New York

Valie Export

Tanja Grunert Gallery

Given Valie Export’s undeniable achievement in directing attention toward the status of women within a “culture of male values” since the late 1960s, it is hard to credit her lack of recognition in this country. In 1967, the Austrian artist traded her given name (Waltraud Hollinger) for her current alias, signaling her intent to “export” ideas to the global marketplace. A year later, she performed the iconic Touch Cinema, inviting pedestrians to handle her breasts through a box resembling a primitive television set covering her torso. In the 1969 performance Action Pants: Genital Panic, she terrorized an audience at a Munich porn theater by roaming its aisles with an AK-47 while wearing a pair of jeans sans crotch. “Here’s the real pussy,” she reportedly taunted.

Export’s early actions challenged the acceptability of exploitative fantasy directed at the female body, as well as its construction within advertising, television, and film as “normal.” Perhaps because of the provocation of her canonical exploits, the subse- quent work that constitutes the bulk of her oeuvre remains little known. In 1972, Export wrote, “If reality is a social construc- tion and men its engineers, we are dealing with a male reality.” Male realities as expressed through infrastructure became Export’s muse, most definitively in the photographic series “Body Configuration” (1972–82), in which women are shown posing in natural and architectural landscapes. A set of 2001 photos shown recently at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert pursues a similar theme. The black-and-white images show partial views of the expressionless faces of nurses that intersect with or are overlaid by images of the tinted windows of the hospitals they work in, the gentle curvature of the buildings’ exterior moldings, and other features common to municipal and corporate architecture, whose muteness exudes impenetrability. While in Export’s earlier photos the body consciously resists homogenization, the lobotomized visages in the newer work seem subservient to it.

What felt like a death knell for a culture of resistance continued in the gallery’s main room. Export’s consuming installation Heads-Apharese, 2002, consists of thirty casts of the artist’s head with the face cut out, cast in either aluminum, bronze, or wax, resting on rusty metal stands. Some tilt very slightly upward, their “chins” jutting defiantly. They peer this way and that; some are pointed toward Export’s videos, two of which, People Don’t Scream, 2002, and People Don’t Scream 2, 2007, depict images of violent death culled from an American government building’s collection of homicide photographs; the third, Fire, 2007, shows rippling flames.

Export’s early performances and photographs framed the body as a weapon, a signifier of agency and vitality, a potential threat. Here, bodies have become impotent containers—alien, lifeless objects. Export seems to argue that the struggle against normative values as propagated by corporate media—“male realities”—is failing. The exhibition, aptly titled “Dead People Don’t Scream,” seemed to equate the victims of homicide with the walking dead who have accepted without protest the massive corporate infiltration that is the signpost of contemporary first-world countries. In The Plague (1947), Albert Camus wrote, “One grows out of pity when it’s useless.” One also, it seems, loses faith in the efficacy of militancy.

Nick Stillman