Talking of tits, back in 2013, the French artist Camille Lorin exhibited a sculpture made up of hundreds of breasts implants, just days after five managers of the PIP company went on trial for selling dangerous and sub-standard silicon implants. Perhaps more controversially, the artist Amalia Ulman – who has used her Instagram feed as a long-term project in which she "creates" a modern celebrity character – pretended to have a breast augmentation by posting photos of a bandaged chest. While the boob job proved to be a hoax, i-D reported that Ulman did spend £1,280 on having a non-surgical nose job and facial filler injections in Beverly Hills.
Ah, the face. Perhaps above all other surgical interventions, it is the artist's relationship to their face that speaks so powerfully to our sense of identity. "Once you're in recovery, your face is so swollen you don't know what you're going to end up looking like, which was in itself a very strange experience," says Francis. "I mean, maybe it was partly induced by morphine. But also, because you're not able to physically feel your face for weeks, as all the nerves come back, you can't even regain a physical relationship with it. So my only anchor with my known physical aesthetic was looking into my eyes."
At her exhibition, Francis' etchings, which show her unconscious face lolling behind an oxygen mask and the creepy smile of a flattened-out skull, are hung around the room at just the right height to force us, as viewer, to stare through those same empty hollows where Alana tried to unearth her sense of self.
"It's to do with this idea of the internal identity of your face," explains Francis. "You know you have a skull, but your personal relationship with your sense of identity isn't with your bones."
Not bones, not flesh, not rolls of fat nor lines of skin; perhaps what the artistic fascination with surgery really shows is that distance between body and self. Perhaps, as the late Lady Jaye once put it, the body is a cheap suitcase; it's what we pack that counts.
Artist of the Day runs until the 5th of July at the Flowers Gallery.
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