February 310, 2000
The Body Politic
The first major U.S. show of a Viennese artist whos been making sexually charged art since the 60s.
by Robin Rice
Valie Export: Ob/De+Con(Struction)
Moore College of Art and Design, Goldie Paley Gallery, 20th and the Parkway, through Feb. 27, 215-965-4027
In 1966 Waltraud Lehner Höllinger, a 1964 graduate of Viennas Technical School for Textile Industry, invented a new identity for herself: Valie Export, a variant of "Smart Export," a popular brand of cigarettes. Now, you might wonder why Export chooses to take the name of a cigarette over that of her father or husband. But thats the point: If one is fated (as a woman and, possibly also as an artist) to be a commodity, why not go all the way? Why not approach personal identity with media savvy and become a product? Its witty. Its confrontational. It trumps the status quo by carrying it to an absurdist extreme. (Rrose Sélavy smiles lovingly in heaven.)
Export, whose first major U.S. show is currently on view in the Galleries at Moore, is a second generation "Actionist." She didnt actually work with the original Austrian Actionists, all men, like Arnulf Ranier and Otto Mühl and the German Joseph Beuys. But, like them, she carried Abstract Expressionism and the Beat, Zen and psychedelic aspects of Happenings into the realm of sometimes grueling and bloody performances.
Export calls herself a "Feminist Actionist." With her Pop Art logos, she announced a distinctly feminist social and political agenda. The variety of technologies she utilizes is impressive, especially with film and video.
Exports landmark works remain startling, even in the light of sexually audacious performances by artists like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle decades later. For Tapp- und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema), 1968, Export donned a box with holes cut out for her head and arms. She wore ordinary clothes below the waist. An oddly prim cardigan sweater covered her arms and the back of the box. A curtain over the open front concealed her breasts but allowed people to reach inside and touch them. Export walked through the streets inviting passersby to do just that. Two versions of this costume/theater are displayed in the gallery. The box both permits and limits access. Its extended front means that touchers cant embrace or kiss the artist, for example, or, in fact, contact any part of the front of her body except her breasts. Thus, the breasts are available but not in an intimate way they are isolated as fetish objects.
Aktionhose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), 1969, was even more confrontational. Export wore a pair of jeans with a cutout crotch into a theater known for screening sexually explicit films. According to reports, patrons of the theater were intimidated by the reality of what theyd come to see on film.
In photographs eerily reminiscent of the shots of Patricia Hearst as a hostage of the SLA, she deliberately exposes the open crotch. Wearing sling-back heels, a leather jacket, and wildly back-combed hair, she brandishes a rifle. Sixty posters of one of these photographs fill a wall, emphasizing through repetition the commercial link that is so often an aspect of Exports work. Near the beginning of the century, Austrian Egon Schiele challenged taboos of modesty. The sardonic obsessiveness of his erotic drawings seems innocent in comparison to Exports unmasking of gender politics.
Body Sign Action is a tattoo of the fastener on an elastic garter holding up the top of a stocking. Its a fragment in red and black on one of Exports thighs. The edge of the stocking, depicted with tiny wrinkles near the fastener, does not continue around the leg and the garter does not connect with an undergarment. In the documentary photograph, the rest of Export is naked.
Exports landmark works remain startling, even in the light of sexually audacious performances by artists like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle.
Theres a fetishistic quality to many of the nude photographs for which Export posed. The critique of the male gaze or of the commodification of women through explicit displays of nakedness is always problematic. For example, Hannah Wilkes use of her body in photographs was questioned as a kind of exhibitionism a display made appealing for the artist because she was beautiful. Export has taken off her clothes in public a lot less frequently since the early 80s, but perhaps her interests have changed. Wilke, in contrast, compulsively continued to document her body as it was ravaged by disease. Export has not been precisely kind to hers. She cut her fingers with razors for a video. She did a performance in which she disabled her limbs with leather and metal manacles and poured oil around herself until she was unable to move from the spot, which was encircled by videos of barking dogs. This performance is documented in a full-scale but rather antiseptic tableau at the gallery.
One of Exports more interesting videos is the projection of a boxer onto a screen in a corner so that he is reflected in a mirror; the boxer fighting himself is simple but effective. More videos are on view in a small screening room with foam cube seats.
A large 1998 video work consists of numerous sewing-machine needles furiously moving up and down. Un-ending Un-ique Melody of Chords has a sexual aspect that, like much of Exports work, reminds us that Freud was Viennese, too. It also suggests the repetitious exploitation of women in sweatshops. Both metaphors, sexual and work-related, transform something physical, hot and unhygienic into something cool, mechanical, and high tech. Its effective, but the tone departs from Exports physical early work.
In a series of black-and-white photographs from the "Body Configuration Series," Export aligns her body with architecture, twisting around columns, inclining beside stairs or lying on the edge of a median strip. These pictures demonstrate the relationship of the body to the man-made environment in the most direct terms possible. Humans make objects in their own image. We measure our creations with our bodies.
Many of todays performance artists owe a debt to Export, such as Janine Antoni, who participated in a symposium on Exports work at Moore. The highlight was a presentation by art historian Tsong-zung Chang on "A Decade of Performance Art in China." Artist Zhang Huan, whom Chang discussed, also spoke. Huan often works with nude volunteers in performance, for example piling up nude men in Raising the Height of a Hill. The police destroyed his apartment and its contents, including his art.
Huan now lives in New York, though he expressed no reverence for capitalism, saying, "You are in New York to consume and be consumed." But, as a friend reminds me, that is the reality everywhere. Valie Export has spent a career resolutely employing the body her body to construct and deconstruct objects and acts of consumption. As an art consumer, be prepared to find Exports work fortifying, if occasionally bitter and raw.