By STEVEN POLLOCK, August 2023
The Albertina Museum is hosting VALIE EXPORT Retrospective, a comprehensive exhibition devoted to the trailblazing Austrian media and performance artist (b.1940), till October 1, 2023. VALIE EXPORT challenges societal norms and explores themes of gender and power dynamics.
In her defining photographic work of 1968, VALIE EXPORT - SMART EXPORT, Self-portrait with Cigarette, the artist "constructed" herself by severing her name from both that of her father and her ex-husband. The defining act had taken place a year before, when Waltraud Höllinger was reborn as VALIE EXPORT, an identity apart from chance patriarchal labels which was then designed into the altered packaging of Smart Export cigarettes.
"Through the social grammar of the body […] the woman herself becomes interchangeable, obliterated, and in this sense doesn't exist, as Lacan says. Precisely through reference to the body, to the female characteristics of the body, woman surrenders herself for her own extinction in the patriarchal structure of our civilization. […] Precisely because woman doesn't exist, she must be constructed." *
In Body Configurations (1972 - 1982), starting with her re-configuring her body in contrast to postwar buildings, "Materializations of Socio-political Power in Stone" EXPORT revisits Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man from the female perspective, exposing a proportionate gap of stature within their respective environments. She stated, "On a second level, these buildings represent patriarchal structures, such as laws made by men." and " Given the metaphor of the body as a machine, means the body succumbs to a cruel economy and functionality.”
In Genital Panic, EXPORT confronts the viewer dead-on holding an automatic weapon, with the cut crotch of her jeans exposing her vagina, a work created in 1969. By focusing on the naked womb of EXPORT a de-territorialization of the "woman's social grammar " is isolated in absurd cultural exoticism, framed by clothes, buildings, the city, society and the viewer. In our interview, EXPORT pointed out …" There was one more thing, that was a symbolic thing, I'm not wearing clothes, and I'm touching the ground, the earth, feeling the energy with bare feet; I'm connected to everything."
Connection guides the image system throughout the extensive exhibition of EXPORT, particularly on photography. A "polyphonic, intermedial expansive process," as EXPORT puts it.
STEVEN POLLOCK: What was the atmosphere in Vienna during the late sixties when you first started?
VALIE EXPORT: I came to Vienna when I was twenty; there was a depressing atmosphere in the city because the former Nazis were still present. As the men all needed jobs, the political parties in their zeal to create employment, avoided any discussion of whether a candidate had a Nazi past. That spectre was everywhere, and you could sense it; also, the culture was narrow-minded because Catholicism was the predominant force attempting to mould the Austrian people. We rejected all of that, which prompted our revolutionary artistic stance.
Would you say there was a connection between the Patriarchy of Catholicism and that of the Nazis?
There had been close cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Nazis, as the Cardinal of Vienna signed the Annexation of Austria treaty in 1938. It was a very strict society we lived in after the war; that was the stifling environment we found ourselves in as artists.
The Viennese abstract painters and the Actionists both made a strong response to what you just described, but there were mostly only male protagonists. Were they unwittingly also part of the Patriarchy?
I can say this very briefly, what we did was aimed at society, not my male counterparts as artists, who just happened to be male and were artists. Our focus was this rigid society that oppressed freedom, and especially women were silenced.
And then you chose to change your name according to a product? How did you arrive at that idea?
I thought I needed to give myself a new name, not from my father or husband, but to create my own name that would fit me. I came up with EXPORT because I wanted to export my ideas, so the cigarette brand provided the perfect name.
That always has been misunderstood; I decided to embark, to go outside, to export, and VALIE EXPORT is always written in capital letters like a brand. My changed name was already a brand, and the re-designed cigarette package came later. Everyone in Austria smoked Smart Export. One night I looked at the package and recognized that was my object - it was the first art object I created. I chose the package because I thought it was the right format to put the name VALIE first, before EXPORT. Then I substituted my portrait for the existing globe, implying a unique and international presence, but left the "Made in Austria "label because I am made in Austria. But the art object came after the name.
This was very sly; you smuggled yourself everywhere metaphorically because it was also in the domain of Pop Art.
I didn't know that Pop Art existed, or Andy Warhol. Many other artists gave themselves their names, which was in the spirit of the time.
In the same way, you make use of eroticism or what some might label S & M or pornographic. Was that a manipulation of the public’s expectations? Were you creating a situation of involuntary voyeurism?
That's right. For example, I did an action with naked bodies, which was a much longer performance so that that over time the nudity is forgotten, to show there are no taboos anymore; instead the nakedness is natural because everyone is naked underneath. Also, that the clothes we wear are assigned to us, for example, by profession, whereas one becomes recognizable because of what one is wearing. When I'm naked, you just see my gender; that's all.
One of your most widely reproduced pieces, Genital Panic, documents you posing with a gun and crotchless jeans, your hair teased, in a frontal confrontational pose. What uniform is that?
That was just my normal everyday clothing, those are my blue jeans I cut. It was my usual clothes that I had changed for this performance.
Symbolically, I'm not covering my sex with clothes while touching the earth and absorbing its energy with my bare feet. I'm connected to everything.
I experienced some of the same periods of art history from which you refer, but in different places, especially Pop Art. I feel cynical when I see younger artists repeat past developments with an ahistorical approach. What advice do you have for artists in their twenties?
I cannot say what they should do as artists. It is something one should know oneself. I would tell them to study art history and recognize where things came from, and especially to examine materials; to ask what is photography? How do I use photography, video, drawing, or painting, as everything has a different way of connecting to people, influencing how one can express themselves? I was also a professor, and it was very important to me to show students and young artists the need to experiment.
*Some of the quotations of VALIE EXPORT and Jacques Lacan were first published in AWARE—Archives of Woman Artists WM
American-born Steven Pollock is a writer, curator and music producer living in Vienna. While still an arts major at SVA he became active as a curator at the Mudd Club, NY—followed by a museum show in Tokyo of Kenny Scharf & Club 57 (1985). In 1990 he was instrumental in realizing an immersive installation for Hiroshi Teshigahara at Leo Castelli & Larry Gagosian (65 Thompson St) and in 1996 invited David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Asha Putli to participate in a pioneering online curatorial project. After a move to London, he staged an installation by Bjarne Melgaard (2003) curated Warhol vs Banksy (2006) and in Paris an homage to Hokusai (2021). He is an Andy Warhol specialist and has curated 5 exhibitions of his work in London, Oslo & Australia. He is currently writing and recording a musical docudrama, set in 1980’s NY, with director Marieli Fröhlich.
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