Essay by Malcolm Le Grice
My thoughts on VALIE EXPORT are the view of one artist on another. There are too many parallels for critical objectivity: I was born just two days before her, in May 1940; our earliest experiences were of the Second World War, and we started to experiment with film at almost exactly the same time. When I first saw her work at the end of the 1960s, as with Birgit and Wilhelm Hein in Germany, I recognised many shared instincts and concepts. EXPORT, Peter Weibel, William Raban, Gill Eatherley, Annabel Nicolson, Anthony McCall and the Hein’s, provide many of the reference points for what is a distinctly European understanding of Expanded Cinema. In the sixties, many artists actively questioned the containing boundaries of their art. Expanded Cinema exploded the constraints of cinema whilst drawing on the experience of already fragmenting artistic orthodoxies. From John Cage and Fluxus to the Underground, it was a time of wide ranging artistic experiment, changes in moral expectations, idealistic politics and the influence of style from a new streetwise fashion and rock music.
EXPORT began working with film in Vienna where, earlier than other centres in Europe, Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka had established an artistic precedent for post-War experimental film. By the late 1960s, EXPORT was making significant innovations in the form and language of cinema. In her mirror play projection, Splitscreen-Solipsismus (Splitscreen-Solipsism), 1968, she was exploring the relationship between cinematic representation and its corresponding ‘real’ in the world of objects, and also stressing the reality of the encounter between the spectator and the film. EXPORT was bringing a new factor into cinema that undermined the experience of film’s illusion by juxtaposing a representation with the real, or by juxtaposing two different forms of representation. As such, she was making problematic what the history of cinema had conditioned us to take for granted. She developed further variations on this relationship in Auf+Ab+An+Zu (Up+Down+On+Off), 1968, or Zeit und Gegenzeit (Time and Countertime), 1973. In the former work, there is an extra complexity of transformation as the spectator attempts to draw, on the screen, the outline of a moving and obscured film representation. At the same time these works are never a simple duality — the real against the illusion — as each continues to reflect on the other. Whilst the ‘real’ object serves to point up the realness of the representation, the representation in turn undermines the security and stability of the real. The real loses its secure unity through incorporation into the symbolic. Undermining the illusion, the spectator is forced to re-read, and become aware of, the symbolic transformation in the real as well as in the representation. From these works experience of the ‘real’ is seen also to be mediated by language and context — another artifice. What is assumed to be real is no longer a stable point of reference against which the insecure symbol or representation can be measured.
However, my earliest critical interpretations of EXPORT were far too narrow, filtered through my own and the British polemic of cinematic form. I saw but underestimated two other linked factors: the powerful feminist stance based directly on the body, its presence and representation; and despite EXPORT’s overt opposition, a continuity with the body action art ‘Aktionismus’ dominant in Vienna at the time, through the work of Gunther Brus, Herman Nitsch and Otto Muehl.
Tapp und Tastinko (Touch Cinema), 1968, is a seminal work by VALIE EXPORT which brings these issues together. In it, the artist invites a random street audience to feel her breasts through two holes in a box fixed to her chest. Here, the reference to film (kino) in the title requires us to connect the work to a tradition of cinema and its voyeurism, but the visual desire is denied, replaced instead by a more direct tactile experience. The work is at the same time provocative — confronting taboos of privacy, touching and public nudity, implied despite the hidden body — and constructive, shifting our understanding of the sexual role and power of women. It exercises a political, feminist stance without denying sexuality. Directly related to this piece was the more aggressive and provocative action, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), 1969, in which EXPORT walked amongst an audience exposing her genital hair through a section cut from her jeans. Again, the transgressive gesture counters taboo and voyeurism whilst shifting control to the female performer.
These performance works intentionally confront the audience. They continue the tradition of Viennese action art whilst directly challenging its male dominance and fundamental voyeurism. Otto Muehl also confronted moral taboo, yet remained heavily patriarchal. EXPORT, at this time working with Peter Weibel as a collaborator, mapped out a different political and artistic agenda. Her work in this period belonged to, but challenged, the art context by producing work for ‘the street’ and for a new arena related to music. Working, for example, with Progressive Art Productions (PAP), she identified an audience for a mixture of provocative art performance and rock music. However, as with all live performances, these works were transient, leaving only a residue of inadequate documentation and the affect they had on the audience.
EXPORT’s work is complex and varied in media and form. The early films explore mixed media, formal issues and aspects of synesthesia through the translation between the senses of vision and touch and, as in Das magische Auge (The Magical Eye, with P Weibel), 1969, between light and sound. This concept of ‘integrated’ translation between form and media is continued in the more recent video installation, Die Macht der Sprache (The Power of Speech), 2002. For a period, EXPORT made longer ‘narrative’ films, including Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Adversaries), 1974; Menschenfrauen (Human Woman), 1979, and Die Praxis der Liebe (The Practice of Love), 1984, which sought an audience in the tradition of European art cinema. She also makes photographic works, drawings and video or sculptural installations, such as Heads — Aphärese, 2002.
EXPORT’s performances have always been driven by an antibourgeois and transgressive sexuality that continues to be a major reference in feminist art and feminism in general. From the beginning, there has been a thread running through the performances that, in common with Carolee Schneeman, has led many other women artists to use the body itself as the site for the work. In particular, EXPORT has drawn our attention to the surface of the body, as, for example, in a performance in Edinburgh where she rolled in broken glass (Eros/ion, 1970). Here, the skin became a membrane, a surface, a screen, on which cuts were like projections or drawings — simultaneously metaphor and alarmingly real. The symbolic content has become more dominant in the recent work and its surrounding critical debate. But it has always been there in both the language and the form, often with an unexpected elegance of form, as in the water fall and blood-red reflected projection of Abstract Film Nº1, 1967/68. Similarly elegant is the three-screen projection Adjungierte Dislokationen II (Adjunct Dislocations II), 1973/78, recording EXPORT’s ‘performance’ with two cameras fixed to her body and the views back and front that they produce. In these works, EXPORT established a formal economy giving any symbolic confrontation a space for intellectual distance that continues to afford her work significance as both art and philosophy.
'Gibt es etwas, das nicht
durch ein Bild/Zeichen ausgedrukt werden kann?’
Is there anything that cannot be expressed by an image or sign?’ VALIE EXPORT, 1998
VALIE EXPORT was born in Austria in 1940, and graduated from the Technical School for Textile Industry, Vienna, in 1964. She began working with new media, photography and film during this period, producing the first of her Expanded Cinema series of film performances in 1967. In the same year she created and launched the name VALIE EXPORT as her artistic and corporate identity and also co-founded the Austrian Film-makers Co-operative. Throughout the 1970s, VALIE EXPORT developed a feminist social and political critique through her work, focusing on portrayals of the female body and challenging the male gaze, often using her own body in performances.
‘I felt it was important to use the female body to create art.
I knew that if I did it naked, I would really change how the (mostly male) audience would look at me. There would be no pornographic or erotic sexual desire involved — so there would be a contradiction.’
Dividing her time between Vienna and Cologne, VALIE EXPORT’s work has been shown across the world including London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Helsinki. In 1980 she represented Austria, with Maria Lassnig, in the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 1991 she was made a Professor at the Academy of Arts in Berlin before becoming the Vice Chancellor in 1994. VALIE EXPORT continues to teach, and is currently Professor of multimedia and performance art at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Her work has also diversified into digital photography, but has lost none of its controversy: in 2000 she won the Oskar Kokoshka Prize but refused to receive the award from a Federal Minister of the ‘Blue-Black’ coalition. It was presented instead by the president of the independent jury. This is her first solo exhibition in London.
— VALIE EXPORT Caroline Bourgeois, Régis Michel, Juan Vicente Aliaga and Elisabeth Lebovici, Éditions de L’oeil (2003) ISBN 2912415772
— VALIE EXPORT: Mediale Anagramme texts by Sigrid Schade, Roswitha Mueller and Monika Faber, Akademie der Künste (2003) ISBN 3926796820 [German text]
— VALIE EXPORT: Fragments of the Imagination Roswitha Mueller, Indiana University Press (1994) ISBN 0253209250
— VALIE EXPORT: eine multimediale Künstlerin Anita Prammer, Wiener Frauenverlag (1988) ISBN 3900399255 [German text]
— VALIE EXPORT und Elfriede Jelinek im Spiegel der Presse: zur Rezeption der feministischen Avantgarde Österreichs Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger P Lang (1992) ISBN 082041980X [German text]
— Split: reality VALIE EXPORT Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (1997) ISBN 3211831002 [German and English text]
— Ob/De+Con(Struction) Robert Fleck et al., Goldie Paley Gallery, Galleries at Moore, Moore College of Art and Design (1999) ISBN 1584420510
— VALIE EXPORT — Bild — Risse, Roswitha Mueller, Passagen Verlag Vienna, 2002 ISBN 3851653548 [German text]
— ‘Aspects of Feminist Actionism’ VALIE EXPORT, New German Critique 47 Vol16 Nº2, Spring–Summer (1989)
— ‘Expanded Cinema as Expanded Reality’ VALIE EXPORT, JAM Vol1 Nº4, July (1991)
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