From wearing genital-exposing pants, taking her name from a cigarette brand, and confronting strangers with the invitation to grope her breasts, we remember the radical artist’s most rebellious, provocative works
Educated in a convent until the age of 14, the pioneering feminist artist VALIE EXPORT would spend her life removing the shackles of her religious upbringing. “My artworks are still a rebellion against the Catholic faith,” she said in an interview in 2019.
Born Waltraud Lehner in Linz, Austria in 1940, she was better known by her nickname ‘Walie’. In 1967, she renounced her father’s and her ex-husband’s names to forge a new identity – VALIE EXPORT. The only woman artist among the Vienna Group of action artists in the 1960s, EXPORT created the notion of ‘Expanded Cinema’, a kind of interactive performance in which she typically used her own body as subject and object. Aligned with the emerging feminist movement of the 1970s, she was one of the first female artists to critically examine representations of women in mass media to challenge and poke fun at the sexual politics of the day.
In celebration of her career spanning more than half a century, VALIE EXPORT – The Photographs at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, is the first exhibition to focus on her photographic oeuvre. Curated by Walter Moser, the show considers her use of photography as a means to interrogate forms of representation, bringing into sharp focus her avant-garde agenda.
Below, we revisit important moments in the life and work of VALIE EXPORT.
SHE WALKED THE STREETS, INVITING STRANGERS TO TOUCH HER BREASTS IN A MAKESHIFT CINEMA
Between 1968 and 1971, EXPORT enacted one of her most influential and scandalous performance works, “TAPP und TASTKINO (TAP and TOUCH CINEMA)”. Encapsulating her concept of expanded cinema, the performance involved the artist walking the streets of 10 European cities wearing a makeshift Styrofoam ‘movie theatre’, in which curtains could be drawn to expose her bare breasts beneath. By challenging the public to engage with a real woman – rather than on a screen – and coaxing pedestrians to reach inside the box and fondle her chest, EXPORT satirised and reversed the normal functions of cinema. No longer could the female body be voyeuristically consumed by passive spectators in the obscurity of a dark room. The artist’s provocative mobile cinema – in which the body and screen become one – accentuated and inverted the very act of looking. Speaking to Dazed, the show’s curator Walter Moser adds: “The artist shows the objectification of women in mass media: the participant can literally ‘grasp’ and experience what his gaze normally wants to ‘touc’’ in cinema.”
SHE CHALLENGED THE STEREOTYPE OF DOCILE FEMINITY WITH PROVOCATIVE GENITAL-EXPOSING TROUSERS
In Munich 1968, EXPORT took her subversive performances one step further with “Action Pants: Genital Panic”, which is considered to be her signature work and nods towards the strategies of avant-garde movements such as Fluxus, the situationists and, of course, Viennese actionism. Wearing crotchless trousers that exposed her genitalia and pubic hair, the artist walked through an art cinema, winding her way through rows of seated viewers – genitals exposed at face level.
In this grainy photograph taken by Peter Hassmann, the artist can be seen in her infamous crotchless trousers holding a machine gun. “The inclusion of a machine gun in this work is part of a thought-through self-staging process that aims to undermine female stereotypes and to recode images of women – the weapon and the fetishistic relationship to it, are traditionally male connotated and belong to the male sphere in classical interpretations,” explains Moser. “Together with the spread legs, the cut-out jeans, the direct gaze into the camera, the phallic machine gun can be understood as a provocative ‘attack’ on patriarchal society and its images of women.”
SHE LEAD A HIGH-PROFILE MALE ARTIST AROUND ON A DOG’S LEASH
In this legendary performance, EXPORT led the conceptual artist and curator Peter Weibel on a leash through Vienna. Crawling behind her on all fours like a dog, Weibel and EXPORT travelled the city’s busy Kärntner Strasse to the shock of onlookers. As the curator Moser explains, this performance reversed “traditional gender power relations and exposed gender roles – in a conventional approach males have a superior advantage over females.”
Yet, on the other hand, there are other layers of meaning: “The ‘doggish’ behaviour can also be interpreted as the result of the power – and repression mechanisms of the conservative and patriarchal post-war society in Austria at the time,” Moser adds. Speaking about the work, Weibel also emphasised its broader critique of structural power: “Here the convention of humanising animals in cartoons is turned around and transferred into reality: Man is animalised – the critique of society as a state of nature.”
SHE HAD A SYMBOL OF FETISHISED FEMINITY TATTOOED ON HER BODY IN AN ACT OF DEFIANCE
In 1970, EXPORT had a garter tattooed on her thigh in front of a public audience in Frankfurt. In this photograph, she hoists up her belted dress and stares out at the viewer defiantly, as she reveals the tattoo on her upper left leg. Designed so that the garter is not attached at the top – and only attached to a sliver of stocking at the bottom – it creates the illusion of being suspended on the leg. A symbol evoking fetishised femininity and male fantasy, the act of tattooing a garter permanently onto her skin ironically subverted the sexual connotations of the garment itself.
The act of self-branding expresses the pain involved – quite literally – in having patriarchal norms inscribed on a female body. In her own words, EXPORT explained the symbolism of the tattoo: “The female body peels off and discards the imprint of a world which has never been a woman’s world, in order to arrive at a human world in which women can autonomously define their existence.”
SHE DEFIED THE PATRIARCHY BY REJECTING HER INHERITED SURNAME AND TAKING A NEW NEW INSPIRED BY A BRAND OF CIGARETTES
In 1970, the artist changed her name to adopt the bold [and always emboldened] alias VALIE EXPORT. Inspired by the branding of Smart Export cigarettes, she was attracted to the word ‘export’, which signified her departure from gendered and creative norms. An Austrian brand associated with working-class men, in this photograph, the text Smart Export cigarettes is replaced with “VALIE” written in capital letters and a map of Europe is overlaid with a picture of the artist’s face. She holds the packet at arm's length, which she presents to the camera defiantly, a cigarette clasped between her lips.
Born as Waltraud Lehner, and later Waltraud Höllinger after marriage, the name change symbolised her refusal to take part in patriarchal structures. In her own words, she explained: “VALIE EXPORT is a registered and protected name, just like Coca-Cola. The idea of the stamp came a little later. Changing my name was an absolute necessity to oppose the rules, the father’s name, the husband’s name, to free myself from all these things. I conceived it as an act of rebellion.”
SHE TRANSFORMED HER BODY INTO A SCULPTURAL TOOL
Between 1972 and 1976, EXPORT created a body of work known as Körperkonfigurationen (Body Configurations), for which she used her body as a measuring and pointing device in public spaces – almost transforming her body into a sculptural tool. Her peculiar actions were also designed to defy the conformist culture in Austria during the post-war period.
Speaking to Dazed, Moser says: “For me personally, the Body Configurations belong to EXPORT’s most discursive and visually stunning group of works. EXPORT considers the public space as a manifestation of social-political relations and patriarchal structures which regulate the body and one’s behaviour. The positioning of her own body – but also that of a model – in the city, is a public intervention and personal appropriation of public space. The body postures on the one hand express inner psychic states and on the other hand attempt to examine the relationship between the body and its surroundings.”
SHE IMPELLED WOMEN TO SPEAK OUT AND SELF-DEFINE THEIR OWN IMAGE
Referring to the medical condition of asemia – being unable to communicate with the outer world through words or gesture, as well as the loss of ability to understand or express signs or symbols – this performance took place in 1973. According to Moser, it served “as a starting point to expose the absence of communication women face as a result of the oppression of society. In her performance, the artist repeatedly shows this through symbolically charged materials. For example, she pours hot wax over her hands and feet and thus transforms into a lifeless sculpture.”
It’s not coincidental that EXPORT created Asemie a year after publishing her manifesto Women’s Art: A Manifesto (1972), in which she advocated for women to “speak so that they can find themselves, this is what I ask for in order to achieve a self-defined image of ourselves and thus a different view of the social function of women.”
VALIE EXPORT – The Photographs is running at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, until May 29 2023.
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