Valie Export

A record spins on a turntable, with the sound switched off; the artist, meanwhile, appears on a video monitor, listening on headphones and singing along. It is impossible to capture the rich and multifaceted aspects of a thirty-year career in a few words, but Valie Export’s title for this work, “Reproduction of the Reproduction qua Immediacy,” goes a long way toward stating her central concerns. Completed in 1973 but conceived in 1967, this installation could have inspired the title of a recent retrospective of her work: “Split: Reality.”

Whereas “immediacy” generally designates the opposite of reproduction, in Export’s work subjectivity has always been understood within the narrow compass of culturally performed patterns. This is revealed in her analyses of the relationship between the subject and language, and between the individual and society—above all in her feminist works. Reproduction of the Reproduction, however, points to an understanding of reality that derives from an already mediated actuality. This is the primary difference between Export’s work and that of the Viennese Actionists, with whom she is often compared. For the Actionists, the return to the body and to sexuality was connected with the search for a culturally submerged originality. A series of early works in this exhibition demonstrated that her methods owe more to her involvement with ’60s-era avant-garde film—and its analyses of perception and media—than to Actionism.

The concept of “expanded” cinema developed by Export and Peter Weibel involved radical experiments with the filmic apparatus and materialist investigations of the production of illusion. Abstract Film No. 1, 1966–67, is an example of this critical investigation of the technology of image production. A film projector casts light on a mirror with tinted liquids running across it. The actual image appears as a reflection on a screen—or an abstract film. In other action films, such as Auf + Zu + Ab + An, 1968, or Ping Fong, 1968, Export’s goal is the “emancipation of the public” through a critique of the filmic apparatus. In the former work she asks the audience to fill in missing pieces of the moving image, while in the latter she calls attention to the stimulation-reaction schema that generally structures film perception. Tapp und Tast Kino (Tap and touch cinema, 1968) solicits the observer’s active engagement by replacing the visual with the tactile. Here the body, or, more precisely, the female breast, is a screen meant to be touched.

As Export’s career progressed, the (female) body became an increasingly central resource. Her Körperkonfigurationen (Body configurations) of the ’70s thematize its relationship to space and architecture—investigating the carriage of the body as both an expression of inner states and a product of socialization. Performances like Asemie, 1973, dealt with the relationship between verbal and body language and the question of whether—and how—the latter holds the potential for liberation from patriarchal structures of speech. In that Export persistently articulates a desire to escape societal and ideological conventions, the body is a bearer of hope, though it ultimately proves to be as stigmatized as language and thought. This critical consciousness is documented most urgently in the garter tattoo on Export’s thigh, Body Sign Action 1970, 1970, a negative affirmation of the ideologically coded body.

One could list a whole series of more formally precise and critically aggressive works from the ’60s and ’70s, but the problem with the exhibition was that almost all of these works were marginalized as documentary material. One senses the artist’s understandable reluctance to allow herself to be reduced to her historical achievements, but her more recent installations lack the analytical acuity of the earlier works—sometimes they even border on kitsch. A more strident symbolism became visible as early as I (Beat it), 1978—three monitors with barking dogs,representing the state, nature, and male ideology, pointed at a life-size photograph of the artist. Rec-Date, 1994, contains enlarged newspaper photographs depicting women in mourning at scenes of catastrophes; while in Fragmente der Bilder einer Berührung (Fragments of pictures of a touch, 1994) illuminated light bulbs are slowly dipped into glasses containing different liquids. These more recent works, which rely too heavily on suggestive images and sounds, lack the aggressiveness and perspective of Export’s earlier achievements.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.