Depend on VALIE EXPORT, the provocatrice passionnée and icon of international feminist art, to mess with the cherished format of the Advent-season gallery show. As the glühwein was flowing at the Christmas market outside Thaddaeus Ropac’s elegant showrooms next to Salzburg’s Mirabellgarten, Austria’s most radical artist demonstrated inside the gallery that the fires of rebellion, indignation, and courage are still burning bright.

The controversial work EXPORT produced in the 1960s and 1970s has lost none of its fresh energy and sharp edge. Developing a rich set of themes, ideas, and aesthetic strategies, as well as pioneering creative uses of novel technologies, the artist, who turns eighty next year, built a career on bold experimentation. An indefatigable critic of power structures and the ways in which authority is exercised, she has made art that is pugnacious and strident, occasionally even militant. Provocation, she once noted, is a means of expression by which you can stir things up and make change happen.

Titled “Body Politics,” the show presented films, photographs, and performances, a selection of the numerous media that EXPORT has explored; her unwavering sense of strategic purpose was evident throughout. In the photographic series "Körperkonfigurationen” (Body Configurations), 1972–76, the artist made the city the setting for physical actions. In 1970s Vienna—where entrenched patriarchal structures and the clergy still wielded considerable power—she molded her body to the arches, angles, and ledges of the late-imperial palatial architecture along the Ringstraße. For “Aus dem geometrischen Skizzenbuch der Natur” (From the Geometric Sketchbook of Nature), 1973, she amalgamated a dune landscape on the Belgian coast with graphic elements and body parts. Through the artist’s use of so-called anagrammatic procedures, the principles of formal transposition and reversibility would become integral to EXPORT’s creative system.

These earlier works were complemented in the exhibition by two works from the 2011 series “Vitrinen” (Display Cases), each an exceptionally interesting ensemble that combined glimpses of EXPORT’s personal archive with exhibits that spoke to her passion for theory, higher education, and curating. Mixing writings and photographs, sketches for work-in-progress and archival materials, display case No. 40 examined the artist’s Körperkonfigurationen in relation to the urban fabric, while No. 35 explored the related Handfigurationen (Hand Figurations), 1972–76. These formally compelling compositions of images, ephemera, and text shed light on the works’ contexts, vividly illustrating their genesis while demonstrating the inseparability of creation and its analysis.

An example of the artist’s characteristic aplomb, the three-part photographic work Identitätstransfer (Identity Transfer), 1968, anticipated not only Cindy Sherman’s performance of a multiple self but also today’s debates over LGBT issues, gender fluidity, and queer theory. Staging herself as a woman in men’s attire—the pictures show her wearing a nylon jacket, heavy gold chains, and a magnificent head of fake curls—EXPORT deftly pointed up that there are more than two genders. Behavioral patterns and the constraints imposed by society were the focus of the video Body Politics, 1974—five sequences show a couple, their hands tied together, on an escalator—as well as of the photocollage EXTREM / ITÄTEN DES VERHALTENS (EXTREM / ITIES OF BEHAVIOR), 1972, which spotlights hands, fingers, and bitten fingernails. In the two versions of her performance HOMOMETER, 1973, here documented in photographs, EXPORT attached loaves of bread to her body to enact a symbolic visualization of the burdens women carry and the pressures they face.

A further highlight of the exhibition was Syntagma, 1983, the artist’s most important and most complex experimental film: a video sketchbook incorporating the fruits of two decades of creative practice. Encompassing the avant-garde techniques known as expanded cinema, Syntagma brings together EXPORT’s formal and structural investigations into video and photography, her work with the body in her performances and action pieces, and her approach to feminism as method and personal experience. Dovetailing feedback and feed-forward modes, EXPORT’s expansive and agile artistic practice reshuffles visions of the past and future to trigger sustained and illuminating reflections.

Brigitte Huck