Austrian artist Valie Export is best known for provocative public performances that she described as a form of “expanded cinema,” in which she used her body to challenge the coding of female social roles and the sexual objectification of women. For her 1968 performance TAP and TOUCH Cinema, Export strapped a curtained box to her naked chest and invited members of the public to grope inside. In another work from that year, Action Pants: Genital Panic, she marched through a Munich art-house cinema in crotch-less pants, aggressively presenting her real genitalia as an alternative to the images of submissive femininity encountered on-screen. Like the mostly male Viennese Actionists, Export railed against the hypocrisy of conservative postwar Austrian culture, but the focus of her work was female oppression by society, state, and the Catholic Church.
This show at Thaddaeus Ropac, which began representing the artist in 2017, restaged Export’s exhibition at the 1980 Venice Biennale, where she represented her homeland alongside the painter Maria Lassnig. The centerpiece was the bleakly powerful installation Geburtenbett (Birth Bed, 1980). In this work, a pair of open legs with two thin, red neon tubes extending from between them like trails of blood lies atop a rusty wedge-shaped metal “bed,” at the head of which rests a monitor showing a looped recording of the transubstantiation from a Catholic mass. Female corporeal suffering was also the subject of the video Remote, Remote (1973), in which Export sits in front of a large police photo of two sexually abused children, digging relentlessly at her cuticles with a knife before cleaning her fingers in a bowl of milk as if in penance for some crime.
The bulk of the exhibition was devoted to large-scale prints of photographs from Export’s series “Körperkonfigurationen” (Body Configurations, 1972–76). Many of them show the artist’s body inserted into urban environments around Vienna or into nature: curved around the curb of a sidewalk, fused with the steps of Parliament, lying facedown in dirt. Thick graphic lines added to the surface of the prints heighten the sense of physical subjugation. Other photographs from the series feature Export in modern attire aping the poses of female subjects in historical artworks, often against white backgrounds. Die Geburtenmadonna (The Birth Madonna, 1976/80), modeled on a Michelangelo Pietà, shows the artist demurely cradling the air while perching legs akimbo on a washing machine, a red towel spewing from the door like a placenta. “I occupy myself with the pictorial representation of mental states, with the sensations of the body when it loses its identity, when the ego gnaws its way through the scraps of skin,” Export wrote in the 1980 exhibition catalogue.
In the materials for the Ropac exhibition, the gallery framed Export’s Venice showing as a multimedia “Gesamtkunstwerk” that anticipated the direction of twenty-first-century feminist art. But while these works explore ideas that remain sharply resonant today, drawing attention to the ongoing struggle over abortion rights and the restrictions imposed on women by patriarchal power structures, they often seem dated and heavy-handed—particularly the photographs, which feel static and inert in comparison to Export’s radical performances and videos. Further, the exhibition’s framing of this body of work as a “trailblazing shift in conceptions of media and the possibilities of representation” glossed over the work of Export’s contemporaries, like Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, and Ana Mendieta, who were pursuing similar cross-disciplinary experiments centered on the body. Export’s important contribution to feminist art most definitely merits examination. This particular show, however, felt like more of a historical artifact than a vital presentation of the artist’s practice.
This article appears under the title “Valie Export” in the February 2020 issue, pp. 94–95.