Austrian Photographer, Filmmaker, and Performance Artist
Summary of VALIE EXPORT
VALIE EXPORT's work is expressly political, questioning the ways in which society functions, and particularly how women are perceived and treated. She is recognized as one of the most important early feminist artists, who reconsiders the ways in which the body is presented and challenges its representation as passive in conventional film and media, offering complex and challenging depictions of women's experience. Developing her practice during the 1960s in an Austria that was still coming to terms with its role in the Second World War, and influenced by Viennese Actionism, her early work consisted of performances in which she challenged public audiences with sexualized actions that asked them to examine women's experience, with a focus on the ways in which their bodies were subject to the male gaze in cinema. She explored these ideas in a range of mediums, taking an approach that encompassed different styles and techniques in her practice and writing texts that outlined the importance of feminism in art and film. Over her long career she has continued to make work about gender and society and to teach on avant-garde practice and its relationship to political work.
- EXPORT sees the body as an artistic material - she is interested in undermining the conventions of representing women's bodies in various ways, including offering her body to strangers to touch, exposing her genitals to her audiences, pointing out the ways in which femininity is constructed, and portraying the ways in which relationships ask women to adopt certain roles. She works with performance and film in order to consider the realities of women's bodies, rather than their fantasy depictions.
- The name VALIE EXPORT is an important part of her practice, adopted by the artist in 1967 it represents her rejection of patriarchal structures. Her new name was created as both a new, self-fashioned identity and an artistic concept, with VALIE an alternative spelling of her nickname (Walie) and EXPORT inspired by the branding on the pack for Smart Export cigarettes. It was the term 'Export' that had most significance for the artist; she saw the gesture as exporting her identity in order to create something entirely new.
- EXPORT is known for her development of a version of 'expanded cinema', a way of thinking about film that explores the possibilities of the medium beyond the projection of a film strip on a screen. Encompassing performance, photography, and interactive installations, as well as avant-garde cinematic techniques, EXPORT wants to make film a more interactive, intersubjective experience, rejecting the passive experience of the cinema and instead asking the audience to be actively involved in the work.
Progression of Art
Tapp und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema)
Walking in the street during a film festival in Vienna, EXPORT wore a styrofoam box extending roughly six inches from her body, a hole cut out of the front with a curtain covering it, resembling the architecture of a movie theater. Moving through the crowd, EXPORT invited passersby to put their hands under the curtain and touch her naked breasts, denying them the more conventional visual experience of the erotically charged gaze at the sexualised female form, and instead offering the experience of touch in order to critique the ways in which women's bodies were shown in cinema.
Seeking to complicate the structures of film and its reception in a work of expanded cinema (briefly defined as the exploration of the possibilities of the medium beyond the projection of a film strip on a screen), EXPORT claimed it as "the first real women's film". She states: "As always, the screening takes place in the dark. Only the movie theatre has become a bit smaller. There's only room inside for two hands. In order to see the film, meaning in this case to sense and feel it, the viewer (user) must guide his or her two hands into the movie theatre by way of the entrance. With that, the curtain, which up till now was raised only for the eyes, is finally raised for both hands too. The tactile reception stands against the deception of voyeurism [...] Tapp und Tastkino is an example for the activation of the audience through new interpretation."
Tapp und Tastkino then, offers a challenge to the patriarchal structures of film and, in art historian Roswitha Mueller's terms, represents "a woman's first step from object to subject." EXPORT's examination of the ways in which the body - especially women's bodies - are rendered passive in film preempts later critiques such as Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975) which considers how women on screen are objectified and presented so as to invite a sexualized male gaze. Seeking to complicate the existing understanding of the body in cinema, as well as the presumed hetrosexuality of the gaze, Tapp und Tastkino offers a physical engagement between the viewer/user and the artwork, moving beyond conventional modes of viewing and acting as an early example of EXPORT's feminist challenge to cinema.
Performance; Video, 1.08 minutes - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Aktionhose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic)
Aktionhose: Genitalpanik is possibly VALIE EXPORT's most notorious work. This silkscreened poster shows the artist sitting in her 1968 Aktionhose (Action pants) - a pair of Mustang jeans that had their crotch cut away so that the artist's genitals would be visible when wearing them - with legs open and hair messed up to frame her face, she holds a machine gun and stares out at the viewer. Stamped with the words VALIE EXPORT in what looks like an official endorsement of the image, the poster registers a distinctly female aggression that unashamedly pictures women's sexuality as part of a revolutionary posture.
The image relates to two performances - Gentialpanik 1 and Genitalpanik 2 which took place on 22nd April 1969 in the Augusta Lichtspiele, an independent cinema in Munich. Wearing her Aktionhose, EXPORT walked through the rows of a movie theater turning to face those seated so that her exposed genitals were at the viewer's eye level in order to create "indirect sexual contact with the audience". Demonstrating her continued and developing interest in the ways in which film invites voyeurism (also seen in Tapp und Tastkino), Genitalpanik 1 and 2 challenged the fear and repression of the female body through this combative gesture. Interrupting the voyeuristic pleasure of looking at the female body with its actual reality, EXPORT intervened into the depiction of passive sexualized women with an active and confrontational female body. This was in the service of reimagining sex in both representation and practice; EXPORT explains that "as long as the citizen remains satisfied with a reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state will be spared a sexual revolution".
In Aktionhose: Gentialpanik, this gesture is both recorded and amplified. The addition of the gun, along with the artist's antagonistic pose and confrontational stare into the camera, registers the artist's aggression against the conventional expectations of the presentation of women and their bodies. That artist's insistent stare seems to issue a challenge to the viewer that demands recognition of not only her own biological reality but also her subjecthood, refusing to conceal her sexuality - literally and figuratively - and at the same time rejecting the passive role that sexualized women are expected to adopt.
Screenprint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
SMART EXPORT is a photograph in which the artist replaces the branding on a pack of cigarettes with her own image and logo. The pack of Smart Export cigarettes, an Austrian brand associated with working class men, is altered by the artist: the brand "Smart", written in curling cursive, is replaced with "VALIE" written in capital letters; a map of Europe is overlaid with a picture of EXPORT's face. The photograph shows EXPORT holding the packet at arm's length, presenting it to the camera defiantly. She stands in the background of the image with a cigarette held in her mouth, one hand on her hip and staring back at the viewer.
This image is related to the artist's name change. Waltraud Höllinger was now VALIE EXPORT, having changed her name as a symbol of her refusal of patriarchal structures, rejecting both her father's and her ex-husband's surnames and instead creating something new. In this photograph, she announces her chosen identity to the current art scene. Through the engagement with everyday objects, SMART EXPORT connects this to the artist's interest in mass media and advertisement. Unlike the apparently affirmative treatment of mass cultural by Pop artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, she adopts its language in order to propose something aggressive and challenging, adulterating its appearance in order to transform herself into a brand and a product. However, this is not done as part of an uncritical embrace of capitalism but instead is a challenge, visible in the artist's self-presentation in this image where her pose and facial expression are rebellious and insolent, and her dress and defiant stance which evoke the youth protest movements of the 1960s.
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Cycle of Civilization. The Mythology of the Civilizing Processes
Body Sign Action shows EXPORT's naked body from the waist down, focusing on her upper thigh in order to allow the viewer a clear picture of a tattoo. Traced in black lines, it pictures parts of a garter belt, particularly the clip and a line of the top of a sheer stocking, offering a suggestion of stockings and suspenders permanently worn. In tattooing this on to her skin, EXPORT examines the construction of female sexuality as heavily coded and repressed. Positioned in the same place that a real garter belt would be, EXPORT makes permanent a costume that symbolizes sex and sensuality. By marking her skin in this way, Body Sign Action depicts the link between femininity, sensuality, sexuality and ornamentation.
In foregrounding the tattoo, she also connects the artwork to the body. According to the artist, this work also emphasizes the life-span of art - being inscribed on the body, the lifespan of the work will be defined by the lifespan of the artist. Furthermore, the use of tattooing also draws on the connections between tattoos, criminality and degeneracy as theorized by the Austrian architect and theorist Adolf Loos in his text Ornament and Crime (1910).
Gelatin Silver Print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Encirclement from the series Körperkonfigurationen (Body Configurations)
In this photograph a woman traces the Viennese urban landscape with her body, arching her back so as to mirror the curve of the curb. Making visible the shapes of the streetscape and the body's relationship to them, the photograph is overlaid with a thick red line that follows the curve highlighted by the pose. It is one of a series of body configurations that EXPORT undertook in the mid-1970s in the Körperkonfigurationen (Body Configurations) series (1972-76). Throughout the series, the geometry of the city is emphasized by bodies that mirror shapes in architecture, and the prints are accented with interventions such as the red line in Encirclement or in black ink applied over silver gelatin prints. While in Encirclement the artist's body contours the curb, in other photographs of the same series her body appears in fetal position contrasting with the hard edge of a building. The series also contains images of her body becoming bridges and triangles when juxtaposed with the city's architecture.
According to the artist, in this work the body externalizes internal states by depicting the contrast between the organicity of the human body and the severity of the urban landscape, while also presenting the body as a complement to the architecture and urban setting. Although the Körperkonfigurationen series is not as provocative as EXPORT's Aktionhose: Genitalpanik or Tapp und Tastkino, this series still considers questions of gender. As noted by the art critic Roberta Smith on the occasion of EXPORT's first solo exhibition in New York in 2000, "EXPORT seems to be haunting Vienna, inserting herself into places that are overpowering and by definition male."
Gelatin silver print with red ink - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Adversaries)
Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Adversaries) is EXPORT's first feature film. An experimental film, it is based loosely around a plot that centers on the character of Anna, a photographer played by Susanne Widl. Set over the course of approximately a year, it follows Anna as she becomes convinced that a group called the Hyksos, a mysterious ancient Egyptian tribe known for their sudden appearance and disappearance, have appeared on earth and are replacing people with their doubles. Although examining Anna's experience of alienation from herself and the world around her, the film is not focused on recounting a narrative but instead uses the plot as a hinge through which to interrogate themes of gender, relationships and society. Directed and produced by EXPORT, and written by EXPORT and Peter Wiebel (who also played the role of Anna's boyfriend), the film draws on tropes of science fiction - particularly the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers - in order to re-imagine them through feminism.
The film, which uses a number of avant-garde cinematic techniques, is edited almost as a collage and reflects the artist's interests and influences, such as Surrealism, still photography, and her childhood obsession with the Hyksos. Unsichtbare Gegner is simultaneously a commercial and a fine art film. It was acclaimed by the critics, being called "a witty and visually brilliant essay on gender and experience, culture and environment" and "of the richest avant-garde features of the 1970s."
Film (color, sound) 104 minutes
Biography of VALIE EXPORT
From an early age, VALIE EXPORT was attuned to the social injustices around her and particularly to gender inequality. She recalls noticing that "something was really not right, that boys were allowed to do so much more than girls." Raised amongst women, she was born Waltraud Lehner in 1940 in Linz, Austria and lived with her mother, a teacher, and her three sisters (her father had died in combat in Africa fighting in the Second World War for the Nazis when she was an infant). As a young child she was raised religious and studied in a convent school until she turned 14. Entering adulthood in a resurgent Europe that was still in the process of restructuring itself in the aftermath of war and nationalism, but was also marked by a youth movement in which people were beginning to explore new ways of thinking about society, EXPORT became interested in issues of justice particularly as they related to gender and turned to art as a means to express these.
From 1955 to 1958, EXPORT studied at the School of Applied Arts in Linz. There she was first introduced to painting and photography. During this time Export was briefly married and had two children. She left her children with her sister in order to go to Vienna to study design at the National Technical School, before regaining custody in the early-'60s. That this process was made difficult due to the content of her work demonstrates both EXPORT's early avant-garde sensibility and the conservative social attitudes of the time.
Vienna in the 1960s, as was much of Europe, was in the midst of artistic turbulence as it was struggling to find relevant artistic directions. At the time the aggressive fringe avant-garde group, The Viennese Actionists, emerged creating their violent, scatological and political performances in the city. Although not directly involved, Actionism was important to EXPORT, leading her to write the text "Aspects of Feminist Actionism" in 1989. Questioning the implicit (and sometimes explicit) misogyny of their approach, EXPORT saw the provocative spirit of the work and the ways in which in Actionism "material = body" as crucial for later feminist practice, writing: "Feminist Actionism shall free men's products, that is, women, from their thing-character. Just as action aims at achieving the unity of actor and material, perception and action, subject and object, Feminist Actionism seeks to transform the object of male natural history, the material "woman," subjugated and enslaved by the male creator, into an independent actor and creator, subject of her own history."
During the mid-'60s she started working in film as a script writer, an editor, and an extra and by 1967, she had started shooting her own films under her newly adopted name, VALIE EXPORT. She sometimes collaborated with her then partner, the Austrian artist Peter Weibel, believing that her chances of being respected were greater when working with a male partner. She was interested in various forms of experimentation, during the 1970s, for example, she conducted a series of actions in which she dressed up in different costumes at night to sleep in, in order to see if they affected her dreams. Her early works were influenced by Allan Kaprow's "happenings", Fluxus, and second-wave feminism. While the first two informed her interest in performance, ephemera, and multimedia, the latter influenced her depiction of the female body. She was subject to controversy for what was seen as extreme work at the time, with one newspaper responding to her 1968 performance Tapp und Tastkino by saying "Is that a film? No! We don't have witches now, we live in a modern time, but if we want witches, we must take Valie Export and burn her!"
During the late 1970s and 1980s, EXPORT's interest shifted from performance art to intermedia, particularly film and video installation, creating a distinctive style that has received attention from art historians such as Elisabeth Lebovici. Thematically, psychoanalysis became increasingly important for the artist, reflecting its broader post-war resurgence, particularly in the Neo-Freudian theories of Jacques Lacan. In line with other feminists for whom Lacanian theory offered a way of considering psychoanalysis anew, EXPORT's film and video work put renewed emphasis on examinations of identity and its construction. Even in spite of this shift and in spite of some critical acclaim, there was still a negative response to her work. She was accused of cutting up a bird or a mouse in her 1976 film Invisible Adversaries which led to a great deal of criticism, something that remained with her for months afterwards. One newspaper columnist kept writing columns that attacked her practice to the extent that she had to take a lawsuit out against him, resulting in the newspaper having to print a letter by the artist that addressed his accusations.
During her mature period, EXPORT was often overlooked by the commercial art world, a realm she was ambivalent about, and relied on teaching as a means to support herself. However, she increasingly gained attention for her work and her film The Practice of Love (1985) was selected for the official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. This was a breakthrough for her as a filmmaker.
In the early 1980s EXPORT was invited to teach in the US, being a professor and guest professor in universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California State University San Francisco. From the late 1980s and 1990s, she started to gain more recognition, which has increased in recent years as represented by the acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art, New York of some of her most important works in 2012.
The Legacy of VALIE EXPORT
EXPORT was a pioneer of engagements with intermedia and this has been influential on subsequent generations of new media practitioners, particularly in relation to Feminism. In the last decade, there have been a number of exhibitions and screenings dedicated to her work and EXPORT's early performance work has become an important touchstone for the medium; Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969) was one of the canonical works reenacted by Marina Abramović in her Seven Easy Pieces (2005). Her direct influence can also be seen on a number of subsequent artists. Carey Young, for example, created work in direct dialogue with her practice in her Body Techniques (2007) which explicitly reference Body Configurations (1976).
EXPORT's texts too have been influential. Her writings including 'Women's Art Manifesto', 'Feminism and Art', and 'The Real and Its Double: The Body', offer a broader theoretical underpinning for the work that has contributed to feminist practice and its understanding. Her role as a teacher has also been important, and she still teaches multimedia performance in the University of Cologne - spending her time between Austria and Germany. Her increased recognition has led to the acquisition of her estate by her hometown of the city of Linz which will form the basis of a future center for media and performance in her name.