Valie Export

Trois Gallery

IN 1967, WHEN Waltraud Höllinger changed her name to Valie Export and began producing public performance pieces as a fellow traveler of the Viennese Actionists, notoriety came quickly. In Aktionhose: Genitalpanik, 1969, she cut out the crotch of her jeans and walked the aisles of a Munich art-film house that featured sexually explicit films, challenging the voyeurs to look at a body that returned the gaze. She was already known for her action a year earlier, Tapp- und Tastkino (Tap and touch cinema), staged in the busy streets of Vienna’s shopping district. Wearing a large box over her torso, with holes removed in the sides for her arms and the curtain-draped front left open, Export and accomplice Peter Weibel, who acted as her “pimp,” encouraged passersby (mainly men) to reach inside the curtain and fondle her breasts, thereby publicly and materially enacting their private erotic fantasies.

Export has continued to examine many of these concerns throughout her career, which is the subject of a current retrospective, “Ob/De+Con(Struction),” at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design. The survey includes a large selection of Export’s production, from early photographs and experimental films to her most recent multimonitor video work. Additionally, in a small viewing room, a videotape series documents such ’70s performances as Body Politics, 1974, and Body Tape, 1976. (A concurrent exhibition was installed at the Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert gallery in New York.) The recent focus is apt, for if Export’s initial performances have found their way into the history of art of the ’60s, her subsequent efforts have been generally underrepresented in the United States.

With Tapp- und Tastkino, Export combined her body action with an interest in “expanded cinema”—the expansion of the cinematic experience to incorporate the entire viewing environment. Many of her early actions took up the question of voyeurism inherent to the medium and the fact that the cinematic spectator’s interest is locked in through the promise of disclosure of the forbidden. “Expanded cinema,” Export once noted, “found its continuation in my medial body-material performances, into which I introduced the body as sign and code for a social and aesthetic expression.” Throughout her oeuvre her primary material is the human body, often female and usually her own, in combination with some form of mediatic or technological device. In the process of her investigations, the female body is transformed from passive object to active participant in a system or network of communication.

In 1970, Export began to explore photography, producing such pieces as Zeitgedicht/24 Stunden 24 mal fotografiert (Temporal poem/24 hours photographed 24 times), a diachronic series of twenty-four black-and-white images taken from her apartment window. Similarly, Halte-Stellebushalte, 1972, consists of photographs of a bus stop taken from the same location at various times of the day. But the piece also introduces another component of Export’s work: the play on words. For “Halte-stelle” is not only colloquial for bus stop; it also literally means “stopping place” or “holding this place,” alluding to the way in which a photograph arrests, or freezes, a fleeting moment in the temporal continuum. An avid reader of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Export has long explored language in her work. On view at Gasser & Grunert is her 1968 Sehtext/Fingergedicht (Visual text/finger poem), an arrangement of forty photographs that feature Export forming a letter of the alphabet with her fingers, which is subtitled “Ich sage die Zeige mit den Zeichen im Zeigen der Sage”—loosely, “I say the sign with the signs in the sign of that which is spoken.”

A similar play with language operates in Export’s fifty-two-part “Körperkonfiguration” (Body configuration), 1972–76. In this series of photographs we see a young woman (usually Export) in a variety of poses that interact with the architectural and natural environment. In Zu/Stand (Condition/Enclosure), 1972, she is framed by a heavy, unyielding stone doorway, and in Einkreisung (Encirclement), 1976, she lies on the pavement, her body wrapped around the curve of a curb, while a bright red swatch of ink continues the curving trajectory. Other photographs depict her bending around columns and walls, in stairwells, across ditches, and in sand dunes. Most of the pictures are marked with black lines, produced in the darkroom or applied after the images have been developed. In some cases there is only one line (paralleling, for instance, the line of a leg or arm), while at other times a simple shape such as a circle, triangle, or rectangle frames the figure. The forced correlations among the measured lines of the architectural structures, the geometrical lines imposed on the photographs, and the corporeal lines of the figure’s bends and curves all underscore the inherent dissonance between the individual and the built or ideological environment.

Occasionally Export will use the same photograph, though altered in different ways. For instance, Einschluß (Closed in), 1972, and Stiegenbett (Bed of stairs), 1972, employ the same image of the artist lying across the top of a flight of stairs, though her body is encircled in red lines in the former and covered by a grid of black lines in the latter. “What interests me,” Export says, “is that even minimal shifts in context will bring out differences in signification for the same unit of representation. It is a kind of language system for image production in the technological media.”

But there is more to Export’s photographs than a problematization of sign systems and the relationship of the (female) body to architectonics and nature. Just as the body bears the marks and scars of the past, so too does the architecture. Thus, Verletzungen I (Injuries 1), 1972, shows Export crouching and touching with both hands the corner of a building. A flat, orange-red translucent swatch, evocative of the color of the Nazi flag, has been painted on the picture’s surface, while bloodlike drops of this material are splattered elsewhere over the photograph. Through the red on the gray wall we see traces of mortar shells and bullet holes—a poignant reminder of Austria’s militaristic past and of the continued reverberations of that repressed history in the present.

Alexander Alberro is assistant professor of art history at the University of Florida, Gainesville.